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.


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