We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Fear and loathing in the dressing room

I’ve recenly read Michael Atherton’s excellent article about what happens in the dressing rooms of sports teams ( http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cricket/article4230937.ece ). The article focuses around cricket, but it is equally appropriate to any sport – and to any team. Team leaders in every environment, business included, could usefully read this article.

Atherton’s article was provoked by the recent publication of a book by Kevin Pietersen, a former England cricketer who was effectively fired from the team earlier this year and is now taking his revenge on his former team-mates and the England cricket establishment. Atherton, himself a former captain of the England team, makes the point that the pressures of international sport played at the highest level, generate incredible tensions within and between people. Dressing rooms, properly used, are places for blowing off steam and letting those tensions evaporate. Pietersen complains in his book (according to the extracts; I have not read it) that those tensions amounted to a culture of bullying and abuse. Atherton’s response is that these tensions are part of international sport: get used to them.

I think Atherton’s column has some really important lessons for teamwork, not just in sport but anywhere. In particular, we need to remember that all teams are under pressure: in business this can be to produce results, to get a job done, to make a project happen, to come up with new ideas, whatever. Pressure produces tension. There will be times when members of a team disagree. Although everyone should try to remain within the bounds of civilised decorum, there is always the risk that relationships might become more...fractious, shall we say.

There is no actual harm in that, provided that the team has a safe space where it can engage in dispute without those disputes becoming public property. I would offer a strong recommendation for team leaders: create that kind of safe space, physically or virtually, where people can be candid with each other and say what they really think, rather than hiding behind platitudes. The results can be remarkable. Once people reveal their real feelings, rather than nodding along, all sorts of things come out which might otherwise have remained hidden.

However, when you create such a space you also have to manage the consequences. Make sure that the team respects the sanctity of that space, and that the Chatham House rule applies: what happens in that space stays there, and at the end of the day everyone shakes hands and is friends again. Tough to do, but again, the value at the end is worth the effort.

Free thinking means better risk management, more creativity, broader and better ideas. The process of achieving free thinking is not easy and is not cost-free. But then, no one ever said managing people was easy.

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