Monday, March 18, 2013

The Team Myth

Australia's cricket coach, Mickey Arthur, may be either a genius of human motivation or a total drongo. Not being a fair dinkum Aussie, the South African Arthur may well have a made a rod for his own back in effectively suspending four players for the third test against India.

Cricket is a strange sport. It is a team game yet its component elements are individual. In recent years, it has been possible to discern more obviously defined roles for players within a cricket team, partly the consequence of the development of different formats. These may always have existed, but they were far less apparent, especially in the days of Geoffrey Boycott who would, nevertheless, maintain that what was widely perceived as selfishness was in fact playing for the team.

What is also more evident nowadays is the very notion of the "team", one by which all players pull in the same direction in the pursuit of a common cause. This, you would have thought, would always have been a given in an apparently team sport, but not so. One of the more glaring examples occurred during the infamous Bodyline tour of Australia in 1932-33. Gubby Allen refused to bowl leg theory, so going against his captain Douglas Jardine's strategy. Allen, like Jardine, an amateur and a product of the public school system and Oxbridge, had the background and the bearing to enable him to take a stand. Under England's cricketing apartheid, Allen was a "gentleman". The paid ranks, the professional "players" like Harold Larwood, did what they were told. So much for a team ethic.

Arthur's suspension of the four players was the result of his wish and that also, so one supposes, of captain Michael Clarke to establish a particular team ethic. One of the criticisms of Arthur is that he indulges in psycho-babble, but all he has attempted to do, albeit in a cack-handed manner, is what other sports sides now typically strive to do, which is to create genuine "teams".

The psycho-babble, so the critics insist, has been lifted from management and business, yet much of this jargonising about teams came originally from sport. In organisations, "teams" as a concept didn't really exist until the 1980s. It took studies of outstanding sports teams to bring the concept about. In so doing, a framework was established for understanding the nature of teams and therefore teamwork and for distinguishing them from what were merely groups of workers.

Teams were to be created according to certain rules. One of these was their purpose for existing. It was in accordance with shared objectives. Team players had to buy into these shared objectives and provide roles that met them, even if this meant a certain humility and subordination of the ego to the common cause. By acquiring these objectives and by adopting the required roles, what were once groups now became teams.

This apparently sensible development was, however, to become undermined by the subsequent sheer ubiquity of the term "team" and its transfer into marketing-speak. The "team" became a means of promotion. Just as "quality" was a panacea of which a company could boast (even if it didn't conform to notions of quality), so the "team" was a de rigueur marketing tool designed to establish, in the minds of the customer, a perception of a company working in the best interests of that customer - the common cause. Unfortunately, most of it was rubbish and it still is.

Come to Mallorca on holiday now, and you will find that there are all sorts of "teams": the hotel "team", the entertainment "team", even the bar or restaurant "team". The word has become a meaningless shorthand but one, nevertheless, that is intended to convey the impression that "teams" are there for only one reason, and that is to serve the customer. Some may do precisely this, but they may well do so more through luck rather than judgement or through a specific strategy that has set out what it means to be a "team". Others won't do anything of the sort, because these "teams" are merely a collection of individuals rarely that committed to any objective other than getting paid or, with some parts of the summer tourism industry, getting laid.

So, when you click on a website on which there is a signing-off by "your team" (and it is usually is your and not our) or you see a display in say a hotel lobby with smiling faces as part of "your team", don't be taken in. They may be teams, they may be very good teams, but they may just be groups of people hiding behind the convenience of marketing guff.

Any comments to please.

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