Lessons from the field: How authenticity powers team wins

Lessons from the field: How authenticity powers team wins

When an injury ended Mike Robbins' professional baseball career, the former Kansas City Royals pitcher transferred his insight and flair for team building to the business world. Two decades and four best-selling books later, Robbins consults with Fortune 100 companies on the power of authenticity—and how cultivating it can dramatically improve teamwork and client relationships.

What do truly great teams have in common? Think beyond the perennial Yankees World Series teams. Think also of underdogs that surpassed all expectations. All great teams share a quality, a magical chemistry that unites them. It's hard to define, but when it's there, we recognize it. And it's what transforms a group of good players into an unbeatable team—on the field or in the office.

Throughout his career, Robbins obsessed over the inner workings of great teams. His impulse to study the art of the win brought him to subjects including behavioral psychology and team dynamics—forces that he was determined to translate to business success. That quest led him to an elegant but surprising insight: Exceptional chemistry starts with authenticity.

Authenticity is a word we all think we're familiar with. It has something to do with character and telling it how it is. We know it's essential for relationships, communication, and success. Yet Robbins and his favorite social psychologist, Dr. Brené Brown, believe the most important aspect of authenticity is often overlooked.

According to Robbins, authenticity begins not with confidence and strength but with the ability to be vulnerable. He's found that whether you're a major league shortstop or president of a multi-billion-dollar firm, the willingness to be vulnerable in front of teammates and colleagues is the secret to developing meaningful connections and building trust. It makes work more rewarding and working together more enjoyable.

Vulnerability rallies people to get off the bench and give it their all. To play the game with passion. It gives people the freedom to be themselves and opens the way for innovative thinking, bold problem solving, and risk taking—all of which can lead to game-changing performance gains.

The key to creating an atmosphere that supports vulnerability, Robbins says, is learning to embrace authenticity.

Illustration of the strike zone continuum

What it means to be authentic

Authentic leaders are magnetic, charismatic, and memorable. They effortlessly draw others in and create bonds with clients and colleagues. But it's more than that. It's how they communicate that makes them authentic and trustworthy. Robbins says there are three ways of communicating but only one way that truly lands.

If we want to learn to hone our own authenticity, we need to be able to consistently pinpoint it. At a recent Schwab event, Robbins gave us a lesson on getting communication delivery dialed in.

Phony: The curveball

"Ever ask someone, ‘Hey, how are you?' And then, when they launch into an excruciatingly thorough account of their day, you're sorry you asked? That's because it wasn't a genuine question. It was a rote way of killing time to avoid having a real conversation."

Phoniness typically involves withholding or massaging the truth to avoid creating problems. While it seems like a good way to avoid conflict, it can come off as deceptive, insincere, or simply transactional. The conventional "Hey, how are you?" is an example of how inauthenticity can taint even the most harmless of interactions. Like any well-thrown curveball, a phony interaction is hard to read. And it never builds trust. In fact, the purpose of a curveball is to deceive the batter—and make him mistrust the next pitch.

Honest: The brushback

"I'm just being honest."

The goal of any conversation—especially a difficult one—should be a resolution, a solution, or a positive next step. Honesty might be a better strategy than phoniness, but it's often a convenient excuse to be insensitive, hurtful, or dismissive. When you use honesty to rationalize pushing your point of view or claiming your territory at all costs, you're like a pitcher throwing high and inside to back the hitter off the plate. "Keeping him honest" is the pitcher's self-righteous way of saying, "That's my strike zone. Back off." And when being honest becomes all about winning, it pushes people away rather than bringing them closer as a team.

Authentic: Right down the middle

"It's about losing the self-righteousness—and gaining vulnerability."

Authentic is the opposite of phony. It's absolute truth without the sting of blunt honesty, and with a key element that phoniness doesn't offer and honesty stops short of: vulnerability. Vulnerability frees us from needing to be right at all costs. It gives us the license to bring our whole selves to every situation, and it inspires others to be open to dialogue, compromise, and action. A sweet fast ball, straight down the middle of the plate.

Honesty – Self-Righteousness + Vulnerability = Authenticity

4 ways to build authenticity into your game

Authenticity is a courageous process, not a single accomplishment. As with anything, you've got to work at it. Robbins lays out a four-drill practice plan for turning authentic communication into muscle memory.

Illustration of the 4 pillars of building authenticity

Admit when you don't know something

Sure, you can save a little face by staying quiet. But that's a short-term solution. Refusing to admit when you don't understand can lead to thornier problems later on. Raise your hand when you don't know something, and encourage coworkers to share their knowledge and expertise. Admitting you don't know and asking others for clarity adds to a culture of psychological safety, where everyone feels safe to make mistakes, ask for help, speak up, and disagree.

"There's a ton of stuff going on governmentally, economically, technologically. There's no way we can keep up with everything. But somehow, we've decided we're supposed to know everything, and we somehow think it's bad, wrong, weak to admit, 'I don't know that.'"

Be willing to have "sweaty palm" conversations

Locker room or conference room, personality clashes are common in any competitive environment. But it's important to deal with them up front—even when it's uncomfortable. Robbins calls this approach the "sweaty palm" conversation—short, potentially uncomfortable discussions that address conflicts or pain points head-on. By challenging yourself to have these short conversations early and often, you'll become more fluent in them. You and your coworkers will start to gel—to feel the chemistry. And you'll start seeing the benefits of a more united firm show up on the scorecard.

"If you get really good at those 10-minute 'sweaty palm' conversations, you'll have fantastic relationships. But if you avoid them, because they're awkward or uncomfortable, you'll create even more stress for yourself."

Ask for support—and mean it

Most people like to help. Let them. The benefits go way beyond you. When you ask for assistance (and accept it), you model positive cultural habits for the whole office. In a world of high stress and tight deadlines, teams need to work together. Creating an open and supportive culture starts with you.

"If people in leadership positions send the message that it's OK to ask for help, other people get an opportunity to step up. The best teams I work with help each other out a lot—it's not about keeping score."

Stop playing it safe

Don't be afraid of mistakes. Being vulnerable is how we learn, grow, and create breakthroughs, especially when building trust with people. What's riskier, says Robbins, is stagnation.

"When we get successful and do things well, we sometimes stop taking risks and trying new things for fear of messing it up. But success comes from being willing to take risks and try stuff—even if it means failing."

Communicate like a champion

Think about the culture in your office. What kind of chemistry do you and your teammates have? Robbins says creating a championship team is about building a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, caring about one another, taking risks, and doing great work together.

Ultimately, if you want your colleagues to be bold and express vulnerability, it needs to start with you. Celebrate speaking up, taking risks, and owning mistakes. This creates a powerful ripple effect that can extend to your relationships with clients. Therein lies the biggest win, because an empowered client who speaks up, asks questions, and engages is one you want to work with, and vice versa.

"When we're willing and courageous enough to be authentic—and even vulnerable—not only does it liberate us, it has the possibility of impacting and inspiring the people around us," says Robbins. "That's the real power of authenticity."

What you can do next

  • We hope these insights inspire you to build a team culture that prizes authenticity. Learn more about building leadership skills and managing talent.
  • If you're thinking about becoming an independent advisor, consider a custodian that invests in your success. Contact us to learn more about the benefits of a custodial relationship with Schwab.

About Mike Robbins

Mike Robbins is the author of four books: Focus on the Good Stuff; Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken; Nothing Changes Until You Do; and Bring Your Whole Self to Work. His books have been translated into 14 languages, and he has been featured on ABC News and Oprah Radio and in Forbes.


Based on Mike Robbins' National Retirement Summit presentation, "The Power of Authenticity: The Key to Creating Trust, Confidence, and Team Unity," May 2018.