In 1971, coach Herman Boone became the first African American head coach for the Virginian high school football team, the T.C. Williams Titans.   Also, in 1971 T.C. Williams became a desegregated school amid high racial tensions and protests.  The football team was also divided: white players were threatening not to play with their black teammates. Despite these challenges, coach Boone forged a united and diverse team that won the state championship and were runner’s up in the national championship.  How did he transform the team?

 Social Cohesion v. Task Cohesion

 There are two types of team or group cohesion, social cohesion and task cohesion. Social Cohesion refers to the interpersonal attraction among group members (i.e. bonds of friendship, liking, caring, and closeness).  Task Cohesion is the shared commitment among group members to achieve goals that require collective and coordinated effort – the degree to which group members are prepared to work together to achieve common goals and objectives.   Coach Boone played on the values of pride, winning, tradition and honor shared by each individual on the Titan football team and their shared commitment to the task of winning a championship.  By focusing on task first, team members were able to set aside their differences and in the end the team became socially cohesive as well.

Teams that are task cohesive can succeed even if the level of ‘social cohesion’ among teammates is poor. There are many stories in the history of sports where teams were able to achieve greatness, even though team members did not get along.  This is also true in other areas of human endeavour.  The original cast of Saturday Night Live was difficult and did not get along personally.  Yet when it came time to creating the show, they were able to work together as team.  The cast was committed to the task of creating the funniest show they could produce.

What does this mean for restoring dysfunctional workplace teams?

Trying to fix workplace teams by ‘fixing’ the interpersonal issues creating the dysfunction is very difficult.  This is especially the case where trust has been undermined and team members blame each other for the breakdown of working relationship.  A restoration that focuses on restoring social cohesion is an extremely difficult undertaking.  An alternative, evidence-based approach, which may be more likely to succeed, is to focus on task cohesion.  Getting team members to: identify shared purposes and values; understand what is important about their work; and agree on clearly defined roles, are all elements of a process focused on task cohesion.  Committing to a task has the collateral benefit of re-establishing trust.

What works for sports teams is also effective in the workplace.  As Google found, after two years of intensive research into what makes an effective team, “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions.”

How did Coach Boone get his players to focus on task?

 Coach Boone’s extraordinary transformational leadership was the subject of the movie, Remember the Titans.  Coach Boone took held a camp for his football team at Gettysburg Pennsylvania, the site of the great civil war battle of Gettysburg.  In an interview, Coach Boone explained that he took the team to Gettysburg for the pre-season camp because ‘it was the symbol of oneness in our country.”  Boone said, “Lincoln said that as a result [of the battle], our country became one country. If it can happen to one army, it can happen to one team.”  Boone took the team for a run which ended at the Gettysburg cemetery.  Denzel Washington, who played Boone, delivered the cemetery monologue which ended with the following words:

If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other right now, but you will respect each other. And maybe – I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.

The choice was clear: team members could continue on their destructive path or decide to play the game they loved as a team. They may not have liked each other, but that did not prevent them from committing to task.  In the end, the team also became more socially cohesive.  However, it all began by becoming task cohesive first.


Ron Pizzo provides a wide array of dispute resolution services, including workplace restorations.