Defying Expectations

Shortly before the opening game of each of the major American sports seasons (football, baseball, hockey, and basketball) Sports Illustrated magazine releases a “preview” issue that gives a summary of the teams and players to watch in the upcoming season and makes predictions about which teams will do well and which teams will be bottom dwellers. One of the predictions made last March about the baseball season that was shared by the majority of people in the world of sports journalism was that the Boston Red Sox were going to have a terrible season.

History backed up this prediction. The 2012 season for the Red Sox was surprisingly terrible. They had started the 2012 season with a bunch of superstars and a new manager. In the midst of personality conflicts and scandals, the team that was actually predicted to do very well in 2012 imploded and ended up in the last place in the AL East league.

Following the end of the 2012 season there were major shakeups in the team. A new manager was hired and many of the superstars moved away to be replaced by younger, less experienced guys. Only seven players from the 2012 team were on the team as of the first day of the 2013 season. After all of this upheaval, baseball watchers could be forgiven for thinking that the 2013 season was going to be a time to rebuild instead of a time to fight for championship pennants. Sports Illustrated, in that preview issue, predicted that the Red Sox would once again come in last in their division.

While it is only early August and there is still a lot of season to go, it is apparent that these predictions were incorrect. The Red Sox are currently in first place in the AL East and they have already won as many games as they won in the entire 2012 season. In fact, as of August 7, they have the most wins of any team in the country.

The interesting thing is not that the Red Sox seem to have so far defied the odds but how they have done it. The biggest factor in the Red Sox’s success is not that they secretly got a bunch of superstars in the off-season but rather a shift in the culture of the team. Instead of acting like a group of individual superstars looking to secure their place in history, they are looking like a team.

Last year, amid accusations of partying in the bullpen and conflicts between the manager and some of the best players, players seemed to care a lot more about their individual records and reputations than the success of the team. This year is different. Whether it is simply the fact that most of the players don’t have the name recognition of a Kevin Youkilis or a Josh Beckett or the predictions of a terrible season in combination with an end of the almighty Fenway Park sell-out record, the team seems to have been re-made with a new sense of humility. When the team does well, they genuinely celebrate and when the team loses they are appropriately sober.

It remains to be seen whether the Red Sox will be able to hold onto this success as they approach the playoffs but whatever happens, they can provide a couple of valuable lessons to the rest of us in the workplace.

    • The first lesson is that success happens when people start acting as a team instead of only for themselves. Success reflects the resilience that comes from working together.
    • The second is that expectations do not need to define anybody. People can surprise you.

The most unlikely teams can rise to the top with the right combination of hard work and attitude.

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