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How can you know whether your team has a Winning mindset?

Our experience (affirmed by science) suggests that your future win/loss record will often be revealed in the conversations of your culture!

Over my past 55 seasons as a teammate, and the past 25 years training corporate and athletic teams, I have observed that groups of people evolve in one of two ways: they self-develop, or they are intentionally developed.

Many leaders become busy and allow their teams to self-develop. The end result is often a disappointing, under-performing culture. We obviously recommend that leaders take initiative, know what game their team is playing, what types of players they need, and shape a team that proactively builds a winning culture.

Let’s start with the foundational step of intentionally developing your culture. This begins with listening in to the language of your players.

Pat Quinn coached me when I played for the Vancouver Canucks, and among his many endearing traits (he was one of my favourite coaches), I loved one in particular - he was a contrarian! After my playing career ended, I interviewed Pat for our 4th book, Simply The Best: Insights and Strategies from Great Hockey Coaches. Among Pat’s memorable musings, one thought really stood out. He said, “Ryan, coaches don’t lose the room.”

I protested, “Come on Pat, they sure do… I have been on teams where the coach’s message was not getting through and a new coach, with a new message, was brought in to turn the team.”

Pat replied with: “No, coaches don’t lose the room, Ryan… players start listening to a different voice.”

Whether you agree with Pat or not, he raises an important point if you are looking to intentionally lead your culture: Whose voice are your people listening to? What words are influencing their mindset and direction? Are you predominantly hearing positivity or negativity within the conversations of your culture?

Leaders that wake up one day with an under-performing culture may be surprised by the answers to these questions. After my 50 plus years performing in and hanging around team culture, I hang my hat on our foundational statement:


The language (vocal, body, written and thinking) of your team - what your players are saying and how they are saying it - ultimately steers the behaviour, the outcome, the energy, and the momentum of your culture!

I have observed that the voices of the players are the clearest indicator of your team culture’s current condition, and the direction in which it is heading. John Maxwell said, “Leadership is Influence.” Every leader desires to influence their team and to hear the voices of their people using what I call the winning words that point the team towards their desired Future-Positive direction.

Patrick Lencioni expresses in his book, The Ideal Team Player, that team players (those that help generate high-performing cultures) possess 3 key traits. They are Humble, Hungry, and Smart with People.

Let’s focus on the first trait and listen in to what this trait sounds like in your culture’s conversations. CS Lewis has the best definition of humility I have ever read: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, rather it is thinking about yourself less.” To get us started, please answer the following question on your own:

“What is the opposite of humility?”

What did you come up with? Ego-centric? Focused on me (what I like to call no-people-peripheral-vision)? Boasting about what I did with no talk about teammates? Me-focused? Something else? Can you hear those voices on your team?

Humble language does not have to be self-deprecating. It can be found in conversations that are focused on what your teammate is accomplishing, for example.

My favourite form of humble language is what I call deflection language. For example, people congratulate one of the players on your team and you hear that person deflect the conversation towards others and the part that they both played in the team’s success. You can read more about the concept of deflection in our 5th book, Hungry!

One of the easiest ways to identify humble language is by listening for “us, we or our,” rather than “me, my or mine.” I recall speaking with a friend who kept repeating, “My kids.” I suppose this statement would have been OK if his wife hadn’t been standing right next to him.

The famed football coach, Bum Phillips, was eloquently speaking of what I call deflection language and how it creates strong teams when he said: “If we did something wrong, I did it. If we did something right, you did it, and if we did something really well, we did it.”

I challenge you as you head back into your business this week to remember that Culture Turns on Language. What are you hearing from your team?

Are the conversations of your culture selfish or self-focused in nature? Are they full of self-boasting? Are they self-building by telling others that they “will never be any good” (often the result of an insecure Inner Game)? Are you hearing players’ voices pointing at what other people did wrong last week without talking about taking responsibility for their own mistakes? Are the conversations of your culture the result of playing in the defensive zone?

Or, does the language of your people self-focus on being accountable for their part in creating the team’s success? Do the conversations of your team deflect to honor teammates successes (past-positive) and accept responsibility? Do your people’s voices sound secure, confident and full of future-positive winning words? Are the conversations of your culture the result of playing in the offensive zone?

The diagram below shows a sampling of the type of language you would hear in NHL dressing rooms. The larger circle around centre ice contains team banter. This is extremely important language for team bonding and preparation for entering the Flow/Zone. Caution: Defensive Zone banter can be either fun or fickle, depending on how it is delivered and received. If you are seeing this for the first time, feel free to contact me so I can explain further.

Our primary training focus is to help teams & leaders implement this foundational process. Using our exclusive 5 Mindset Model (the Thinking Tendencies Model©) to identify their primary language, we help teams learn to shift into becoming more aware and intentional with their thinking, mindset, behaviour, and language.

Once leaders identify the personal and cultural words they are hearing, they can then activate and increase the ratio of offensive zone conversations vs defensive zone conversations to help create sustain a winning culture.

During my time training with well over 900 CEOs around this cultural-change-process, our foundational concept that Culture turns on Language has consistently been their number one “Ah Ha” moment… and the number one area that they ask us to help shift in their culture.

Your Culture turns on your Language. What zone is your team primarily playing in? What does this predict about your team’s future win/loss record?


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