I HAVE SPENT some years now – as a manager in both the hospitality industry and as a coach/manager in the footballing sphere – thinking about what it is that makes a team. What are the fundamentals of ‘team-building’? Upon which conceptual pillars should the weight of the team dynamic rest?
This is not a simple question. Indeed, there have been countless pages written for the airport bookstore market, and more than a few chilly weekends spent falling backwards into the arms of colleagues in the Welsh countryside in an attempt to answer it, largely to form the kind of solid hypothesis that might serve to solve this most slippery of conundrums.
As far as I understand things (and that is not very far), these dispensers of conventional wisdom teach us that an effective team – ‘effective’, that is, in relation to the group’s ability to achieve a previously established goal or set of goals – needs to be ‘cohesive’ etc. It needs to ‘work together’. It must strive to maximise the integration of its diverse members and operate ‘as one’. Synergy, guys, synergy.
But this kind of corporate buzz-speak is ten-a-penny in today’s dystopian, seminar-obsessed world where self-styled gurus traverse the globe delivering apparently vital interventions to the endless rows of pale-faced automatons who pack the boxy conference rooms as modern-day charlatans exalt the virtues of their own apparently unique brand of leadership inducing snake-oil.
Without a deeper understanding of group dynamics, these empty phrases go in one ear and exit almost immediately out of the other. It is all very well to say that a team must work together, but actually achieving this is clearly not so simple. If it was, the leader would simply wave his magic wand, utter the magic words and his previously rag-tag bunch of disparate characters would be under his spell, all individual differences forgotten and a collective, laser-like focus on the task at hand would replace the plethora of petty human disputes that had hitherto been plaguing the collective harmony.
What we might be able to glean from these acrylic-clad preachers – if we can see through the fog of jargon – is that what unites a group is something like shared beliefs. A collective concession to the primacy of some set of super-ordinate principles, a relinquishment of ultimate authority to some higher power.
It is not at all easy to gerrymander the beliefs of people into a panacea of agreed values and behaviours, not easy at all. This is not the type of process that takes place in the team meeting on Monday morning. The meeting where Nick gives another of his pastel-hued PowerPoint presentations, an orgy of bullet-pointed platitudes buttressing the understanding of the ‘stuff’ that Dave talked about at the conference in April. You remember the stuff, right? Come on guys, wakey-wakey, let’s start the week with a bang, yeah?
The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (his 1893 treatise, The Division of Labour in Society effectively established the field) presents a model that has been used to describe the formation of the kind of coherent value systems that the great leaders seem able to conceptualise, construct and implement. The totemic pillars of belief around which individuals can rally and thus form a cohesive team, group, community or society.
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Durkheim posits that there is a categorical difference between the nature of traditional group solidarity and the kind of solidarity that provides the social adhesive that is found in modern day collectives. He dubs the traditional group dynamic as Mechanical Solidarity and the modern version Organic Solidarity.
Mechanical Solidarity refers to the type of value system that was prevalent within primitive human groups and tribes. Members of this type of group share a ‘collective consciousness’ that is born from a belief in a ritualistic existence underlined by a shared morality and implicit understanding of tradition and custom. Gods, sacrifices, ceremonies and an emphasis on a conformity of behaviour are all hallmarks of this classically religious type of group solidarity.
In contrast, Durkheim’s Organic Solidarity posits that, in modern society, groups are increasingly likely to be formed around the idea of ‘reciprocal exchange’ and ‘division of labour’. These market-based systems thrive on the principle that one relies on the production and skill set of others in order to maintain their continued safety and well-being. We are creatures of comfort and it’s nice to be able to call an engineer when the boiler fails. As the concept of an overarching set of behavioural edicts that govern behaviour under pain of exile (or worse) becomes more abstract and less invasive, modern man is freer to explore the ‘cult of the individual’ and live in a manner that is largely free from decreed moral dictate.
The problem that Durkheim observed is that in modern society (bound by organic solidarity) there lies a great danger that previously cohesive groups and cultures will begin to split into smaller – often rival – factions as they attempt to exist without the guiding star of the shared belief systems that older societies placed at their centre (mechanical solidarity). Individuals can become ‘unmoored’ or ‘lost’, adrift in an endless sea as, with growing desperation, they try to ‘grasp onto something real’. They are left with ‘nothing solid to stand on’. People are at risk of floating aimlessly through life without a calibrated moral compass to show them the way through the gathering clouds of the approaching storm.
A division of labour in a football team, as in a society, is of course necessary. In football, this might be referred to as balance. The Frenchman, Didier Deschamps, was once described as the team’s water-carrier by his bohemian teammate, Eric Cantona. Cantona never did seem the type to be particularly taken by the notion of toiling behind the scenes.
The problems that Durkheim alluded to seem to arise when, despite the reciprocal arrangements within the network of individuals, a common set of values is lacking. Doing other people’s dirty work is just that little bit more palatable when the congregation is singing from the same hymn sheet. It is when the melodies begin to muddle, the choir cannot harmonise, and the pieces do not fit that the seeds of ennui can begin to germinate in the souls of men.
Durkheim called this feeling anomie. From the Greek meaning ‘lawlessness’, this idea is one that has been explored in great depth by some of the greats of modern literature. Albert Camus’ Mersault and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man are classic examples of characters who embody this maddening mood of existential inertia and resultant moral redundancy. These tales warn that this anomie, left unchecked, left to fester beneath the floorboards, can eventually grow into a snarling resentment for life itself and lead to a desire to exact a most bitter flavour of revenge.
What this comes down to, it seems to me, is indeed a question of belief. It may be the attitude de rigeur of the chattering classes to put other, far shallower aspects of human identity at the forefront of team formation, it may be en vogue to posit the mantra that ‘diversity’ can only be a strength. But an excess of diversity – that is, diversity of belief – is, by definition, divisive. In the absence of a commonly revered value system, the organic solidarity favoured by modern man is insufficient. The risk of fracture is heightened.
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The centrifugal forces of conflicting individual desires are too strong for the widening gyre to endure. The centre cannot hold. I see this phenomenon manifest itself in football – as so many of life’s primordial patterns do – when it becomes apparent that a manager has ‘lost the dressing room’.
It’s when the Dutch bicker at Euro 96 and when the French implode in South Africa. When there is no binding agent to forge together the disparate group of personalities, when the leader’s words fall on deaf ears. When the player’s eyes drop to the floor and knowing glances are discreetly (but not overly so) thrown across the room. When the development of cliques appears as an early symptom of group degeneracy. When the corners of mouths begin to curl slightly, forming the smirks that indicate the onset of cancer in the body. When there is a snake in the garden.
So, if organic solidarity falls short of erecting the tribal totem, how might one go about engineering Durkheim’s concept of mechanical solidarity? Of unifying a diverse set of beliefs? Of ‘team-building’?
Molding the beliefs of people is a double-edged sword and one should engage in its practice with great caution. When one is child-rearing, it is an utmost priority (so I’m told) to shape the worldview of the infant into something that will hopefully resemble that of a moral and reasonable human being. This process of rule instantiation and value-building is the tool by which we pass on wisdom. The problems come when the nature of the values being aimed at errs from the path of what one might deem as the ‘good’.
I have often thought that there is a very fine line between inspiration and indoctrination. Between empowerment and manipulation. While one would be hard pushed to deny that the oratory power of L. Ron Hubbard has been effective in constructing the robust and enduring ideology of Scientology, it is also reasonable to suggest that the values that Hubbard’s movement brands onto the psyches of its disciples are questionable in terms of the veracity of their content. There are, of course, far more extreme examples of the chilling effectiveness of ideological preachers, but you get my point.
Much of the weight behind these value forming ideas is given by the presence of repercussions should any tenant of the manifesto be broken. Just as a parent might condemn their three-year-old to some time-out on the naughty step, groups punish those members who break the constitutional rules. This is a valid and essential facet of any value forming process; taken to extremes, however – as things often are when ideological and tribal passions run awry – the balance between crime and punishment can become skewed as members ‘loyal to the cause’ turn quickly and viciously on those heretics who dare to so much as question those values that are deemed to be sacred. Mobs are formed, and witches are burned. There is a reason why Glasgow bars do not allow football colours.
The notion that patterns of behaviour should be mediated by a fear of God seems medieval and even archaic by today’s standards, and with good reason. This might beg one to ponder, however, that once the deity – or governing mandate – is removed, on whose convictions should our actions be judged? Left to our own animal devices, given ultimate ‘individual freedom’, it does not seem obvious, or indeed self-evident that a consensus can or even should be reached. Will you be Gandhi or Napoleon? And what does it even matter anyway? By what standard are such decisions judged?
Religion is out of fashion. We are a more sophisticated species now. A new, enlightenment-based grounding in the understanding of the natural world has rescued us from the voodoo and ignorance of our oh-so primitive forefathers. Science has put pay to the superstitious nonsense that once governed our societies. The rise of pure rationality means that we no longer need to believe – we now know.
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Such sentiments are naive. What is the formation of collective values if it is not religious? You would have to be blind not to see this when watching the All Blacks of New Zealand perform the Haka. It is a throwback, a window to another eon, a band of brothers summoning forth the warrior spirit of their ancestors. It is a ritualistic sacrifice, a surrendering of oneself to a higher power.
They move their bodies in unison, to the rhythm of the chant. The patterns overlap to form a kind of harmony, the players are human antennae through which a great power surges. Upwards from the dirt and grass of the earth, through their boots and legs, rising through their torsos and shooting skyward from their outstretched arms and hands towards the heavens. This is what mechanical solidarity looks, sounds and feels like.
This is unity. The unity that binds diversity. The type of unity that the overwhelming majority of teams, groups and societies can only dream of. It is the unity of the Star Spangled Banner, the Lisbon Lions and the Class of ’92. There is no anomie in paradise.
Unfortunately – and much to the chagrin of the new materialists who strain themselves by way of elaborately choreographed mental gymnastics to claim otherwise – we humans are unable to simply dispense with our desire to submit to something greater than ourselves. We see this is in the ideological possession of cults such as Hubbard’s Scientology, the rampant statism that seems to dominate the psyches of so many as well as the darkening shadow of scientism which threatens to raise empiricism to a station above morality itself. It is almost as if – dare I say it – we are tribal in our nature.
In the absence of an overarching grand narrative for a culture to follow, there is no shortage of alternative storylines, would-be pretenders all to the vacant seat of power. We see in these Utopian schemes the danger of an excess of unity. When a group becomes too ‘pure’ it cannot adapt; it becomes total, the order too great.
Such regimes embody the problems associated to Mechanical Solidarity. Without the transformational qualities supplied by critique and new ideas, they become tyrannical, Orwellian almost. Governed by too many rules, too many actions of creativity and innovation are deemed heresy. Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United – playing system which seemed to shackle the expression its players to the limits of reason – springs to mind. The balance between diversity and unity is a delicate one. Freedom and rules; fighters in a cage; capoeira in the street; revolution and tradition; yin and yang.
At this moment in history, I believe that football, the most popular game ever devised, provides us with a vital cultural vehicle for the expression of our tribal desires. When we play them out in the political sphere, all hell is in danger of breaking loose. It seems as though football – and sport more widely – acts as the release valve through which these pressures can escape.
Is it merely coincidence that the game’s meteoric rise has coincided with the decline en masse of religious custom and belief? The football stadium is the new church of worship. And, in case you were in any doubt, I am glad to be able to report that superstitions are alive and well and acted out every Saturday by fans, players and coaches alike.
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I remember the request from my captain to perform the warm-up on the same side of the pitch that we had used the previous week when we had won the game. There is no equation for this mode of thinking. Ceremonial rituals are performed in every dressing room and terrace before, during and after every match – songs, chants, huddles, symbols, colours, slogans and dances.
And what of sacrifice? That’s easy – all you have to do is watch. The club is only fully realised in those rare moments when the sacrifices made by the fans, those legions of disciples who work so hard to follow their beloved team, is mirrored by those of the players and staff. Meaning becomes aligned. The diverse collective of individuals is united under the banner of their team; like Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund, an international mix of cultures and ethnicity linking arms before the working people of Westphalia congregated on the Westfalenstadion’s great Yellow Wall.
So, if it is ‘team-building’ that we are concerned with, if ‘harmony within the group’ is something to be aimed for, it would seem that an understanding of the mechanisms that have bound together human groups since the dawn of time might be a useful tool to possess. We dismiss these ancient ideas at our peril. They are hardwired, programmed deep within our systems and no amount of corrective circuitry can be administered to change it. The ferocious power of human nature will only snap back harder each time an ill-conceived campaign to repress it is launched.
Teams must have at their heart a foundation made of stone and a sacred ground, a genius of place that is revered by all. Whether it is the Kaaba of Mecca or the symbol on the club crest, the Ten Commandments or the list of rules nailed to the dressing room wall of a Sunday league team, the group must rally around pillars of commonality lest a great malaise tear the group asunder from within. It is all well and good to label religion as the opiate of the masses, but this does not negate the fundamental human necessity for a viable alternative.
But a team must also be able to change. To be flexible, to be fluid, to ‘roll with the punches’. To recognise when a revivifying dose of revolution must be administered. Transformation and reinvention are essential for the team that wishes to succeed across time. Sir Alex Ferguson knew this better than most. From the ashes of each previous incarnation of his United rose the Phoenix of the next. A motif of death and rebirth that can only appear through an acceptance of an agent of change by the decaying body of the father.
The team is a balance, a tightrope walk, a fragile archipelago where a tilt too far towards unity can be as damaging as a bias towards diversity. The environment is complex and ever-changing, impossible to predict but vital to react to. And this is what makes team-building such an engrossing task; the tangoing dynamic between the individual and the group is what football is.
And so, it may come to pass that – at a time not too far from now – as our societies become increasingly global, multi-cultural and diverse yet seemingly also fractured, polarised and divided, we may be well served to look to football – and to the other great team sports of this miraculous civilisation – to help us remember what it is that ‘playing as a team’ really means.