5 Bottom-Line Lessons from the Big Leagues

Baseball field
Jason Koski / Cornell Marketing Group

Can business lessons be learned from studying the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and NCAA? Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor in the Dyson School, used data from the world of competitive sports to derive five principles for effective leadership and management.

1. Play “lefty” when you can

In a right-handed world, playing “lefty” can be a great advantage. Researchers have found that left-handed athletes perform disproportionately better than their right-handed opponents in interactive sports like tennis, fencing, badminton and boxing. Meanwhile, in non-interactive sports—such as darts, bowling, and gymnastics—lefties have no edge at all. The lesson? In direct one-on-one contact, there is an explicit advantage to being contrarian. Dare to be different. Embrace the unexpected. You just might generate an innovative approach.

2. Meet less and huddle more

Nothing brings a team closer together, at least physically, than a group huddle. The huddle can also be a model for efficiency when applied to a business. Researchers are increasingly questioning if organized meetings are really necessary—and if so, do they need to last as long as they do—when a quick huddle can accomplish just as much in a fraction of the time. Many hospitals have already adopted team huddles to share important patient information faster and more frequently, leading to safer care.

3. Environmental nudges can enhance performance

Athletes often get a big boost on the field from music: They perform better and feel as if they are exerting less effort. Research shows that music can also have a positive impact on the workplace environment. This is especially true for happy music that has an upbeat rhythm. People who are listening to cheerful music become more cooperative and supportive of each other. A little music can be a big nudge in helping coworkers synch up.

4. Don’t overvalue potential

Choices in the NFL draft aren’t so easy to make. Research shows that teams greatly overvalue top draft picks, but the real value is in the second-round picks, which have lower salaries and yet possess nearly as much potential as the top draft picks, making them the more cost-efficient choice. In hiring, rather than evaluating potential, organizations should try to focus instead on a subject’s achievements to accurately assess actual worth.

5. Mentorship matters for everyone

Discipline, determination, hard work and focus might not be enough for greatness. Sometimes talent needs to be cultivated. For example, research shows that first-ballot Hall of Famers in Major League Baseball have far broader and deeper mentorship networks compared with those players who never reached the Hall of Fame. Want to build a robust workplace team? Be a mentor to your employees and team members. A little guidance, support, and wisdom can go a long way toward helping people reach their fullest potential.

For more research related to sports and organizations, follow @KevinKniffin on Twitter.