Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter analyzes several successful sports teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles and the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, in her latest book, "Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin & End." Kanter, who calls confidence the "sweet spot between arrogance and despair," also looks at notorious losers, such as the Prairie View A&M football team. You know what's coming next.
So our Wizards haven't won a playoff game since 1988 and haven't even made the playoffs for seven years in a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs. All things being equal, the odds of that are something like 1 in 128. How can we explain this?
Well, from what I know of the Wizards -- and I'm not a deep expert -- first of all they haven't even been the Wizards that long. So they don't have a proud tradition that goes back 100 years where they remember the glorious history and every player who puts on the uniform says, "I want to live up to this tradition." They've had changes of name, changes of location, changes of managers. Now there's always change, but there's often a tradition standing behind it, a culture standing behind it. The Wizards team doesn't have that, or yet. It can be built, but they don't have it yet.
Michael Jordan and Juan Dixon were successful until they came to the Wizards. Can a losing team affect people who were once winners?
Yes. When I looked at sports teams, that was what was so interesting: The right team dynamic can help people play above their level of talent -- or below it. If there's an atmosphere of discouragement or negativity surrounding a team and there's an expectation from fans that the team is going to lose, that does affect players, even professionals. Like the Red Sox right now -- whether or not you believe in a curse, you have an extra job, proving that you're not cursed.
I mean, it takes some work to make a loser out of Michael Jordan, doesn't it? That was pretty good of our Wizards.
So they're good at something. That's what they're good at, dragging people down (laughing). The Wizards owners are going to hate me.
Despite all this mediocrity, the front-office folks express optimism before every season. Did you look at false confidence at all?
Yes, one of my comments is, pep talks without evidence are just not believable. Every team, people get up and say, 'This is our year, we're going to win.' . . . When I saw a sports team turn around from losing to winning, the coaches, the owners, they actually did something to show the players they had more support from the front office. They did something that was tangible and concrete, that made people believe they were backing up these verbal expressions of optimism.
Our hockey team and football teams have also been pretty rotten in the last half-decade. Can a culture of losing infect an entire city?
Well, yeah, I think it can. . . . It sets a mood, sets an atmosphere. If you have losing teams and you haven't won a championship, it puts more pressure on each team and each game. And when you have pressure -- but it's negative pressure, "You're losers, prove you can win" -- then it gets harder to win.
-- Dan Steinberg