Psychological Safety and the Adam LaRoche Saga

It was supposed to be the new cast of characters that stirred the pot on the south side. Who would have guessed that the preseason drama would emanate from an old war horse? The 36-year-old Adam LaRoche walked away from $13 million after White Sox management asked LaRoche to “dial it back a bit” and stop bringing his son Drake to the ballpark. Apparently, Drake had spent 120 games with the White Sox in 2015, and had already been a mainstay at the spring training facility in 2016.

Many of the White Sox players, including stars like Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, have publicly displayed their discontent with White Sox management, siding with both Adam and Drake LaRoche. Eaton was adamant enough to say that the White Sox “lost a leader” in Drake LaRoche [1] – a comment that he directed at team president, Kenny Williams. With so many players openly expressing their opposition to the removal of Drake LaRoche, it’s interesting to note that the issue arose from a small group of anonymous White Sox players who privately reported their distaste of Drake’s omnipresence.

Adam LaRoche was clear with his teammates – if there was ever an issue about his son Drake’s presence in the clubhouse, let him know about it:

Though I clearly indicated to both teams the importance of having my son with me, I also made clear that if there was ever a moment when a teammate, coach or manager was made to feel uncomfortable, then I would immediately address it. I realize that this is their office and their career, and it would not be fair to the team if anybody in the clubhouse was unhappy with the situation. Fortunately, that problem never developed [2].”

Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly play out that way, as no one brought it up to LaRoche personally:

Apparently, no one ever told LaRoche. These players and staff members didn’t feel comfortable even sharing it with their own teammates, with several White Sox players saying they never heard a complaint. But they did express their views to management [3].”

It’s not that LaRoche was an outcast. From the reaction of many of the players, it seems like primary players on the White Sox (if not large swaths of the team) were cool with Drake hanging around as much as he did. So, if a few people had a problem, why didn’t they speak up to LaRoche? Conversely, why couldn’t LaRoche sense that Drake was weirding some of his teammates out?

Let’s talk about feelings

 Average sensitivity is the ability of members within a team to sense how other team members are feeling by observing their facial expressions, body language, and other behavioral cues. Average sensitivity is an aspect of a broader construct called psychological safety, which helps to explain how and why team members speak up, exchange information, and their general willingness to be open with other teammates (Edmonson & Lei, 2014). There has been extensive research on the relationship between psychological safety and performance (Baer & Frese, 2003; Edmondson & Lei, 2014; Collins & Smith, 2006; Schaubroeck et al., 2011); broadly, this research indicates that open communication between team members is related to team performance.

How important is psychological safety in terms of group performance, you ask? Google’s Project Aristotle explored the characteristics that make the perfect team. After four years, hundreds of experimental teams, thousands of people, and 50 years’ worth of academic literature, the critical variable in predicting a successful team was…psychological safety [4].

Now, we haven’t measured the White Sox’ sensitivity or psychological safety directly, so the suggestion that these things played a role in the LaRoche situation is more of an educated guess than an empirical observation. Also, much of the research on the influence of psychological safety has been done in organizations, as opposed to sports teams. But it isn’t difficult to imagine that if there was a greater emphasis on psychological safety, a situation like this might not have arisen. It’s not too far of a jump to say that higher-performing teams should:

  • Place a premium on speaking up with ideas, without fear of punishment or ridicule. Don’t stifle effective collaboration regardless of the topic.
  • Promotion of safety is key – the research has shown that it does not arise naturally, but should be discussed and fostered.

Imagine if LaRoche’s teammates might have felt comfortable going directly to him instead of circumventing him. Would the White Sox still be in their current state of disarray? It could be less about this particular incident, and possibly more indicative of a greater, team-wide issue of communication.

Sooner or later, a situation similar to the Drake and Adam LaRoche situation is going to happen again. There’s also plenty of other team level constructs to explore, such as team chemistry. The broader point, though, is that these scenarios are likely somewhat avoidable: Teams can work to increase sensitivity and psychological safety. It won’t be easy, but research suggests that things like players-only meetings to air out grievances, establish lines of communication, and solidify roles might be a place to start. For the White Sox, it’s a rough way to begin the season, but fortunately these issues are fixable – and it’s certainly a helluva lot better to address these issues now rather than at the All-Star break.

 

[1] http://heavy.com/news/2016/03/adam-laroche-son-drake-retire-ken-williams-comments-family-wife-jenn-daughter-montana/

[2] http://thebiglead.com/2016/03/21/adam-laroche-son-anonymous-white-sox-teammates-complained/

[3] http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/adam-laroche-chicago-white-sox-ken-williams-retire-drake-laroche-son-chris-sale-teammates-031916

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=3

 





PhD in Applied Research Methodology. Proponent of psychometrics in sports. More work at Burkmont.com

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Hank G.member
6 years ago

From the reaction of many of the players, it seems like primary players on the White Sox (if not large swaths of the team) were cool with Drake hanging around as much as he did. So, if a few people had a problem, why didn’t they speak up to LaRoche?

If most of the players were fine with Drake’s presence in the clubhouse, wouldn’t that make it harder to approach LaRoche? Despite his statement that he would “address it”, I could easily imagine him saying to anyone who objected something like “Nobody else has a problem with Drake being here. What’s wrong with you?”

In my opinion, reporting the discomfort to management was the proper way to do it. We saw with the Nationals last year the worst case scenario of one player expressing his dissatisfaction directly with another player.

raws
6 years ago

This article is too speculative to be entirely satisfying, but the topic itself, psychological safety as it relates to a clubhouse and overall performance, introduces me to a language to discuss qualitative factors surrounding the game, management, etc. I wonder about managers from the front office versus former player managers, assuming the former would better handle probabilities or higher level strategy, the latter having a better feel for the game and greater intuition on the field… allowing this artificial dichotomy, I wonder whether shared experience is a significant factor for a successful manager. On a team with numerous Spanish speakers, does fluency from the manager matter? I assume business management or social sciences address these sorts of questions relevant to psychological safety. Nice to see some of the discussion brought here.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  Bret Levine

My understanding is that Matheny isn’t “learning” Spanish, but has been a fluent speaker for quite some time.

See this article noting that he minored in Spanish at Michigan, on the advice of his college baseball coach – http://m.mlb.com/news/article/27372896/

And a 2012 ESPN article reports that Matheny is fluent in Spanish, as are Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, and Mike Scioscia (and, of course, a host of Latino managers and coaches) – http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/page/OneNation-MLB120919/major-league-managers-speak-spanish-bring-competitive-edge-game

raws
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

The second article was particularly useful to the discussion, citing not only the practical convenience of fluency, but also something similar to psychological safety. Granted that a coach could be an ass in other ways to defeat what merit is gained in this.

I thought that baseball managers were the least important in sport. The above thesis, i.e. psychological safety influences group performance, is helpful, as the greater goal is to understand Ned Yost. …And how chemistry might be managed as an appreciable value. The refrain in 2014 was the Royals’ success was despite of the manager.

Nevertheless, it is probably less significant here than, say, with lower level education or hourly jobs where subjects are less self-motivated. Psychological safety during war is an interesting extreme. Or, the converse, the bourgeois claim to existential danger while being relatively safe.