First Impressions, Job Hunting and José

The start of a new year is often a time when we identify new challenges and projects and set our resolutions1.  New challenges and new projects often mean meeting new people and I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Independent about what Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy proposed to be the two criteria on which people judge you during an initial meeting.

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

In her book Presence Amy Cuddy proposes that the second factor, our competence, is given undue prominence, particularly in a professional context such as work. We overemphasise the need to show we are competent and can do the job. However, the first factor, our warmth, is according to Amy Cuddy the most important factor in how people evaluate others. As she said in the interview in the Independent “From an evolutionary perspective it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.”

This got me thinking about one person who is looking to take on a new challenge – and if the media are to be believed at Manchester United. José Mourinho is the special one. The most successful manager of his generation. As close to a guarantee of silverware as you can get in the uncertain world of professional football. He is also a special one because he is fascinating. Charismatic, volatile, talented and fascinating. And his current situation is very fascinating. Nobody seems to want to employ him. His desire to manage Manchester United looks like being unrequited. It may of course happen, as professional football is a weird and wonderful world, but perhaps we need to look no further than Amy Cuddy’s work to understand why even an underachieving club like Manchester United has, outwardly, cold feet about appointing the most successful manager of his generation.

There is no questioning José Mourinho’s competence. Nobody better. But perhaps some of the bigger clubs doubt his warmth – whether they can trust him in the same way as they could other managers. The well-publicised incident with the Chelsea Doctor Eva Carneiro at the start of this season illustrates this. And individuals with different personal qualities, such as Carlo Ancelotti, seem now to be more highly valued by the biggest clubs.

I am of course speculating on Jose Mournio’s situation. But the central tenet of Amy Cuddy’s work echos much of what I have observed working in sport and meeting high profile leaders. Personal qualities matter. An approach recognised and manifested in the New Zealand rugby teams mantra which emphasised personal qualities. So if you are embarking on new challenges and meeting new people remember it is not just what you have done, but how much warmth you have and whether people feel they can trust you that matters.

Footnote1 One of my resolutions was to write more blogs. That it is February will tell you all you need to know about how this is going for me. So I am telling people about this resolution as a stimulus to maintain it – because that should help.

 

Pressure Good, Stress Bad

In his book Winners and How They Succeed Alastair Campbell has a section on ‘Pressure Good, Stress Bad’. In it he outlines how successful performers in whatever sphere use pressure as a force for good – a stimulus to success. One of the examples used to illustrate this was England Forward Gary Lineker who took a crucial penalty in the 1990 Football World Cup quarter-final to square the game and told himself “I am now in a position millions of mere mortals would love to be in, so I am not going to be scared, I am going to enjoy it. I can make a mark here.”

You can see the penalty, and the one he took in extra time to win the game, here:

Of course not everyone will respond in such a positive manner to the demands placed upon them. Some will, like Lineker, see the positive in even the most demanding situation. Others will not necessarily see the positives, but nor will they be cowed, and will still be able to cope and perform to, or close to, their potential.

Understanding why it is that some people respond positively, and some do not, is a fascinating topic. In our research we use the terms challenge (pressure) or threat (stress) to distinguish between those who respond positively to these clutch situations.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. And how we respond physically, the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response, has been consistently linked to how we then perform. In a sense our body’s response when we are placed in those crucial situations indicates if we are going to succeed or not.

In a situation where it is important for us to do well an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. If a person has a threat response there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the situation.

In our research CV changes have consistently predicted performance with those showing an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013).

We think the factors that underpin the challenge response are confidence, control and an approach focus – that is a focus on what can be achieved not what might go wrong. Interestingly, in our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to demanding situations by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). As a leader, colleague or team-mate whether it is in business, sport, or politics emphasising the qualities a person has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help in, Alastair’s words, feel under pressure and not stress.

What I also find really interesting is not just how people can get into a challenge state but whether that means that state really helps them maintain performance under pressure – or exceed their normal level. I am not sure if there is any conclusive data on this – but my feeling is the best performers under pressure maintain performance levels rather than exceed them. So with a tweak (complete re-write!) of the famous Navy Seal related quote “you don’t rise to the occasion, you perform to your ability”.

Alastair Campbell did a the first residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.

The Tactics to Succeed at Football

The management carousel is well underway in the Premier League this season with the sacking of Brendan Rogers, followed by Tim Sherwood, and may at the time of writing, improbably, soon claim the mightily successful José Mourinho. Leadership at professional football clubs is a curious thing. At its heart is the paradox that the manager is the single biggest factor in success, but rarely is the manager given a substantial length of time to demonstrate their worth. The opportunity to fail in the pursuit of success is not often tolerated and because of this stability, while highly valued, is rare. Currently, in the Premier League only five managers (Arsène Wenger, Eddie Howe José Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Martínez) have been with their team for more than two years. While 10 of the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year.

This short term approach in football is thrown into focus as I have started reading Winners and How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell and in his opening chapter he talks about how an approach to winning is encapsulated in three letters; OST.

  • O – Objective
  • S – Strategy
  • T – Tactics

To illustrate this in a football context Alastair used the example of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, with an objective of win everything, a strategy of play better football than anyone else and the tactics to achieve this included the five-second rule where players pressed to regain possession in tight areas within 5-seconds of losing it and when in possession they would try to create a ‘free-man’ in the area where a passage of play might start.

There were countless other examples of this OST approach from other sports, business and politics. But what really interested me is how many of the examples were long term and took years to enact. Whether it is the strategy devised in 1994 to help Labour win power in 1997 through to other sports where change has been a process measured in years as evidenced in the work of Sir David Brailsford through to Sir Clive Woodward. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson is a counter example from football but it is difficult to imagine a manager at a top club being given that length of time before success in the modern era.

So time to succeed simply does not exist for managers in football. Of course managerial changes are to a degree an inevitability, but this short time in situ for managers has two immediate consequences for clubs and football more widely. First, the development of players is less of a priority than the purchase of players equipped to perform to Premier League standards immediately. Both Brendan Rogers and more recently Tim Sherwood have been more heavily criticised for perceived failings in the transfer market than their ability to develop young players – at which both actually seem pretty skilled. Second, the importance of a successful transfer policy is evident in that many clubs now seem to operate a transfer committee, where the purchase of players is decided by a group of individuals. Whether the manager does, or does not, have the final say differs depending on which press report you read. But this seems a classic fudge. The manger bears all the responsibility, but does not necessarily have all the power.

In an interesting article Alex Keble, writing in the Independent queried whether the sacking of Tim Sherwood was a victory for business over entertainment. It is a triumph for business in that it is financially important for Aston Villa to remain in the Premier League. But it is not very ‘business like’ in that Tim Sherwood was sacked ten games into a new season where he was presumably trying to enact a longer term approach for the club after a successful spell towards the end of last season. He presided over the sale of his two best players and the purchase of younger, talented, but unproven players. If he is the wrong person now, he was the wrong appointment eight months ago. Both his strengths and weaknesses as a manager were readily apparent at his appointment and little has changed since then. It is this type of muddled thinking that makes sustainable long term success unobtainable for so many clubs.

Of course there are clubs that are an exception, Swansea, Stoke City, and Southampton have all successfully ascended to the Premier league and flourished there. But as an outsider viewing many of the clubs in the Premier League it seems as though immediate improvement is the sole objective, the strategy is to change the manager when things are not going well and hope for a boost from the honeymoon period and the tactics vary accordingly. That half the managers in the Premier League have been with their team for less than a year is illustrative. A longer term strategy based on OST would help many clubs. The tactics to succeed at football really depend on the wider strategy and clear objective.

Alastair Campbell will be undertaking a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th-18th November and will be giving a Public Lecture on the 16th November.

 

Why Life is Easier for Louis van Gaal at Man Utd

As Manchester United prepare to take on Manchester City this weekend it highlights for me one of the most interesting things about this football season from a psychological perspective (even accounting for Mario Balotelli). That is the way in which Louis van Gaal has been treated by the media and the general positive feeling that is coming from Manchester United. In particular the contrast with 12 months ago and how quickly David Moyes came under fire from the supporters, the media, and if rumours are to be believed some of his own players.

There are of course lies, damn lies and statistics. However, at this stage of the season Louis Van Gaal’s record is worse.

So despite having a much easier start to the season, and spending £150 million, there is no improvement in terms of points gained. Yet Louis Van Gaal is not criticised. With games against the top teams to come it is feasible for Manchester United’s performance to get (relative to last season) worse again.

Why the different treatment of the respective managers? There are many reasons, but for me one that stands out is that the fans, the media, and crucially the players appear to have confidence in Louis van Gaal.

That the confidence we have in our leaders influences our behaviour has been illustrated in a series of studies in exercise settings. For example, exercise participants reported greater personal confidence and attended classes more often when they had confidence in the class instructor’s ability to teach, motivate and communicate.

As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura outlined, having confidence in others is thought to be particularly important in situations where (a) the person (i.e. player) does not have the means to achieve a desired success on their own (b) if this person (i.e. manager) will help achieve success better, easier or faster, (c) the person (i.e. player) does not want direct control or responsibility over the possible outcomes. Certainly (a) and (b) apply from a footballer’s perspective as ultimately success in a team game depends on others and arguably (c) applies with some footballers as well.

This confidence in others is what psychologists call proxy-efficacy. Just like our own personal confidence (self-efficacy) we can derive confidence in others from a number of sources. Primarily, and not surprisingly, previous success is the biggest source of confidence. Whatever Louis van Gaal asks for of his players it comes from a person who has won league titles in a number of countries and the Champions League. There is confidence in the messenger, and so the message. And as such it is easier for Louis van Gaal to get buy-in for his methods. Confidence does not solely come from previous success but can also come from many other sources as well, for example other footballers who have worked with Louis van Gaal, testifying what a good manager he is, or Louis van Gaal interacting in clear, knowledgeable, ways with the players that in turn instils confidence in them.

Looking from the outside in it seems that proxy-efficacy is one reason why with similar records (and much more money spent) Louis van Gaal is seen as being at the start of an exciting journey of rebuilding, whereas David Moyes was seen as failing. It is because of this that Louis van Gaal, will be given more time to succeed. It is because of this he is more likely to succeed. Success, and crucially the opportunity to succeed, is in sport, as in life, in the eye of the beholder.