Between the posts and a hard Place {2nd edition pre-edit version}

This item represents one of the reasons it took a year to produce the 2nd edition of my book. I was really keen to add a new chapter but as you can see, the concepts here, although already boiled down, could almost have constituted the basis for a whole new book on their own. Too much.

What appears below does not flow satisfactorily but considering this is a blog and not a book, I feel its many imperfections can be excused. I like some of the ideas, even the ones I have rejected from the final edit, so here they stand – ready to be referred for when I need them:



The team consists of ten players all running, kicking and heading. The eleventh player is the goal keeper, he stands detached and alone waiting for circumstances to bring him into play.

The ‘going it alone’ position is gaining appeal as an antidote to working in teams. How can we make it work?

We inhabit a confused and worried world. Many of the high-hanging fruits such as self-improvement and work place motivation are being greeted – despite having been championed by writers like me – with a pinch of cynicism and an exasperated roll of the eyes. People have been personally developed, improved and promoted all ultimately to be made redundant. So ‘what’ they may ask, ‘is the point’?

There has been a shift in attitude. Ten or so years ago, people were more accepting of the hands-off leadership style that nudged them into finding their own answers. Today, I detect people are less patient and are demanding immediate solutions. There is less inclination to cogitate on a problem, instead they require a quick reply or a direct order to enable them to get it done and to move on.
Cynicism is the last refuge of the optimist.

(With deference to George Bernard Shaw; ‘The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.’)

The recession’s arrival and prolonged sojourn has brought about an enhanced negativity to the human experience and has created, in many quarters, an air of distrust and exasperation. Aspirations have been crushed and replaced by large doses of reality. People have witnessed their counterparts in the larger private and public organisations being caught cheating and yet seemingly getting away with it. Things are not fair.

Entrepreneurs, SME’s and employees have lost their jobs while faceless officials and out-of-touch/untouchable ‘fat-cats’ seem to have colluded and created cartels for their own advantage. Elections occur. Some vote, others abstain, yet nothing seems to change. The public is disenfranchised because although the gravy train still rolls, the doors have been shut in its face. People are bitter and battle worn and feel ineffective and ignored.

This sense of powerlessness is reflected when it comes to top-level football too. When I first began researching for this book some eight years ago, there was a handful of wealthy clubs. These included the two usual suspects from Spain (although Barcelona see themselves more as Catalan than Spanish) who were allowed to raise money through government (local and national) handouts. There were the two great and successful teams from the North West of England, one from Bavaria and the three big northern Italian clubs. In 2003 Chelsea was taken over by a Russian billionaire in a move that influenced seismic changes. The English Premiership was already a year old and but in the ensuing years soccer went from being a big sport to a massive global franchise. Since this time a plethora of financial windfalls have dumped on the leagues of England, Russia, Arabia, China and France and more teams are emerging on foundations of freshly laundered lucre instead of historic on-the-field achievement.

Top-level players are frequently caught behaving arrogantly, profligately and hedonistically while some of their peers seek therapy for gambling and substance abuse. Two high profile footballers have taken their own lives in the recent past. Although these details demonstrate that players still have human frailties – many of their actions and habits are markedly distant from those of regular working people who could once identify with footballers but cannot any longer.

The challenge now for the man and woman in the street is how to maintain belief and confidence in their world when that very world seems to have turned against them and the people’s game is no longer the game of the people.

It seems that the last remaining constant for people to believe in is themselves and instead or relying on team mates and co-operators they prefer to go it alone. I have recently heard a lot of opinions similar to this one by Leonardo da Vinci

“Artist, your strength lies in your solitude. If you are alone you fully belong to yourself. If you are with someone else, even one other person, you only half belong to yourself, or maybe even less, it depends on how thoughtless they are. If you have even more of an entourage, you’ll stumble even more heavily into the thorny thicket.”
“Artista, la tua forza e nella solitudine. Se sei solo appartieni interamente a te stesso.Se sei con qualcuno, anche solo con un compagno, appartieni a te stesso solo a metà, o anche meno, in proporzione alla spensieratezza della condotta di quest’ultimo. Se hai più di un compagno cadrai ancora più profondamente nello stesso ginepraio.”

(Mereskovskij Dimitri, Leonardo Da Vinci La Vita del piu grande genio di tutti I tempi. Giunto Editore Firenze Milano 2005)

Having spent years training work place collaboration and team work, I now find people ask me to help them develop their self-sufficiency and independence. There is a growing feeling among some department heads and other professionals that teams procrastinate and are vulnerable to the ever unwinding roll of red tape. Likewise there is a sense that onerous rules and regulations can be avoided by ducking under the radar when working in small and individual units.

There is also evidence that people crave independence so that if there are further redundancies, as self-sufficient multi-taskers, they will have a better chance of surviving than their peers.

So, although it goes somewhat against my pro co-operation grain, if somebody wants to build confidence to function more as an individual it’s not my prerogative to tell them their attitude is wrong, I do it. I do it because ultimately the skills of being a one-man band or a cog in the big wheel are similar. The difference is purely in how they are applied. So long as I can help them, they will use their improved confidence as they wish.

The subject of confidence is complex and we can tackle it in a practical manner by looking at the main obstacles and fears that stand in our way.

Fear One: The Fear of Humiliation

Humans fear many diverse things; unemployment, lack of money, the dark and unfulfilled relationships to name just four. The fear of humiliation however, is not immediately thought of but is nevertheless potent. Football throws up some good examples of it.

Most football fans are used to suffering – it’s the default position for the vast majority. Not winning trophies is normal and therefore by and large, forgivable so long as the players are seen to be trying and to appear to care.

Let’s illustrate with three facts about goalkeepers.

FACT 1: If a goalkeeper facing a penalty kick opts to stay in the centre of the goal instead of diving either side he’ll have a better chance of saving the ball.

This has been mathematically proven and is supported by academic research.#1

This revelation depends on the fact that most goalkeepers are about two metres tall. Given that the human arm span is approximately the same as our height, by staying still, a ‘keeper’s reach would cover more of the sweet spot of the goal than if he were to dive to either side.

FACT 2: Many goalkeepers are aware of this fact.
FACT 3: Most goalkeepers dive when a penalty kick is taken.

The contradiction between facts two and three is that the ‘keeper has innate needs. The first is the need to move when under threat. It’s a manifestation of the fight or flight syndrome. The ball will soon be hurtling towards him at eighty miles per hour. He is compromised because on one hand his animal instinct is to avoid the potential pain of being smacked by the ball and on the other his professional instinct is to halt the ball’s progress. By moving he is fighting and fleeing simultaneously as well as he can within the rules of the game.

As mentioned above, there is also the need to be seen trying to save the ball. It shows he cares and is putting in effort. Even if he tries and fails he will get support and forgiveness from his team mates and the fans. Contrarily, if he were to remain still and save the ball he would be seen as a hero albeit a fortunate and possibly lazy one too.

Is it possible that the ‘fat-cat’ bankers accused of meddling with interest rates (among other sins), economic journalists that spread bad news that lowers market confidence do what they do not for personal gain but because they want to be seen trying to help the economy at large? Do they behave as they do because like an ill-fated goal keeper, they feel compelled to move?

I am not an apologist for the latest slew of shoddy financiers, but if we suspend our disbelief, it is conceivable that some of these people actually want do a good job and if they can’t, they wish to be seen trying.

The fear of embarrassment, blunder and blame is powerful. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you fear something will go wrong – it probably will. Whether we consider something to be jinxed or ill-fated, these negative thoughts have a habit of building on each other.

It has been said that “If you believe you cannot do it, you probably cannot do it. If you believe you can do it, you may still have a chance”.

Whereas a negative prediction is quite easy to create (humans believe in our capacity for self-sabotage), the flip side, the one relating to positive belief needs considerably more nurturing and back up.

Human nature errs towards circumspection and belief in fate. We are more likely to be so called realists than optimists. This caution makes it harder for us to sincerely predict a positive outcome although we know that if we could predict positively and with sincerity, we would improve our chances.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that influences itself to become reality. It is also know as the Pygmalion Effect because of this ancient tale:

Pygmalion was a sculptor from Paphos, Greece. In a time where people chose their gods from any number of glamorous options, he was a dedicated worshipper of Aphrodite (later Venus to the Romans). No ugly gorgon, no father-like white bearded stick waiver for Pygmalion, but a stunningly youthful goddess whose portfolio included love, beauty and procreation. As a counter balance to his deep religious beliefs however, he had a few issues with the real life women of his city. In short, they just weren’t good enough for him. Whether he was a prude who disliked the local girls because they lacked virtue, or an aesthete who viewed them as just too plain we cannot tell. What we do need to know however, is that Pygmalion opted to hone the ultimate woman out of stone and as a true believer, he shaped her in his vision of Aphrodite.

Flattered by his attention and dedication, the ever modest Aphrodite breathed life into her doppelgänger statue. Pygmalion gladly took his embrace further than previously thought healthy with a lump of rock, and as two humans, they fell mutually in love and lived happily ever after. This legend, which shows how you can create something out of nothing if you believe in it, has been repeated many times over the years in many guises.

When it comes to building confidence the Pygmalion Effect can be a powerful tool. Here are the other key blocks and fears to establishing self confidence with some Pygmalion Effect solutions.
1. Lack of technical skill (or practice)
Always the first concern is ‘can I do this’? I recently worked with a student who wanted, after a six year gap, to take up Karate again. She had been a purple belt and was concerned as to how many levels she had dropped since giving up the sport.

Considering the importance of technique in Karate, her level really had to be measured so that she and her teacher knew exactly what had to be aimed for. A fact finding mission ensued.

Exams and tests create stress so if we can take an objective position by emphasising the benchmarking over and above the results there is a better chance of getting an accurate ‘reading’. At this stage we are measuring levels and not necessarily building confidence. That having been said, if the student demonstrates promise and performs moves she thought she had forgotten it is an opportunity for the teacher to show optimism and belief which will transfer positively to the student. Conversely, if the student performs at or below the expected level, the teacher can resort to the role of being at this stage merely a fact-finder.

2. It went wrong before
We have all experienced failure of some sort. It generates a sense of letting yourself down and of being rejected. Unless you really don’t care the memory is unpleasant and in some cases so extreme that people will not risk being in a position of potentially failing again. This may also mean they avoid the chance of succeeding too. Clearly, if you are providing support to a person displaying this kind of vulnerability, you need to be careful. They are already loaded with negative feelings and a repeat of failure will be unhelpful. Using unsubstantiated positive language can come across as phoney and you cannot easily draw upon any past positives because there may not be any.

A better approach is to break down the process that went wrong and to find the moment that caused failure. A senior nurse described the moment when she was observing a trainee apply a pulse oximeter for the first time to a patient’s finger. Somehow the apparatus snapped shut and momentarily hurt the patient. The young nurse was deeply troubled by what she felt was her own clumsiness and it took some time for her to be convinced that she would get it right the next time. The trainer concentrated on the one ‘freak’ moment in an otherwise flawless process and calmly convinced the nurse that having singled it out and dealt with it, it was not likely to happen again and that she maintained full faith in her ability to measure pulses.
3. Personality hardwire

As a manager or leader or parent you will know there are certain times when your powers of instilling belief reach their limits.
Everyone lacks confidence sometimes. It can be during certain activities such as public speaking, catching spiders or walking into a crowded room. In other cases it can be more extreme – perhaps almost pathological. You need to establish, and this comes with experience, if a lack of confidence is a personality trait that cannot be shifted or if it is connected to past events and hopefully more negotiable.

4. “Nobody believes in me”
Is a phrase I don’t like to hear, but often do. It is a sign of low self-esteem and it really means the opposite of what he’s saying, that the person does not believe in himself.

In chapter four; I score therefore I am, I discussed the need of some footballers to receive validation from their team mates and the fans. Saving goals certainly achieves this for the goal keeper. When he saves a certain goal his self belief blossoms and the supporters give their support too.

When trying to help somebody find self-confidence it is useful to guide them to find examples from other areas of life where people trust and depend on them. Although their work-context confidence may be low they may have parents, offspring or friends who rely on them for something. Once you have helped them establish these other contexts they are more likely to see they have responsible roles and are depended upon by others.
5. Fear of Failing
It’s quite normal to avoid embarking on something because you are scared about not making it. Failure strikes deep because it reminds us of the reaction we got when we first erred as a small child – probably when taking our first steps and we fell over and immediately felt we had disappointed our supportive and doting parent.

Fear of failure encompasses rejection too. I remember meeting a writer who after years of publishers’ rejection letters opted to publish his own book. When I asked him why incur the expense, he replied “It had to be done, after all, how much rejection can one take?”

In addition to the fear of letting people down and being rejected, the sense of failure also connects back to the fear of being embarrassment and humiliation.

6. Fear of Succeeding.

Fear of success is probably the least obvious barrier to confidence. I suppose it’s really a fear of consequences as outlined in chapter seven (TOP TEAM ‘Effects’) because what we are looking at are the secondary and tertiary outcomes of success. Success inevitably means change, something that we are often uncomfortable with. It can be explicit like having to relocate or working with new people. It can also reflect deeper feelings such as guilt e.g. for spending more time at work and less with the family.

Fear of success is also a fear of the unknown ‘I’ve finally achieved it, what happens now”?

The future is largely a mystery. A viable way to help build someone’s confidence is to demonstrate that by having got this far, you believe they are likely to prosper. It takes practice to do this without sounding patronising and corny. You need to learn from them about their journey so far and not make assumptions or guesses.

Whether your charge decides to go it alone or team-up with others, they will still need to develop the skills of communication, negotiation and learn how to seize opportunities. Despite the current appeal in going solo, no man is an island. Despite the metaphysically poetic appeal in being a type of aloof and isolated goalkeeper, the capacity to motivate, react to threats and organise remains vital.

Whether one is in a team of one, eleven or countless hundreds.

Do soccer players play the mixed-strategy Nash
equilibrium? Ofer H. Azar & Michael Bar-Eli Department of Business Administration, Guilford Glazer School of Business and Management, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, PO Box 653, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel


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