As an entrepreneur, performance expert, leader, and polo player, my expertise centers on the broad topics of performance development, leadership, teamwork, and cyber security. I am often asked questions about motivation, business culture, and human flourishing. However, the most common question I receive, by far, is, “How do you produce high performing teams?”
There is no simple answer to that question. But in this article, I will give you three takeaways based on my experience from the polo field and corporate world, mixed with the latest research within organizational psychology.
1. Psychological safety
The best polo players in the world are physically fit, agile, and relatively strong. In order to gain competitive advantages, some teams invest in sports coaches, nutritionists, and physiologists. They also have a strong dedication to their physical and mental health. As with any sport, being in good shape will make it easier to perform as an athlete.
In the corporate world, you obviously don’t need a six pack to perform at your best. What you do need, however, is a solid foundation that will enable you to bring your best self to work everyday. Research shows that leaders who provide employees with a place to feel safe to speak their minds and have supportive relationships and respectful engagements motivate higher performance and create greater returns.
In teams with high psychological safety, people feel safe to take risks around their team members. When I started playing polo, I had tons of questions. I hardly knew what a mallet was and certainly didn’t know how to perform a neck shot. All thanks to my pro Harald Link of Thai Polo Club, he taught me the virtues of playing straight and lead with compassion. From there, I was able to pick up my mallets and chase my polo dream.
2. The art of motivation maintenance
Polo is a highly competitive sport. You play with many different people with different backgrounds from different parts of the world. As a patron, you have to put together a team, have a strategic and analytical mindset, and be able to read your opponent. We play mixed teams and, sometimes, on horses we don’t know.
You have to be able to lead; sometimes raise capital. You have to handle people, rejection, feeling upset, danger, and damage. Just like in business.
I remember the first time I put together a team. I was a newbie; an underdog, but with high ambitions. The tournament was a charity match for breast cancer, involving some of the best players in the world. I have to admit my motivation wasn’t always on top. I spent hours in the stables, got blisters in my hands, and conducted endless repetitions on a wooden horse. It made me wonder if it was all worth it. Then I thought of the reason I signed up to play in the first place – to raise awareness on breast cancer, and perhaps even find a cure. This was a powerful reminder of how my work had an impact on others.
3. Informal appreciation
Polo players get feedback all the time – from our horses, teammates, veterinarian, coaches, opponents, and spectators. We must adjust quickly and learn to be comfortable in being uncomfortable. We also joke and have fun. In high performing teams, positive feedback is mostly informal, such as spontaneous jolts of encouragement that sparks joy in how teammates see themselves. Small signs of appreciation such as “You nailed it!” or “Your presence makes a difference to me” is proven to increase performance.