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On Baseball and Business Teams, Core Role Holders Are Keys to Success

by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

Researchers find that baseball teams investing in highly skilled pitchers and catchers, whom they consider “core role” players, enjoy greater success. This model, they say, also translates to business work teams, which should be constructed around strategic core role holders rather than individual characteristics.

Teams are generally thought of as a group of individuals working together to achieve something of value, whether it is the goal of a baseball team to win games or a business team put together to help the organization be competitive.

“Teams are very much a part of organizations,” says Stephen Humphrey, an assistant professor of management at Pennsylvania State University’s State’s Smeal College of Business. He cited a 1999 study that found 50% of business organizations employed teams in a meaningful capacity and “given what we have learned in the intervening years, the use of work teams has become even more prevalent.”

Humphrey and colleagues Frederick Morgeson of Michigan State University and Michael J. Mannor of the University of Notre Dame have produced research on creating work teams based upon what they identify as core roles within the team rather than focusing on the individuals comprising the team. Their findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Much of the research in team composition has tended to center on individuals and leveraging their attributes to create an effective team, the researchers noted.

While individuals on the team are important, Humphrey and his colleagues contend that even more important are the core, or central, roles within the team. Core role holders are those who encounter more of the problems that need to be overcome by the team, have a greater exposure to the tasks that the team is performing and are more central to the workflow of the team.

“Consider a surgical team where one role performs the surgical procedures, another assists the surgeon and yet another provides and monitors anesthesia. Though the assistant and anesthetist are important to the team’s success, it is the surgeon who has the central role,” said Humphrey.

“Our contention is that the structure of a team consists of different roles and that some are more important than others. All roles are not created equally,” said Humphrey, hence the emergence of core role holders.

Further, the researchers suggest that organizations allocate more resources toward the primary role holders, based upon their past successes and job-related skills, because they are more important to overall team performance.

To test their theories regarding team roles, the researchers studied the performances of Major League Baseball teams and the roles of players from 1974 to 2002.

Why baseball teams? Humphrey noted that lessons learned from how baseball teams are assembled have distinct implications for teams in organizational settings.

Additionally, there are cleaner performance metrics in baseball than other work venues. Statisticians keep track of everything players do on the field and their performance can be clearly and objectively measured in terms of their team functions.

Also, in baseball there is a clear difference between core and non-core role holders, according to the researchers.

Humphrey and his colleagues determined that pitchers and catchers meet the criteria for strategic core role holders, because all plays start with the pitcher and catcher, who calls the pitches. Regardless of how a play develops, the pitcher and catcher are both involved at the beginning, whereas no other player is guaranteed to be involved. Thus the pitcher and catcher handle more work than other roles. Also, the pitcher and catcher are the centers of communication.

Their review of team performances showed that teams with more experienced and highly skilled pitchers and catchers won more games than teams that employed equally skilled and experienced players among other team players, such as infielders and outfielders.

“While other positional players, especially the hitters who produce runs, are important to the team’s success, they are not considered core role holders,” Humphrey noted.

They also found that teams investing greater resources in their pitchers and catchers were usually more successful.

Humphrey concedes that those directly connected to the game, including managers, coaches, general managers, scouts and players may dispute the researchers’ designation of pitchers and catchers as core role players, but the point is they are the only players who fit their criteria.

Nevertheless, Humphrey says the same principles of core role responsibilities carry over to the creation of work teams in other organizations.

“Teaming is very much a staffing question, but it starts with determining roles to be filled and then selecting the right people to perform those roles and that is management’s responsibility,” said Humphrey. “We suggest that when creating a team, organizations shift the focus onto core roles rather than the individual composition of the team.”

“What we often see is a lack of understanding of what produces a successful team,” said Humphrey. Too often, once a decision has been made to create a team, greater attention is given to selecting the individuals to serve on the team when more care should be given to determining the various roles needed for the team to be effective and successful.

And investing greater resources in core role performers should result in significantly higher performance than investing in non-core roles.

In summary, to win in baseball and business, teams should be built around strategic core role holders.