Why Are Some Teams Better Than Others?

Why are some teams better than others? At work? In sports? In combat? In…? Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson applied a ranking methodology to his teams so he could understand and map their internal cultures. When applied as a rank, he could strategically think about cultural development, and how to drive his teams to the highest levels. These five stages also apply to our professional groups and client relationships. The five stages of teams are:


Stage 1: “Everything sucks” people. They’re bound together by their frustration and negative outlook on the world around them.


Stage 2: “My life sucks” people. Instead of settling for a miserable peer group, they have some sense of agency. Apathy is empowering, but not exactly uplifting. 


Stage 3: “I’m great and you’re not” people. Here we take the sense of individuality and inject it with confidence. Because greatness is determined in contrast to a “not great” group, Stage 3 people have little sense of loyalty to anyone but themselves. 


Stage 4: “We’re great and they’re not” people. Here we (re)encounter the collective, but this time with a sense of pride and definition. Stage 4 people typically share a common goal or enemy that binds them together. Their confidence is embodied by the contrast of how/why they collectively stand out. Most cultures peak at stage 4. Healthy rivalry exists here.


Stage 5: “Life is great” people. When a team’s mission can let go of requiring contrast, and the purpose can serve itself for the sake of serving itself, a culture has reached Stage 5. This is rare. Stage 5 people have let go of their egos. They are transcendent and do something just for the sake of doing it. 


Jackson tells a story in Eleven Rings of the 2008-2009 Lakers, where he had to determine how to move them from Stage 3 (with Kobe and a bunch of “eager to prove something to SportsCenter” younger players) to Stage 4 (where they would discover their combined power as a tribe). He set out to build a critical mass of players who could focus on “we” instead of “me.” Similar to what he did with the Bulls in their early years together, he helped the players see the power of a unifying mission, eventually landing them at Stage 5 level dominance in 2009 and 2010.


As we think about our own professional partnerships and client relationships, we can think in terms of these stages. Stage 5 is great, and we undoubtedly have some relationships that just feel “easy,” but it takes real work to get there. When we recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all culture formula but there is a growth process we can apply, we can start looking for which relationships we can level-up in our professional lives. 


We may collect fewer rings for our efforts than Jackson did for his, but the personal rewards will feel just as great. Culture matters. Aim high.

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