Lessons from Clarkson & Pietersen for team cohesion

Jeremy Clarkson’s contract was not renewed by the BBC last week following his fracas with producer Oisin Tymon, bringing an end to his role in Top Gear. As the figurehead of the programme, he had a major impact in its global success, but can delivering success and achieving results for the organisation excuse an individual’s bad behaviour? What should you do if the ‘star’ of your own organisation continuously pushed the boundaries in an unacceptable way, breaching accepted standards and going against your values?

Pushing boundaries on camera for a TV audience is one thing, pushing boundaries inside the organisation by having a physical altercation with another member of staff is another. As a business leader, what do you do if you have a Clarkson in your team? Someone who gets incredible results but who doesn’t live the organisation’s values and whose actions negatively impact the wider team?

All too often, leaders may be tempted to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of their top or most important performers. They may let them get away with it because their results are so valuable. Leaders can be afraid to be tough even when it’s the right thing to do, the dilemma overwhelming them, but ultimately they let the incident pass.

In reality, for me it is a straightforward decision to remove a disruptive individual like a Clarkson from my team – no one is bigger than the team. I want a culture of team cohesion and values to be the framework of my organisation, and besides the fact he isn’t aligned to my moral compass, he’d also breached some basic employment law principles.

Leadership is about ethics and principles, shaped by your values. By making a morally correct decision and letting your ‘star’ go, may mean you risk losing revenue and face having them snapped up by the competition, but in the long-term, there will be a greater gain for the organisation and your brand.

Clarkson didn’t give the BBC many options, you can’t thump a member of your own team in a drunken, foul-mouthed rant – however cold the food. Clarkson was removed because ultimately no one individual is bigger than the organisation. This is an old adage from sport, where no one is bigger than the team. Take the complexity of cricket, where a whole series of contests, one on one, ultimately are embraced within a team context.

In cricket, the individual performance matters, but always, for the greatest impact, it has to be channelled towards the collective end. Individuality alone is insufficient – a batsman may continually hit centuries, but if bowlers and fielders don’t perform, the team won’t win. So in the same week as the Clarkson debacle, it was instructive to find that the most telling remark made to Kevin Pietersen, a similar ‘solo’ performer, who now wants to resume his England career, was made by his former England colleague Matthew Hoggard, that ‘maybe team sport’s not for you, Kevin?’

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, a unique batsman, a fearless seat-of-the-pants player capable of transforming a match perhaps like no other of his generation. To a great extent he has done so by marching to the beat of his own drum, for which, while he was at his peak and delivering awesome performances, allowance was made for his maverick tendencies.

Pietersen’s England scorecard can almost be divided into two halves. In the first, in 45 Tests up until he lost the captaincy in 2008, he averaged 50+ and recorded 15 hundreds; since then, in a further 59 Tests, when he should have been at his peak, his average declined to 44 and only eight hundreds.

Whilst he has been hampered by achilles and knee problems, his England career decline coincided with his decision to seek riches elsewhere, lauded for his talent as an individual performer, notably the IPL. These mercenary tendencies manifestly began to intrude on and take precedence in his thoughts. He sought rewards for his personal performance as a bat-for-hire, hawking himself around the franchises of the cricket world, playing mediocre cricket by his standards. Playing for the England team became secondary on this agenda.

It is also noticeable that the second period of his England career coincided precisely with his public conflict with the team management, and tension with his teammates. Like Clarkson, Pietersen had little respect for the team cohesion. As Hoggard says, he will not play for England again and to suggest otherwise is just delusional.

With great individual talent to hand, why is it hard to get teams to realise their potential? How can people work more effectively in teams, and why is there conflict when a team’s intentions are aligned? Is that conflict harmful, or can it actually help the group dynamic? Key business dilemmas such as these were researched by Mark de Rond, Associate Professor of Strategy and Organization at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, in his book The I in Team. The book address some key issues:

  • There is an I in team – and why that matters
  • The best teams rarely comprise the best individual performers
  • Conflict happens even as intentions are perfectly aligned
  • Likeability can trump competence in even technically sophisticated environments
  • A focus on interpersonal harmony can actually hurt team performance

Combining social and psychological research with stories from team sport and high performance athletes, de Rond tested many popular notions about teams. His findings advocate a new way to view team potential as a path to business advantage, and shows what team leaders can learn by focusing on the individuals within them. His conclusion is interesting:

Performance should take precedence over teamwork because over-emphasising the harmonious nature of a team can have a negative impact on performance. The assumption that many people make is that team harmony is somehow a cause or precursor for performance. A lot of the evidence points exactly the other way.

The often repeated phrase, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM’ it turns out is only half true. It ignores the fact that great teams have great individual members, and high performing teams are not always easy places to be – de Rond acknowledges that with few exceptions, the qualities that make individuals gifted can make them wearisome as team members.

Great team members are often perfectionists, paranoid, stubborn and extremely confident, but they do perform. Team leadership is as much about mitigating the risks of these traits as it is about exploiting their potential. David Whitaker wrote in The Spirit of Teams, ‘If you want an exceptional team, keep your eye on the individual. Teams thrive on individual choice and commitment. Powerful teams are made up of individuals who have chosen to work as a team.’

In his research, some of which resonates to Clarkson and Pietersen, de Rond tackles other realities of teams:

Everyone is not equal In high performance teams, star performers increase a team’s overall effectiveness but only to a point. If the proportion of stars versus average members exceeds 50%, you begin to experience diminishing returns.

Emotional intelligence plays a part De Rond reports that ‘If someone is strongly disliked, it is almost irrelevant whether or not he is competent. By contrast, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every bit of competence she has to offer, meaning that a little likeability has far more mileage than competence in making someone a desirable team member.

Too much harmony can hurt team performance Without internal competition, teams may underperform. A healthy level of internal competition can help get the best out of high performers. While we want everyone to be on the same page, people have different versions of reality. Whether or not they are correct is less relevant than what their realities tell you about their priorities.

Productivity tumbles with size An interesting series of studies show that productivity and team size is less an issue of coordination, and more a problem of contribution. Team members are more likely to optimise their performance when faced with slightly fewer members than the task at hand requires. Larger teams were inclined to seek consensus rather than explore novel ideas – de Rond describes this as ‘social loafing’.

Leadership is about asking questions Understanding and managing humanity is key to leading teams. De Rond concludes, ‘And then, not by dispensing solutions, but by knowing what questions to ask and when.’

Complimenting de Rond’s research, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure. According to his research, the five dysfunctions are:

  • Absence of trust: unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Underlying our thinking and experience about teams, is that attitude is everything. The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s hamburger chain when asked what had made him successful, said, “My MBA’ But he didn’t mean a graduate degree in business education, he meant ‘A mop-and-bucket attitude.’ In other words, no work task was too insignificant for him to tackle; he simply jumped in and got the job done. He built his business on this approach, recruiting team players who embraced his ‘mop-and-bucket’ philosophy.

So considering all this research, what attitudinal behaviours should you look for in individuals when building a team?

A sense of modesty & equality Modesty is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Team members will reject and avoid them, productivity will suffer. Everyone in an organisation contributes through assigned roles. While there are different levels of responsibility in the organisational hierarchy, they still deserve to be treated with respect.

Active and authentic Authentity and integrity are critical to both individual and corporate success. You can spot insincerity a mile away. Good team players are active participants. They come prepared for team meetings and listen and speak up in discussions. They’re fully engaged in the work of the team and do not sit passively on the sidelines.

Collaboration and perseverance, and pitches in to help Collaboration and acting together to accomplish a job, effective team players work this way by second nature. They respond to requests for assistance and take the initiative to offer help. Great team players take the time to make positive work relationships with other team members a priority and display a genuine passion and commitment toward their team.

Work for the team The most powerful way you can contribute to your team is to use your talents to contribute to the team’s vision and goals. This means you have an obligation to improve so you can improve your team. You are meant to develop your strengths to make a stronger team. Be selfish by developing you and unselfish by making sure your strengths serve the team.

Share positive, contagious energy Research shows emotions are contagious and infecting a team with either positive or negative energy. You can be a germ or a big dose a Vitamin C. When you share positive energy you infectiously enhance the mood, morale and performance of your team. Remember, negativity is toxic. Energy vampires sabotage teams.

Trust them to put the team first Great team players always put the team first. Their motto is whatever it takes to make the team better. They don’t take credit. They give credit to the team. To be a great team member your ego must be subservient to the mission and purpose of the team.

Having these individual traits, the next challenge is team cohesion, a dynamic process reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives. Within this, there are two further dimensions of cohesion:

  • Task cohesion: the degree to which members of teamwork together to achieve a specific and identifiable goal.
  • Social cohesion: the degree to which members of a team like each other and enjoy personal satisfaction from being members of the team.

Both task and social cohesion were found to contribute to better performance.

The implications of these findings to avoid a Clarkson or Pietersen sacking is that leaders should look to assess an individual’s attitude around the ‘I in team’, and their team’s cohesion, and develop team-building strategies to improve team cohesion at every given opportunity, to ultimately improve team performance.

Specifically, leaders should work on making sure that team members are clear about and happy with team goals that have been identified. Appropriate action should be taken to ensure that players get on with each other and enjoy being part of the team, and then work on developing team communication and shared responsibility – developing the ‘we’ mentality, that it would appear Clarkson and Pietersen lacked.

I particularly like this quote from Saint-Exupery, that captures the essence of team cohesion: If you want to build a ship, don’t teach the workers to find the wood and saw it and nail the boards together; teach them how to love the seas.


From the All Blacks XV to Camp Bastion medics, what makes a breakthrough team?

The current All Blacks might be the best rugby team in history, having just completed a 100% record of 14 wins from 14 Tests in 2013. This encompasses all the things New Zealand rugby holds dearest: work hard, play to the whistle, believe in yourself, believe in your team-mates and, as current captain Richie McCaw says, never, ever, give up.

They clinched their final victory, 24-22, against Ireland in dramatic fashion last weekend. The hosts appeared on course to win their first Test over New Zealand in 109 years up until the final movement of the game, having taken the lead after four minutes and leading 19-0 after 18 minutes. The Irish had stormed into a 22-7 half-time lead but they failed to score a point in the second-half.

At 22-17, a missed penalty by Jonathan Sexton four minutes from time ultimately cost them their first ever victory over the All Blacks. At 80 minutes, full-time, they were still in the lead as they played keep-ball in the New Zealand half. Time was up, and they were keeping the ball in short phases. All they had to do was get the ball back from a tackle and kick it out into history.

But no. The referee penalised prop Jack McGrath for going off his feet and coming in from the side at a ruck. The penalty was 15m inside the New Zealand half. The All Blacks, as you would expect, showed their composure, tapped and moved up the field in progressive phases – 22 in total – until 92 seconds after the final hooter, far out on the left Dane Coles popped a pass to Ryan Crotty who had an overlap and the bearded centre scored. 22-all.

The try was analysed for nearly five minutes by the third match official, who eventually ruled Coles’ pass wasn’t forward. Aaron Cruden lined up the conversion, the Irish charged and Cruden missed. The referee judged that the Irish charge was early, which clearly it was, and so he ordered another kick without an Irish charge. This time, on 83 minutes and some seconds, number 10 Cruden nailed his second chance, and the All Blacks had won 24-22. A dramatic four minutes. It was the first time the All Blacks led in a breathtaking Test. Check out some the highlights:




So where do the 2013 All Blacks team rank in history, to be considered as contenders as the best team of all time? There have been two particular earlier tours that set the standard. The 1905 All Blacks, nicknamed The Originals, swept through Britain and Europe displaying a style of rugby that took the other nations by surprise, playing 35 matches and losing only one, 0-3 to Wales. New Zealand’s long history of innovation in the game really began here, as the team showed a combination of discipline, tactics, ferocity and grace. The ball was kept in hand, and passed for the fastest to run with, rather than kicked for them to chase. Shots at goal were declined in favour of spinning it wide or crashing it forward. Fear of the black jersey was born.

The 1924 team was dubbed The Invincibles, because they won every game.They boasted a strong forward pack which included the physical Brownlie brothers, a mastermind centre in Mark Nicholls, arguably their greatest-ever midfielder in Bert Cooke and the incomparable George Nepia at full-back. Nepia, aged 19 and who played in all 30 matches, is still regarded as the greatest player not just of that era but of all time, and set a standard for future generations of players to aspire to.

Over the years, the All Blacks have become the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries exist between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the challenge of the Haka have a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they step onto the field. Men like George Nepia, Colin Meads, Waka Nathan, Wilson Whineray, Graham Mourie, Andrew Mehrtens and Tana Umaga in the All Blacks hall of fame are outstanding individuals from outstanding teams – an unusual feature of many All Blacks teams is they can often have five or six truly stand out individuals, but its all about the team first.

Whilst many claim great teams operate to the maxim there is no I in team, there is simply no doubt that successful teams are comprised of high performing individuals. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best? It cannot. The strongest teams don’t weed out or neutralise individual tendencies, they capitalise on them. The goal is to harness individual strengths for the greater good of the team. This is best accomplished by leveraging individual talents, not stifling them.

Simply, no team can maximise their potential by ignoring or minimising the strengths of individual members. While smart leaders seek to align expectations and to create unity in vision, they understand this has nothing to do with demanding conformity in thought, or perspective. The key to maximizing the individual talents within a team is to focus on the shared vision rather than individual differences. For me, there are three primary considerations to build a high-performance team:

Alignment around a shared vision, shared values and common purpose One of the catalysts for effective team behaviour is trust. Trust between team members comes from believing in the same things. Teams with a strong sense of shared values use their behaviour to set standards. This seems obvious but many teams do not have it.

You want all team members moving in the same direction toward a shared vision, whereby individual and team goals are related to the purpose of the team. Then, team members clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and there is a strong and clear connection between all activities and the purpose of the team.

The common purpose should also be more than a set of numbers, it should connect to the organisation’s vision and the strategy for delivering it, having a common purpose includes the way they are going to win, especially if you are looking for repeatable success.

Make time for team members to appreciate one another’s skills Interpersonal understanding is critical to trust, the team must be aware of each member’s skills and personalities.  Once a team is established, taking time at each meeting for members to share personal reflections helps fortify the team’s understanding of each individual and how together they all contribute to a common goal. People on teams where people know one another better as people, are more collaborative and more efficient.

Once the individual senses their freedom within the team environment, there is a high and sustained level of energy, enthusiasm and confidence about their work and the way team members work together. Team members feel inspired and able to perform at levels never before imagined and in their ability to overcome obstacles. There is an aura of togetherness and focus that sustains growth of new capabilities and openness to change.

Mutual and individual accountability People like to know what is expected of them. In teams it’s critical to get the balance right between what the person is expected to do on their own and what that are expected to do for each other, and the team. Individual and team accountabilities must be aligned otherwise the team will pull against itself. Accountability, or ownership, needs to be one of any team’s shared values.

Teams need clear and constant feedback to know how they are doing in order to stay motivated and to correct performance inefficiencies. Ideally, a system should be in place so that team members receive ongoing feedback.

If you want a winning team, you need to make sure that each team member is responsible and committed to contributing to the team and are accountable for their performance and behaviour. No amount of good teamwork can be achieved if you don’t have individuals who are responsible, committed and accountable in your team.

However, the cliché remains. There is no I in Team, but Cambridge University’s Judge Business School Professor Mark de Rond’s research refutes the view that a cohesive team of players is more likely to win than a collection of outstanding individuals. There is an I in Team, combines social and psychological research with stories from world-class sports teams, as well as looking at other groups such as orchestras, and the corollary is definitely worth a read.


De Rond recently completed a six-week stint at the military hospital in Camp Bastion, the UK base in Helmand, Afghanistan and produced a remarkable study into the ways emergency medical teams cope with the high pressure environment which brings out their individual and collective qualities in the team.

De Rond says, At Bastion, you see the best teamwork you will ever see. But these are driven people, and some of the qualities that make them brilliant also make them difficult. The surgeons will occasionally compete for interesting work, and interfere with the work of others when they have none of their own.

Unable to cope with boredom, they will hope for new work to come in but then feel guilty about this – but the acceptance of such paradoxes is vital to the psychological safety of the surgical teams, allowing them to perform more effectively.

The need for best medical practices had led to a relaxation of the rules of hierarchy in the team de Rond has noted. The ‘de-ranking’ meant that people were able to speak more openly, admit mistakes, offer suggestions, or even criticism without worrying about that going on their records, upsetting the chain of command. It worked. The teamwork improved. The medical centre at Camp Bastion, the size of the town of Reading, has grown in six years from a row of tents to the most advanced of its kind, with treatments pioneered there for trauma adopted in civilian hospitals worldwide. De Rond’s findings are worth viewing:



As the All Blacks, and the de Rond research remind us, effective teamwork is critical to an organisation’s success. We are better together than we are apart. The three key attributes of high performing teams identified earlier – superior levels of alignment, respect for the individual and mutual accountability – create greater levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration – because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team.

A final words to the All Blacks, where a whiteboard message in the changing room at Twickenham ahead of the England game declared: We are the most dominant team in the history of the world. We are playing England – this is about history, about human nature. We need to reach new levels mentally as a group. If only we could capture this, and replicate Richie McCaw’s spirit of the All Blacks in our own organisations: When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the scoreboard.

Whilst Michael Jordan said there is no i in team but there is in win, no one can whistle a symphony alone, it takes a whole orchestra to play it. Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, an organisation work, a society work, a civilisation work. Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.