We need to speak about Kevin…

Over the past couple of days most of the media outlets have been running a story about the sacking of England cricketer Kevin Pietersen. As is often the case there is much speculation but very little depth of analysis.  As a cricketer Pietersen divides opinion. Some view him as one of the few genuinely world-class players currently in the England setup while others view him as divisive maverick who is simply unmanageable. 

I don’t know Kevin Pietersen, I met him once briefly when he first arrived at Nottinghamshire. I don’t have privileged access to the England dressing room. But I do know about teams and how they work. 

Just for a moment let’s factor the personalities out of the story and look at how teams work – or often don’t. All teams, at work and in sport, function on some common basic dynamics – the most basic of all is the relationships between individuals. Teams work when one-to-one relationships work – note – people don’t have to be friends but they do have to be capable of contributing to the completion of a task or function. When one-to-one relationships fail – teams underachieve. So what is the glue that holds these working relationships together – this is what management consultants earn their fees developing – it boils down to three basic principles – trust, honesty and respect. In a wonderful little book by Patrick Lecioni, these are expanded upon to give some hints about where the problems in the England team lie. Teams underperform due to an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Does this sound familiar? Yes – just about every workplace has work to do on these – England Cricket is no different. 

Looking at these factors contributing to the cohesion and productivity of the team. It is clear that the glue holding the team together is effective communication. I suspect that over this winter we have seen the England Cricket team reach a tipping point – one too many breaches of trust, honest and respect have prompted action. After a lot of failure to communicate effectively we have gone to the sacking option. How could this have been managed better? Back to Lecioni’s principles – one to one relationships work best where there is a willingness to enter the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’ – and discuss honestly what is going on. This is not a row or a fist fight – this is facing up to some objective realities about why things are happening. 

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, he should be in the England team, but not at the expense of a team ethos. High performing teams are full of big egos and strong opinions – it takes a willingness to enter the zone of uncomfortable debate to get the best out of these teams. This is why teams of seemingly lesser individuals often outperform the ‘all – stars’. This is the synergy that effective leaders can create. So perhaps the problem isn’t Kevin, perhaps deficiencies lie elsewhere. 


The Naked Sport Psychologist – February 2014

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