Keeping the Faith

By Linda Henman, Ph.D.

On June 12th, 2010 English goalkeeper Rob Green let a routine shot from Clint Dempsey slip through his grasp for the Americans’ only goal in their high-profile World Cup opener, a 1-1 draw. Green blundered more like an eighth grader than an internationally known goalkeeper. As Green hangs his head in shame and ardent fans sharpen weapons to be used against him, I’d like to suggest that soccer in general—and this incident in particular—offer an apt metaphor for what happens in organizational teamwork.

Soccer represents one of the truest of team sports. No one person can win a game, just as no one person can lose one. Ten other players had a chance to stop the ball that slipped through the net on June 12th—and they had approximately 89.5 minutes in which to do that or to outscore the Americans. Instead of focusing on this reality, fans and media alike have concentrated on the roughly 30 seconds it took for Dempsey to shoot and Green to miss.

Members of project teams assign blame similarly. The last person to touch a project, the final person to sign off—the organization’s equivalent of a goalkeeper receives the blame for failure. People seldom notice all the time prior to the last minute and excuse mistakes disproportionately early in the game.

Why? In most organizations true teamwork doesn’t exist. Committees pass for teams; true collaboration doesn’t exist; and people favor self-reliance over interdependence. Similarly, leaders reward individual efforts, not teamwork. Blame too tends to be more individual than group oriented.

If you want true teamwork and interdependence, you have to reward it. And, you have to avoid punishing individual mistakes.

Green has enjoyed years of success on the field of soccer, but his name will live in infamy for an error. This isn’t fair for Green, and it won’t be fair for the keepers in your organization. Billy Joel advised us all to keep the faith, but that isn’t so easy without others to helps us along the path. That, and a fair-minded leadership team.

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