One of the greatest failings in leadership, organizational health, and interpersonal relationships is the inability of people to have hard but necessary conversations. It is difficult between individuals, but when this capacity is lacking in organizations or nations, it is a cancer affecting culture and capability. Fortunately, the skills can be learned, and the mechanisms put in place. I learned this while coaching rugby, and have seen the same techniques work to improve organizational health worldwide.
As Chairman of Selectors and Assistant Coach of the Developmental Rugby Team for the Eastern U.S., our team of selectors would evaluate hundreds of emerging players each year and rank them at least 10 deep. Eventually we would narrow the field to the 30 who would make the squad that year.
Our purpose was to 1) find ‘em, 2) grow ‘em, and 3) give them the exposure to advance to the senior territorial team, and then the national team.
Needless to say, there were more who didn’t make the squad than those who did. In those instances we tried to send them home having a good experience, feeling positive about bringing the learning back to their clubs to improve at the grass roots, and to encourage other emerging players to give it their shot.
The toughest part was to personally tell a lot of players they simply didn’t make the team. Most were grateful for the immediate individual feedback (vs. an impersonal letter or group announcement). All were disappointed. Some were upset and acted out.
There were a few lessons in this. The first was that as long as 95% of the people were going to be unhappy with your decision, you might as well have the best team on the field. The second was that we had a job to do; which was 1) to be fair and objective, 2) to communicate honestly (about the decision), and 3) to give guidance as to what they might do to improve, or contribute to the sport going forward.
Our role was not to put up with childish behavior from someone who was bitter. In those instances the standard remark was, “I know you are angry, but the decision you now face is this: Are you going to get pissed off and improve, or are you going to get pissed off and quit?” The second part of the message (for those behaving badly) was that our job as coaches and selectors did not involve being abused. When they could discuss it like an adult we'd be happy to have the conversation.
It was a rare player who didn’t appreciate the candor. Our formal mechanisms, and our culture of honest communication enabled us to win national championships two out of three years. It raised coaches and captains at the club level by inspiring a new found worth. It challenged many a player to do what was necessary after not making the squad, to return the following year to win their spot, and from there advance to represent their country at the national level.
(In the spirit of this post, the photo above is a tribute to Nelson Mandela and Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar for leading the “Boks” to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995, uniting a country on the brink of civil war and inspiring the movie “Invictus.”)