Coaching & Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jul 14, 2016
Sir Dave Brailsford introduces emoji-nal gains.

Whether he likes it or not, Sir Dave Brailsford, Principal at top-tier cycling’s Team Sky, will have to live with the moniker of master of marginal gains for some time yet.

A philosophy that’s tightly woven into the fabric of the British Cycling team, what is clear is that Brailsford is rarely afraid to try something new in his efforts to eke out the maximum from his team, however unorthodox it may seem.

This year, one of those out-of-the-box innovations has seen Brailsford implement a new ’smiley’ system.

Emoji-nal gains

In an exclusive interview with the Leaders Performance Institute ahead of the team’s 2016 campaign, Brailsford revealed that Team Sky have developed an internal ‘winning behaviours’ app. The objective, explained Brailsford, is to get the team aligned behind and cognisant of a set of positive everyday actions, actions undertaken alone and as part of a group that can collectively be referred to as winning behaviours.

“In my experience,” he said, “you can have this person that has all these great, positive attributes, all these winning behaviours, but they exhibit one or two persistent losing behaviours, they moan all the time, they never take the problem to the person, that is a big losing behaviour. The impact of one losing behaviour is bigger than all of these winning behaviours stacked up. For me, when I think about environment, I think about what kind of behaviours do we want, how do we want to work, how do we optimise our environment? I have been thinking more about the eradication of losing behaviours if it were as against the promotion of the winning behaviours.


“It is a reflective practice to go, ‘well, you think you are on a ‘super happy’ face for all these things, but you’ve been moaning a bit lately.’”


“If it is half past 11, it’s a cold night, you’re tired, the mechanics are tired, they’ve got a big day tomorrow, they’ve got to get the bikes right for tomorrow. We were late coming in, we were on a big stage and there is a bit of friction. At that moment in time, how do you get that filter if you like to be your culture, behaviour or values, how do you make that person think or see those problems through those behaviours rather than just doing what they normally do? That’s not easy. So to try and bring this to life a little bit more we developed an app and we have got our winning behaviours on this little app.”

The nuts and bolts of the app were inspired by the customer service feedback stations that have sprung up at airports, banks and many other consumer-facing institutions. Riders and staff are asked to log their mood at certain points of the day using simple emojis. The information is fed back to Brailsford’s master list.

“I thought, right, let’s have our phrases in a little app and we just push them, this is where I am at on my self-assessment and then I get to see those and have somebody else who reflects as well,” Brailsford explained. “It is a reflective practice to go, ‘well, you think you are on a ‘super happy’ face for all these things, but you’ve been moaning a bit lately.’ We monitor it and the challenge I set to everybody in the team is if you’re impact on the team is a net negative impact, ie you are exhibiting more losing behaviours than winning behaviours, we’ll flag it up and give you a chance to modify it and you’re professionally bound to modify it; it is not personal, it’s a professional relationship. So let’s try and sort that out but over time if you can’t sort it out, there is no place for you in this team. That’s how we bring our culture to life.”

Turn that frown upside down

“You don’t want somebody that moans,” Brailsford continued, “it brings everybody down. So if you annoy me for whatever reason, what I don’t want to do is go and see somebody else and say, ‘have you heard about the latest thing they have done – I don’t believe it.’ You can end up with an undercurrent. I should take the problem to the person, I should come and see you and have a chat about it. If you can’t resolve it then you find a way of having a conversation with somebody else you both respect to resolve it, someone professionally bound to try to resolve conflict. They are small examples of little things that if you can make people stop, we are all going to get angry, we’re all going to lose our temper, we’ll all do things we regret, we’re humans. If I said to you, ‘you could have helped me earlier, I was struggling there and you could have helped me’, and if you’d said ‘if you had asked me I would have helped you’, and you genuinely would if I had asked, my thing would be in a great team you don’t have to ask; people should be proactive; and not being proactive is losing and being proactive is winning. When you remind people on a regular basis, drip feed it in on a day to day basis, it is amazing how quickly that can catch on. So when you are at 11:30 at night and it is pouring with rain, it’s cold and there is a bit of conflict, somewhere in their minds they will go, ‘OK, my job is to try and resolve conflict not create it… OK guys I’m pissed something has happened, let’s try and sort it out.’ These are the little bits that make a difference.”

In the full, exclusive interview with the Leaders Performance Institute, Brailsford detailed his latest thinking on:

  • Creating a winning environment
  • What to look for within the recruitment process
  • Building and maintaining a solid team culture & eliminating losing behaviours
  • Planning future goals to foster selflessness
  • How to make tough decisions
  • How to motivate motivators within a team
  • How to stave off complacency

For access to the full 26-minute video interview and 1,500-word article, and to the most comprehensive bank of cutting-edge performance content in the world, including best practice case studies, original research, and an archive of hundreds of panel discussions, presentations and talks, become a member of the Leaders Performance Institute today.

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