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A March Madness Lesson for Leaders: Don't Hog the Ball

A March Madness Lesson for Leaders: Don't Hog the Ball

Story Highlights

  • Leaders who hog the ball create a ball-hog culture
  • Ball hogging produces bottlenecks and destroys agility
  • Help your team pass the ball and trust one another with four tactics

Right now in the U.S., many eyes are on the NCAA men's basketball tournament featuring 68 Division 1 schools competing for a national championship. Some of the best parts of the tournament are the upsets in early rounds -- a smaller program that struggled during the season taking down a top-seed opponent.

My alma mater, the University of North Carolina (MBA 1995), upset No. 1 seed Baylor in a thrilling game. While there are many data points you can analyze, one statistic made a clear difference: the number of assists to field goals. UNC had 22 assists for 28 made shots, while Baylor had only 11 assists for their 28 shots.

In other words, almost 80% of the shots UNC made were the result of a pass from a teammate. Sharing the ball helped them defeat a higher-ranked team -- because more assists mean more opportunities to score.

College basketball is great, but what does it have to do with workplace culture?

As I work with executive leadership teams, helping them to unpack their interpersonal dynamics, I consistently hear leaders express a similar refrain: You get the best of me when you trust me to make decisions, and you get the worst of me when you micromanage me.

The data we have from clients on the topic of empowerment are alarming -- 22% of employees and 30% of leaders strongly agree that "in my company, the people closest to the action are trusted to make decisions."

We talk a lot in corporate culture about trust in leadership, but what about leaders trusting their team? In basketball, we call this ball hogging. Leaders are hogging the ball and not passing to their open teammates to allow them to score.

Why We Hog the Ball

Leaders become leaders because they have consistently performed at a high level in critical moments. They take decisive action. They get the job done. They also likely have strong confidence in themselves.

It's no wonder, then, that we all struggle a little to let others take the shot when the pressure is on. We are sure we can do it; we are less sure of our teammates.

The data we have from clients on the topic of empowerment are alarming -- 22% of employees and 30% of leaders strongly agree that "in my company, the people closest to the action are trusted to make decisions."

The problem is much like what happened to Baylor. We unintentionally create bottlenecks -- through excessive meetings, approvals, gatekeeping and stakeholder reviews. In other words, we lose all the advantages of scale and accrue all its disadvantages. We starve our organization of the creativity and agility we desperately need to adapt to the marketplace.

What's worse is that this becomes our culture. New leaders learn that their opinions don't matter. They rely on the person above them to make the big plays. But they also receive fewer rewards for exceptional performance. Your best people leave because they know you're never going to pass them the ball.

A Better Playbook

If you asked a great coach for advice, what would they tell you to do? Here are four ideas to encourage others to make decisions:

  1. Practice how you plan to play. Decision-making is both art and science. The more you practice making decisions with your team, the easier it will be for them to decide when they need to do it for real. Asking your team's advice when making a decision -- and taking that advice seriously -- can help potential leaders practice thinking like a leader.

  2. Fail forward. Not every decision will work out. Dwelling on what was wrong with the last decision without discussing how the next time will look is a wasted opportunity to improve. For example, a business leader recently mentioned how they used the team's CliftonStrengths grid to understand how the group's thinking helped make good decisions -- and how it led to poor ones. Seeing those blind spots helped the team delegate decisions (business term for passing the ball) to those best able to make them.

  3. Bench your star player. When your star is hogging the ball, sometimes the best coaching is to take them out of the game. It is humbling to watch a star player come out of the game and sit next to the coach to watch and learn. Businesses need to consider this as well. Ball hogging at work can occur when an employee doesn't see team success to be as important as individual success. There may be external incentives driving this behavior, but all future leaders must eventually learn that their job is to develop others, not just themselves.

  4. Call a timeout and reposition your talent. Great coaches are always experimenting to discover untapped potential in their players. A low performer may simply be in the wrong role. By moving around your stars, your team may achieve more as a whole. The fastest way to get the most out of your team is to understand everyone's unique strengths. Ask yourself: What can this person do 10 times better than anyone else? If you don't know, start a conversation about strengths.

More than ever, organizations are looking to do more with successful customer interactions, contracts, sales and revenue. Sticking to a ball-hog strategy may seem like the fastest way to success, but ball hogs lose. Building teams with members who trust each other when it counts is a leadership challenge -- but it's the only way to win over the long term.

Ready for more game-winning leadership advice? Sign up for the Gallup at Work Summit to equip yourself and your teams with the knowledge and tools you need to succeed at work and beyond. Explore nearly 30 actionable breakout sessions across multiple topics:

  • CliftonStrengths
  • Coaching
  • Employee experience
  • Education
  • Manager development
  • Workplace perspectives


Ed O'Boyle is Global Practice Leader for Gallup's workplace and marketplace consulting.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

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