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6 lessons on team building, from England’s World Cup success

6 lessons on team building, from England’s World Cup success
18th July 2018 handh
Englands world cup success article header

Well boy, did England really pull their football socks up this year.

After decades of defeat for the Three Lions – and their fans for that matter (so much so that the team’s incompetence became an unfortunate running joke) – they emerged from that humiliating history totally and utterly transformed, zipping through almost every World Cup game with unpresented skill and cohesion.

For once, the nation’s footie fanatics were united in triumph. Of course, we ultimately didn’t go on to win – congratulations there are due to France, following a stunning final game against Croatia. But at certain points along the way, it genuinely seemed like football could have been coming home (we had to get it in there just once more…).

So what’s changed?

How leaders can build high-performance teams

In the wake of England’s unprecedented string of successes during this World Cup, plaudits have been paid to manager Gareth Southgate’s unique leadership style, which helped to strengthen the bonds between his players and change their outlook on what they could accomplish.

We’ve had our specialist psychologists and master coaches on the case, examining how he managed to defy all the odds and almost replicate the undying glory of ’66. And what we’ve discovered, is that there’s no single answer. But much of England’s new-found success is rooted in the science of positive psychology, and the principles behind effective leadership and high-performance team work – which can just as easily be applied in the workplace.

Always have a clear WHY

For the England team, this World Cup was about more than just the chance of winning. It was an opportunity for this fresh-faced bunch to distance themselves from the murky reputation of the incarnations before them. To cast off a trailing history of failure and defeat, and create a new future from success (or at least put their best foot forward trying).

Promoting this optimistic, unifying cause – beyond the basic, immediate objective – helped Southgate to steer his team away from the ingrained mindset of inevitable defeat into more optimistic territory of hope and determination. Providing the push England desperately needed towards having belief in their own untapped potential.

When it comes to creating high-performance teams, it’s crucial to engage and inspire them with a compelling organisational purpose beyond just making a profit. Emphasising the positive impact your work will have on the world is key to getting them invested in contributing to the best of their ability.

If you haven’t seen it before, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk on how all the best leaders inspire their people. We’ve shared it plenty of times before, but that’s because it’s simply so bloomin’ brilliant. We’ve left it here for your convenience (we promise that after the first couple of minutes, you’ll be completely hooked):

Encourage team bonding sessions

Even for footballers, work shouldn’t be about all play… no play. For the 2018 World Cup, Southgate ramped up the emphasis on getting the England players to work more effectively together, increasing their cohesion and camaraderie and ultimately improving their performance. This involved encouraging them to share experiences, personal stories, anxieties, and motivations so they could learn more about each other, and understand how they could better cooperate, communicate, and command the pitch as a tough collective force. They also made time for some lighter activities too – including a pool-sport session where the players rode around on inflatable unicorns.
Probably not what you’d expect from a major national football team – but perfect for strengthening personal relationships, and building trust and positivity!

Reframe negatives into positives

Days before taking on Croatia in the heady semi-final, midfielder Dele Alli was asked if he felt nervous about the fast-approaching game. “Not nervous”, he replied, “excited”.

See what he did there?

Reframing negative emotions and thoughts into positives is a great way to change outlooks and boost motivation – of which the England team was in short supply. According to sport performance consultant Andy Barton, something the Lions had consistently dreaded was the penalty. Their history of poor performance had driven them into an unproductive mindset of doubt and anxiety – meaning they had grown accustomed to seeing penalties as a particularly formidable challenge.

Andy suggests that to tackle(!) this unhelpful outlook, Southgate crafted a more positive narrative. Framing the penalty not as an omen of inevitable failure, but as an opportunity for the team to get one over on the opponent – and consistently hammering home this message.

The result? England went on to beat Columbia 4-3 in a top-notch penalty shootout – a well-deserved victory they had never managed before at a World Cup.

There’s an NLP presupposition which states that ‘People have all the resources on the inside they need to be successful’. Altering our mindsets by turning negative thoughts into positive motivations is something we’re all capable of, and it puts us squarely in control of how we respond to what’s happening around us.

Leaders whose teams lack drive or feel intimidated by a particularly daunting challenge can take a leaf out of Southgate’s book, and encourage them into a more optimistic state of mind by putting a positive spin on their experience. Repeating this message in an inspiring way will help them see past the grey clouds, and boost their motivation and capability to see it through.

Articulate goals optimistically, rather than pessimistically

Another great way to achieve goals is to move towards something you do want – rather than away from something you don’t. Consider this example: ‘I want to have a better work/life balance’, vs ‘I don’t want to spend such long hours in the office’. Which is more motivational? We’ll bet a healthy sum you’re thinking of the first one. Just like reframing our thoughts and emotions, putting a positive spin on goals can work wonders for drive and ambition – empowering us with an optimistic mindset that spurs us on to achieve.

As we discussed earlier, the World Cup presented a chance for this fresh bunch of players to distance themselves from the past by, as Southgate put it, ‘writing their own stories’ and creating a new history for themselves.

In this light, their foundational purpose wasn’t built on the team moving away from what had come before – but towards a fundamentally different, better, and brighter future as a high-performing team. In the workplace, a good example would be a change in business strategy, for instance switching from a broader marketing focus to a much more targeted approach.

If you were to communicate this to employees, the message could be something like, ‘building a more sustainable future for the business, by tightening our focus and serving those who need us more efficiently and effectively’. Here, the focus is not moving away from a redundant strategy – but towards a better one, more fit for the future.

Don’t think of failure as failure

Chances are that unless you possess unnatural superhuman abilities (if you do, please get in touch), you’ve almost certainly failed in some way at some point in your life. Failure is something we all have to face up to – whether it’s failing to reach a target, failing a driving test, or failing to win a game of Scrabble.

Is it fundamentally a bad thing? No.

Is it something to be learned from? Absolutely.

After all, when was the phrase “I can’t” ever grounds for motivation or ambition to overcome the obstacles that bested us in the first place? Worse still, if we repeat self-doubts to ourselves consistently over time, they grow increasingly harder to escape from.

Instead, look at failure as an opportunity to learn, progress, and do things differently. When we see failure not as a negative but as a positive, we’re more likely to adopt a growth mindset, and question how we can do better and achieve more.

Southgate himself has spoken about his own experiences of failure, suggesting that it’s significantly informed his leadership style, and how he approaches his team’s errors and mistakes. He doesn’t chastise them, or dress them down. Instead, he focuses on the positives – what they’ve accomplished or contributed to the team’s performance, interspersed with reasoned, supportive advice on how they can positively improve.

Respect individuality

Another thing that sets Southgate’s leadership apart is the relationship he has with all of his players. He respects each and every one of them as individuals, getting to know them on a more personal level and working to better understand their unique characteristics and qualities.

This is something that leaders and managers in the workplace should practice by default. Recognising the different ways people behave and interact is crucial to building cohesive high-performance teams – as well as making it easier to inspire and engage.

Here at H&H, we use PRINT – a unique profiling tool which identifies people’s ‘below the surface’ Unconscious Motivators – to understand how we can all work together as effectively and efficiently as possible.

With unique insights into what drives our own and our colleagues’ behaviour, each of us understands how we can tailor and adapt our actions to work productively and avoid triggering anyone into unhelpful Shadow behaviour.

And it works – our team have scooped up over 15 awards for various internal comms campaigns we’ve delivered together for our clients!

At the end of the day, while football may not have come home this year, the England squad certainly made it their own. And understanding these principles of psychology and effective leadership will help you take a leaf out of Southgate’s book, and build high-performance teams of your own. Even if there isn’t necessarily a big trophy waiting on the other side.