Sport vs business: Building high-performance cultures

3 common components of high-performing teams


By Braxton Baker-Bates, Junior Consultant at Culture Consultancy 

Of course, there are some differences between psychology in sport and in business, but from my experience – having completed an Undergraduate and Masters in Sport & Exercise Psychology – to now, working in developing organisational cultures with predominately businesses, there seem to be a lot of similarities. One similarity that has very much been highlighted over these recent months is the fundamental psychology of how to develop a culture for high-performing teams.  


The importance of culture on performance and the bottom line

Having the right culture in your team or organisation is the bedrock of high performance. Every team or organisation, however high-performing, will go through tough seasons, but the foundation; the culture on which it is based, will be the testing factor as to whether they continue flourishing out of the hardship or fall by the wayside. As in sport and in business it is the pressuring moments where you see the fruit of your culture, or lack of it. At the highest end that could be coming back from defeat in a final to win the pinnacle trophy. To the lowest being complete disarray when the financial numbers are not going as predicted, which would have definitely been influenced by the culture beforehand, but now cracks which should have been dealt with long before, coming right to the forefront.  

There are many benefits of high-performing teams such as they enhance satisfaction, psychological safety and futureproof against changing circumstances or difficult seasons.

Additionally, for those who like a statistic, here are a few…

Research has shown that high-performing organisations reduce attrition by up to 43%, increase productivity by 14% and client metrics by 10% (Gallup, 2022). Consequently, high-performing teams, both at a sporting and organisational level, increase the bottom line for the business. Gallup found that high-performing organisations are 23% more profitable than their counterparts and when companies actually link their culture with their strategy, these organisations have been found to have more than double the revenue growth to those that don’t make this link (Heidrick & Struggles, 2021). This is one of the reasons why at Culture Consultancy we make sure this link is clear.  


How do you create this high-performing culture?

There are many factors that make both a high-performing sporting or organisational culture. However, three components which I believe are found in both and are pivotal to being a high-performing team are: strong aligned top team leadership, skilled managers and strong team togetherness.  


1. Strong, aligned top team leadership

The top team in both business and sport are the leaders at the highest level of the organisation and are on the board. The influence leaders have on developing a high-performing team is hugely significant, with organisational research finding that a leader’s behaviour has 3x more impact on this area than matching your policies, processes and systems to the high-performing culture you would like to portray (Gallup, 2024; Oliver Wyman, 2019 & Schein, 2017).


The cascading effect


The example of leaders is pivotal in high-performing cultures; what happens at the top seeps through to the rest of the organisation.

Take Manchester United Football Club, one of the biggest clubs in the world – up for sale for over a year whilst the owners decided what they wanted to do and negotiated a deal.

Unsettling times and disruption affected everyone at the club – from the manager, to staff, to players. There was confusion about how much money the organisation had for re-development, transfers etc, how much realistically one could plan for the future, whilst also not knowing if they’d be a part of that future.

The result: Most would agree the impact of the owners of the club and the unknown has been spilled out onto the pitch and has done for many years.

The decision eventually came, with a 25% stake going to Sir Jim Radcliffe (chairman and CEO of INEOS), and he and his team taking responsibility for the management of the club’s football operations. Even with this split in responsibility, an ongoing worry for many is how much control these billionaire individuals will allow one another on the decision making for their designated area.

In business this transaction is most similar to a merger and acquisition, where two or more businesses join forces. In these cases not only are there structural and functional changes required, but cultural alignment plays a critical role.

In fact, culture is cited as one of the primary reasons why M&A transactions fail to realise their full potential (McKinsey & Company, 2019).

To be culturally aligned involves choosing between one dominant culture, a blend of both cultures or a new culture tailored to the merged entity. So, will these billionaires clash or come up with a strategic plan, in which there is cultural alignment driving the club forward? I don’t know the answer to that. However, if both parties gain a thorough understanding of what the current culture is and the future culture they desire, where they unite behind a common purpose, vision, values and behaviours to drive their strategic plan throughout the organisation … The plethora of research and our lived experience through the many case studies we have completed at Culture Consultancy, will tell you this will enhance the odds of seeing Manchester United back at the top rather than this carrying on being a distant memory! 

Read more about How to Create a strong post M&A culture.


2. Skilled managers

Another similarity between high-performing teams and organisations is that they have great managers.

Managers have a significant impact on culture, with organisational research illustrating that 91% who rate their culture as “good” say they trust their supervisor. This drops to 59% of employees who rate their workplace culture as “average”, and it plummets to 24% who rate their culture as “poor” (SHRM, 2022).

The impact managers have in high-performing sporting teams can be seen through England Women’s Football team where the midfielder Keira Walsh talks about the knack Sarina Wiegman has in creating a calm atmosphere even in the most high-pressured moments.

Walsh stated in the build-up to the European championships which were hosted in England that “I don’t know how Sarina does it, to be honest with you … It’s easy for me to sit here and say it feels less tense, because it just does(The Guardian, 2022). This culture created by Wiegman allowed England to play without the burden of pressure and they went on to win the European Championships in London and more recently got to the final of the World Cup.  


The urgency of manager upskilling in today's workforce


To become the manager of a high-performing sports team usually takes decades, with managers constantly refining and developing their skills, whereas it seems a very different picture in business.

Research shows that third of current managers and leaders have never received any formal management and leadership training (33%), including a quarter (26%) of senior managers and leaders (Chartered Management Institute, 2023).

This is a stark statistic as we know managers have a huge impact on team performance through areas such as profitability (McKinsey & Company, 2020) and team engagement, with 70% of the variance in team engagement being determined solely by the manager (Gallup, 2021).

Yet, what is even more glaring is the fact that unless organisations prioritise manager training this trend coined “accidental managers” will enhance, with it being found that 82% of people entering management positions have not had this training (Chartered Management Institute, 2023). Therefore, to develop or stay as a high-performing team, research and our experience at Culture Consultancy illustrates the importance of manager upskilling.


3. Strong team togetherness

For high-performing teams to develop, the culture that drives this performance must be adopted by everyone in the team or organisation and embedded throughout. In the sporting world if you think of a team which has outperformed and over succeeded, against a team that has had great players but underperformed, you will see one key differing factor – team togetherness.

A prime example of a team which over succeeded was the Women’s Hockey GB team who won Gold at the 2016 Olympics, where two years before they came 11th out of 12 teams in the World Cup, so they were not the favourites. However, team togetherness had a significant impact on this historic victory with Alex Danson one of the key players in the GB team stating: “in the Rio Olympics we walked onto the field as one team, we jogged off as one team. We were united in everything” (The Guardian, 2016).



Conversely, a team full of incredible players but many would say have underperformed would be the England Football team in the 2000s who have been referred as the “Golden Generation”. This may be reasonably fresh in your memory with the David Beckham documentary, where throughout these years England had some of the best players in the world in most positions, but they were eliminated at the quarterfinals in three major tournaments and failed to qualify for the European Football Championship in 2008.

On TNT Sports in 2017 three key members of the “Golden Generation” – Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard reminisced why they didn’t reach the heights predicted. The key area mentioned was a lack of togetherness, with cliques in the squad. England Men’s team since haven’t won a major trophy, but they have come much closer and many have stated a big reason for this is because Gareth Southgate and his team have focused on bringing the team together, depicted recently in the theatre show of “Dear England” 


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Back to the blog…


Is your organisation all pulling in the same direction?

Similarly in business it is vital that the whole organisation is moving in the right direction for high performance to occur. We have heard of many examples of companies who have designed a new culture which they want, and they are excited to launch but then nothing changes … Why? Well because the organisation has failed to take the step of embedding this new culture to everyone, so togetherness is not created. Consequently, people go back to the old way of doing things and the change needed has not stuck. That is why Culture Consultancy offers a unique approach to Culture Embedding. This method develops ownership, trust, belonging and engagement in teams, such factors have been found to significantly enhance the likelihood of performing well financially compared to when these attributes are less developed (UKG, 2021). Consequently, this programme develops high-performing organisations through team togetherness and ascertains that new culture, sticks  


To conclude

Culture is critical to high-performing teams. The importance of top team alignment, skilled managers and team togetherness both in sport and business is evident.  

If you like this article and want to elevate your culture please Get in touch! Our expert team, who recently won International Consultancy of the Year 2023 at the Business Culture Awards, are here to help.

About Culture Consultancy

  • Team of highly experienced consultants – business leaders, organisational psychologists, HR professionals
  • Proven 3-stage methodology for culture transformation
  • Winner: International Culture Consultancy of the Year 2023 – Business Culture Awards
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Chartered Management Institute. (2023). Taking Responsibility – Why UK PLC Needs Better Managers.  

Gallup. (2021). How Influential Is a Good Manager? 

Gallup. (2022). Employee Engagement vs. Employee Satisfaction and Organizational Culture. 

Gallup. (2024). What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Does It Matter? 

Heidrick & Struggles. (2021). Aligning Culture with the Bottom Line: How Companies Can Accelerate Progress. 

McKinsey & Company. (2019). Organizational culture in mergers: Addressing the unseen forces. 

McKinsey & Company. (2020). The Boss Factor: Making the World a Better Place through Workplace Relationships. 

Oliver Wyman. (2019). Measuring Conduct and Culture. 

Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2017). Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.  

SHRM. (2022). Strengthening Workplace Culture: A Tool for Retaining and Empowering Employees Globally. SHRM-2022-Global-Culture-Report%20(10).pdf 

The Guardian. (2016). Alex Danson: ‘We won Olympic gold because we were a team, there were no superstars’. 

The Guardian. (2022). ‘She’s not satisfied with victory’: how Sarina Wiegman transformed England. 

TNT Sports. (2017). Why did England’s ‘golden generation’ fail? Lampard, Gerrard and Rio reveal all | PL Tonight. 

UKG. (2021). The Heard and the Heard-Nots.