The world of sport quite often offers the antinomy to best employment practice and whilst the same principles should apply to both, the ‘adulation’ which high profile sport attracts from supporters means that sports clubs and associations, will often get away with making decisions about their employees that other employers could not conceivably get away with…
In a football season that is not yet half-way through, 26% of the Managers who started the season have already been sacked by their Clubs because the teams have failed to perform as expected in the first part of the season; yet it could be argued that this has been an unrealistic timeframe in which to expect the achievement of results.
In a sport closer to my heart; like many rugby fans across England, I was pretty devastated last month when England failed to deliver at the Rugby World Cup; it was on home soil, we couldn’t possibly lose… could we? But we did, and how? Consequently, we saw Stuart Lancaster become the scapegoat for this dismal performance as he tendered his resignation one year into a six-year contract and had it accepted by the English RFU.
Many people will view this as being the right outcome in the circumstances; but in performance management terms, it is a strange phenomenon that in high-profile team sports where there are so many people involved, only one person can ultimately be held to be accountable when things go wrong, but when everything goes well, the whole team steps up to the plate to take the glory.
If we view Stuart Lancaster purely as an employee, rather than as an iconic sporting image; would it be reasonable to expect an employee with his track record to resign on the back of one poor result? For information England have won 11 trophies in 4 years; including the Hilary Shield (against New Zealand, the reigning World Champions) and the Cook Cup (against Australia) twice, as well as a 61% win-rate across all international matches… Probably not in truth.
In an employment context; an individual is assessed on their own merit and achievements. In many roles, particularly supervisory or management ones, they may be given targets and objectives around team performance, but it is rarely the case that they will be fired or expected to resign on the basis of one set of results alone. Further, they will be given a reasonable timeframe, commensurate to the task in hand, to complete and achieve the given objectives.
The role that the manager takes within a team is to provide the overall direction to that team; ensuring that each member knows what their role is within that team and that they each know what is expected of them. Beyond that, much is then down to the individual concerned to perform to the standards expected of them ~ something that we just did not see from England across the Pool stages of the World Cup and hence why they did not proceed further.
As the Manager builds a team, they have to understand something of the theory behind team-building; it is not something that will automatically see immediate positive results. If we think about Tuckman’s model of team performance, there are four stages to team development: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.
As the team is first brought together, it enters into the ‘forming stage’; this isn’t necessarily about a whole new team coming together, it can just be one new member entering into an existing team. The storming phase happens once the team is formed; as ‘egos’ emerge amongst the members and there is vying for position. After this phase, the team comes together and begins to recognise what it is they are expected to deliver, and finally, they will reach that stage where they are performing and achieving their goals and objectives.
The time spent in each of the stages will vary; dependent on the members of the team and the task being completed. If we think about this in a sporting context, a club rugby team playing and training together on a weekly basis, could reasonably be expected to pass through the stages and reach ‘performing’ quite quickly. However, national teams operate very differently. They are generally brought together for a relatively short period of time, usually just before a small number of high profile matches and the first (and often only) time that the manager who has selected that team, will get to see how they perform together is during the match itself and then under the spotlight of the media and with the crowd. In tournaments like the World Cup, this means that there is often lots of chopping and changing amongst the players between matches, which can be unsettling for team momentum.
And of course, just like in a game of ‘Snakes & Ladders’, it doesn’t always follow that progression through the stages will occur in a positive direction. Minor changes made to a team may result in regression back through the stages; so flipping in a new scrum-half in the second match, because the first choice didn’t perform quite as expected in the first, could result in either a positive or negative way to the team’s overall performance.
So what did go wrong for England then?
To my mind, the performance issues were shared across the team and could not be attributed to any one individual performing less well than any of the others. It could be argued that Stuart Lancaster has acted admirably in ‘falling on his sword’ and taking the rap for this failure, but in truth that will probably lead to longer term problems for the National side as they face an uncertain future without a Head Coach in place as the 2016 Six Nations tournament approaches. Even as a new Coach is appointed, they will still be back at the start of the team development cycle, and expectations will have to be lowered for a time to take this into account…
In truth though, the biggest downfall for the team was probably the ‘weight of expectation’ placed upon them by the media and the public at large… They were built up as ‘giants’, as was the emphasis of home advantage and yet all of the northern hemisphere teams were totally outclassed and outperformed by those coming up from the southern hemisphere. Again, if we think about each player as being an employee of a Company, how many employees realistically have their performance at work scrutinised to the extent that each of these players did, or effectively have their performance appraisal conducted in the public eye?? None, I would venture… Unless of course, that employee happened to be Nick Leeson or Tom Hayes (recently jailed for his part in the Libor rigging scandal…)