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France's World Cup defeat offers lessons on teamwork

The stunning defeat of France in the World Cup,  thanks to infighting and insubordination among team members, offers some lessons for average working stiffs and their bosses.
Raymond Domenech, coach of France's World Cup soccer team, prepares to meet with journalists June 20 after his players refused to practice following striker Nicolas Anelka's expulsion from the team. Anelka was sent home after verbally abusing Domenech.FRANCK FIFE / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: contributor

One of the greatest upsets of the World Cup has been the stunning defeat of the French soccer team. But the clobbering of a favored team thanks to infighting and insubordination offers some lessons for average working stiffs and their bosses.

The French team had some of the best players in global soccer, was given widespread support by their countrymen and women, and was headed by a competent group of managers. But the organization fell apart in a spectacular fashion, which brought national disgrace to France, even prompting a government inquiry into the loss.

Players weren’t happy with the team’s leadership under Coach Raymond Domenech, so they refused to do their jobs. Team managers didn’t listen to the players, hurled insults, and lost control, and still another resigned. And now everyone is pointing fingers at each other.

It’s sounds like a typical day at any dysfunctional organization.

A lack of trust, respect and communication can doom any company — or any team — no matter how talented its players or employees or managers are, said David Nour, a consultant and author of “Relationship Economics” and “ConnectAbility”, who has also played and coached soccer.

“Soccer is a culmination of individual skills, but success comes from the cohesiveness of the team, the chemistry of the team,” he said. “In an office, if you don’t trust the people you work with, respect them, how can you have that chemistry?”

Sometimes it is just all about “testosterone and a lack of maturity,” added Maury Peiperl, a professor of Leadership and Strategic Change at International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. “It’s when people want to have power over other people for sake of power, or people don’t trust other people because of their own past experiences. In my experience, it’s more often the men than women that screw this up.”

In the case of the French team, Nour pointed out, a lack of leadership played a key role in the team’s demise. “The coach completely lost control,” he said. “He had the responsibility to take the French team to the World Cup but not the authority, personally or structurally.”

Different leadership styles
It’s also hard to know exactly what style of leadership works for every individual, team, group, or organization, said Robert Bontempo, adjunct associate professor of management at Columbia Business School.

He referred to the management style of former NFL coach Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants and is currently an executive with the Miami Dolphins.

“Bill Parcells had the bigger a**hole theory of leadership,” he said. “His style is, ‘I’m an a**hole and you are going to unite in your hatred of me.’ He has more than one Super Bowl to show for it.”

In contrast, he added, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers builds a sense of community.

“They both have the same situation — prima donna, highly paid, talented players,” he said, but both use very different management styles to get results.

When there is a breakdown in an organization, Nour said, it’s not as simple as saying the boss screwed up.

In the case of the U.S. soccer team, even though they lost to Ghana, they did better than most expected, tying the favored England team early on in the World Cup. The U.S. team didn't implode as France's team did.

The employees’ own egos can get into the mix, as they did with the French team, and other great European soccer teams such as Italy that were favored to win but went down in flames.

Without strong leadership in place, he said, “players and employees are going to act like individuals, spoiled brat individuals.”

Especially during tough economic times.

“When the economy is not doing well, a company’s numbers are not looking good, people start thinking ‘I need to be protecting my job,’” said Lynne Sarikas, MBA Career Center Director for Northeastern University. “Nothing breeds success like success, but when the going gets tough, that’s when things sometimes break down and people start to think more of themselves.”

Unfortunately, she added, if you’re not being a team player right now in the work world, you could be in trouble. “We’ve asked employers what’s important to them from a job candidate, the qualities and skills they want to see in students to make them successful. Teamwork was at the top of their list. That’s how the work gets done.”

Developing a team mentality
Nour used the movie “Remember the Titans” as a prime example of how to get things done as a team.

The movie was based on a true story about a white Virginia high school football team being desegregated in the early 1970s and getting their first black coach. In an environment of race-relations turmoil, the coach was able to bring together the white and black team members, and many in the community, and win the state championship.

In the film, one of the top players on the team, Julius Campbell, makes a statement that French soccer players may not understand but is key to team mentality:

“I ain't saying that I'm perfect, 'cause I'm not. And I ain't gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect.”

That said, sometimes the lone-wolf mentality at work is the best approach.

While sports are typically all about team spirit, not all jobs, projects or organizations benefit from the team-is-king mentality.

Columbia’s Bontempo cautioned not to get brainwashed by the “teamwork-is-always-a-good-thing” mantra. “You may want to say, ‘Teamwork always outperforms aggressive individualistic behavior.’ It doesn’t,” he said.

Indeed, sometimes organizations use teams when it’s not necessary, added Mark Clark, an expert on managing teams in the workplace at American University's Kogod School of Business.

“An organization will think, ‘Our competitors all use teams, so let’s throw a team at the problem’ but that’s also a way for managers to shirk their duty,” he said.

‘True leadership is influence’
One big issue is not having enough guys on the bench, and only playing your best players or employees, Clark said.

“We think about playing our best guys, but team sports are about match-ups. Sometimes someone might match up better than the team you’re playing,” he said. “When you’re looking to solve a problem, it’s not just the talent you have but how the talent is configured.”

Employees themselves can play a role in this, Clark added.

“Everyone on a team has the capability of influencing others,” he said. “Authority is given to you from the organization, but true leadership is influence.” And you gain that, he added, by becoming the person everyone comes to for your expertise, or because everyone likes you, or you’re networking with people in your group or organization.

Workers also sabotage themselves, added Bontempo, because they fail to read the subtle cues of an organization’s culture. “Every organization has a set of unwritten rules on how to thrive in this environment,” he said.

Clearly, there were a lot of individuals on the French soccer team, but the members had little time to really congeal as a group, said Todd Anckaitis, head women's soccer coach at Swarthmore College.

“With the way many of these World Cup teams are developed, not enough time is spent on the forming stages of the group because most of the teams don't name their rosters until a few weeks before the World Cup starts,” he said. Teams formed so quickly, he added, will have trouble overcoming difficult situations they face on and off the field.

As for his own players, he added, “I tell my teams there is a paradox for selfish or self-centered people who are members of a team. The less selfish they can act and the more they can behave with the group in mind, the more likely the team is to have success. The more likely the team has success, the more likely they will individually benefit or be recognized.”