The Rugby World Cup has come and gone. Although I am fully aware not everyone is a sports fan or rugby fan there are many interesting parallels to the business world and most obviously to team performance. Aside from that, as a sports and rugby fan it was a fantastic sporting event and it fully mobilised the whole of Japan to be the best World Cup ever – and I was fortunate to have been there live for at least some part of it. 

Now we know team sports by their nature are – well team sports. That means it requires a whole team to pull along. Rugby by its nature is excessively a team sport – individual talent doesn’t cut it in rugby. To keep possession of the ball, multiple players need to be fully engaged and make the right decision in fractions of a second, time and time again. The physicality means there has to be complete commitment and no hesitation. But first let’s take a step back and understand what some of the research into teams in the workplace has shown.

Is your team a team?

Firstly, the conditions for a team have been defined in different ways but Hackman one of the leading researchers on teams states a team needs:

  1. Clear boundaries
  2. Interdependence
  3. Stability over time

These, in sports teams, are clearly fulfilled – there are definite boundaries to those in the team or not. In sports this is crystal clear. There are strong interdependences – none can perform their role without others. And the team is stable even through their members may change. Other researchers also add common goals, and this is also clear within sports – the goal is to win.

However, if we apply this to business teams, we can see that some teams are not in reality teams. They may not have defined boundaries, may lack interdependencies, or lack stability over time, or have only individual goals with no consensus on team goals. If these are lacking team performance will be impeded. A recent case I experienced was that of a senior manager whose boundaries were not entirely clarified with their boss and this was causing high friction. As soon as these were resolved, performance improved for both parties. Similarly, common goals rather than individual goals will drive a team forward with unified momentum. 

Working Together

Now in business and sports working together toward a common goal should be self-evident. But in both teams misunderstanding and conflict can occur and performance impeded. Rugby is sport where there are a number of factors at play.

Fixed roles but flexible cover – cover for each other
Rugby has clear roles but in open play these roles can break down. A person whose role is to the distribute the ball may be lying at the bottom of a pile of bodies and be unable to do so. This means other players must immediately identify this and cover for that individual. Not with a sigh and criticism of the player – they understand this is necessary and rapid adaption is critical to a team’s success. Players will take responsibility but immediately cover if needs be. 

In business this would also be the same – take responsibility for your role but immediately help if another is unable to do so. Fight for team goals and the success of individuals in the team.

Commit to strategy but take opportunities and adapt

In rugby and other sports, one will talk of the game plan. How the team has agreed to play against another team based on their analysis. It requires discipline to stick to this. But a player needs to take an opportunity if it presents itself and for everyone to throw themselves behind this if necessary. Similarly, if the plan is not working, the plan needs to be adapted within the time frame of the game.

In business this would mean having discipline on strategy but if a new opportunity presents itself, then full commitment to this course of action. If the plan is not working, then rapid adaptation is also necessary.

Rugby is also a game of trust

Everyone has to trust everyone to do their job but also cover for everyone else’s mistakes. 

In business this means trusting team members to do their job but also helping and covering if it doesn’t always work out.


Rugby is, in particular, a modest game. Whereby footballers will celebrate themselves silly after scoring a goal, rugby players or more downplayed (when I learned to play it would be a simple shake of the hand or pat on the back without celebration). Players, points scorers, or captain are always quick to point out the team effort and deflect attention away from themselves.

In business this would mean top performers compliment the team and are cautious of putting themselves in the forefront – but also very conscious and thankful of how everyone contributes to their success.

Work off the ball

In rugby there is a huge amount of work put into, for example, organising defensive lines or being in the correct position on the field. This may not be apparent to many watching even. But this influences how the game develops because it restricts the options of the opposition. Rugby players know this and pay attention to this – it is not spectacular stuff, rarely gets noticed or commented on in the press, or complimented in public, but is critical to a high-performing team.

In business this means that much of the unspectacular stuff that few externally notice must get done and is critical to success. A successful senior leader in a multinational I know refers to this as cheap silence – it is silent because there is no noise or problems and it is cheap and efficient for the company.

Give structured freedom

This was partly covered by the above on flexible cover. But other roles are sometimes given to players they are part of the game plan but maybe one or two players are given more freedom to roam but only if the conditions are right. In South Africa’s victory against England in the final it was clear on post analysis that the South Africans had two players who had this freedom and disrupted England’s attack. But only in situations where there was enough cover.

In business this would mean giving certain individuals more creative freedom under certain conditions instead of expecting everyone to come up with great ideas, enable one or two more freedom and exploration. The same could apply in general – get the simple things right and then be creative and more innovative. How many companies encourage this?

Work for the team

Rugby has a number of roles that require immense workload and few opportunities to do the sexy stuff like score the points. Everyone knows this and appreciates the work for the team. Team comes tops all the time.

In business this means complete commitment to the team’s goals and not individual performance. Business would do well to align rewards to this.

Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously

Rugby teams above all other teams sports I have played do this better than anyone else. They know how to have fun while knowing what hard work and commitment are. But importantly everyone owns up to their mistakes and can call these out – but it is always done in a fun way – everyone knows we sometimes make a complete dog’s dinner of something. And rugby players will call it out, own up and often have a fun punishment. This happens to the best of players – everyone.

In business many people often end up avoiding mistakes, finding excuses, or avoiding blame instead of putting up their hands and saying sorry, I messed up, and moving on. This can only happen with the true trust and commitment that everyone has in a strong team.

What About Strong Personalities?

Match personalities

Yes, there are strong personalities in rugby too. There are also different personalities. But alignment on goals avoids a lot of friction that could otherwise happen. Our leading brains team assessments can highlight where your risks lie – in business teams there may be a larger variation because rugby, or any other sports, acts as an automatic filter on types of people. A rugby team is large enough that the mix of personalities can help to moderate any conflicts but in certain critical roles trainers will focus on key partnerships because these are critical to success. Players that can’t get on and perform together won’t cut it at the top level.

In business this means that personality matches can be critical – obviously we want some variation to avoid blindspots and increase insights, innovation, and creativity, but there needs to be a minimum of cohesion. To shamelessly plug our products, and I am proud to say, that we have developed tools that can do precisely this, and do this very well. Highlighting blind-spots and friction risks and giving your team a cohesion rating which will predict how well you can perform – but importantly give you the insights and data to make it better and perform with each other at a higher level.

Use data well

Sports teams now use an immense amount of sophisticated data. Rugby is no exception. If you look closely you will see small lumps on the back of rugby shirts – these are GPS data chips that collect position, movement, speed, and impact data. But something few people know, is that the English rugby team, for example, in their World Cup victory of 2003, also used personality metrics to help with selection processes by identifying those who had strong cognitive processes under pressure. Behind all this data though sits human decision making and ultimately the coach will use this data and their gut feeling to find the best matches and optimise performance of the team.

In business this means using data consistently and well. For personality data this would mean aligning personality metrics across the organisation and using one data set to continually compare and contrast and match to performance.

To plug our products again – this is precisely the reason why we developed the limitless-brains framework. It matches consistent personality data (at a refined level) across the employee lifecycle and matches individual data to teams, organisations and their unique culture and individual lifecycle. Now wouldn’t that be good to have!

If you’re interested in learning more let us know. In the meantime, I hope I have also opened your eyes a bit more to the art and beauty of rugby and how powerful team cohesion is in this wonderful sport.