What rugby has taught me about organisational culture

The rugby championship the ‘6 Nations’ is well and truly in swing in Western Europe. For those who don’t know, it sees the British Isle nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, pitted against each other, along with the inconsistent French and plucky Italians. As you can imagine there are a host of “unfriendly rivalries”; but when all is said and done, there is a handshake and a beer in the clubhouse afterwards. Or at least that’s how rugby is sold to the non-football-loving public.

Rugby is a passion of mine and at the tender age of 29, I’m still fortunate enough to play for a local team. At University I also captained an inter-departmental side, Architecture, after being recruited in the pub by the then captain. I’ve seen and tried many leadership approaches in that time, all with mixed success. However, what I’m really interested in, is how I’ve observed culture develop amongst a group of individuals, to create teams. Teams that have to stick together through good times and bad, and who have to put themselves in harm’s way with the goal of putting an egg shaped ball, on the ground, in a rectangle at the end of the 157 yard pitch.

The teams I’ve played for, haven’t all been high performing by any stretch. The Architecture team spluttered along under my captaincy. If I have an excuse, it’s that the official league was closed down the same year as my promotion. We kept it going, but had to organise the whole thing ourselves.

Nearly ten years later, I attended an ‘old boys’ game where former players in the twilight of their rugby playing careers, played the existing Architecture team. A decade later the team is still there in Cardiff, drinking at the same pub, and many of the traditions we established are still alive and well. There were plenty of team casualties along the way, most when the league was closed. Our team survived through strength of culture, determination and pride.

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SAWSA Rugby ‘Old Boys’

So here are the ingredients, as I see it, to a highly cohesive team, a prerequisite to a high performing one.

  1. Establish outgroups

“We are not like them”, is as important as “we are…”, when building group identity. Our designated enemies were the Business department (CARBS); mainly because they could field 3 teams, and we could only scrape together a starting 15 players. There wasn’t any real animosity towards individuals but the collective aversion to the Business team was woven into our team culture.

Practical:

Identify your rivals and tell stories about them. If you are fighting for anything, you are fighting so the “others” don’t win. This also stops out-groups being identified internally.

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“That duck is not like us!”

2. Create rituals

There are words, phrases and behaviours we codified throughout my time playing for Architecture. One example is the infamous initiation which regularly graces the back pages of national newspapers. There are certainly groups that go too far, but it’s important to understand how cohesive these activities are. The fact that all the players go through the same humiliation, shows their commitment to the team and their loyalty to the group. This is especially useful in a game where you might have to throw your body at the legs of someone who is twice your height and double your weight.

Practical:

What are the rituals and habits in your team? It could be as simple as going to a particular place when a new person joins, just make it consistent and make it fun.

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“We’ve all done it!”

3. Collective action

Rugby obviously has team events in the form of matches, but there were other activities. Singing is another example which was an integral part of the team, if annoying for everyone else. The captain’s initiation required the lucky individual to write a team song which incorporated team references to the tune of a popular anthem. The most long lasting was the first and greatest by James Smith, ‘Hi Ho SAWSA rugby’ to the tune of “Hi Ho Silver Lining“. I still remember the words.

“Down the George on every Wednesday, that’s where it’s at. With a frisbee and a ring of fire, Paddy is a t**t. The 2 stars mean we won the double, we’re going to do it again. CARBS are a bunch of wankers, the only question is when!

And it’s Hi Ho SAWSA rugby, to the Duck we go, now baby. I see that Andy’s whining. The birds we pull are rough, but it’s obvious”. Etc.

Practical:

If you don’t work together directly on a regular basis, find a suitable group activity for the team. The more embarrassing and challenging the better. In order to create team cohesion, there need to be stories that can be remembered, reshared and laughed about later.

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This is the freshman initiation. “SAWSA boys know”.

4. Maintain physical artefacts of mystery

Just as religion has its relics, so we had our objects of reverence. One example is the ‘SAWSA flag’, we took this abroad on our first rugby tour and scrawled our marks and slogans all over it. I don’t know who has it now, but it always seems to reappear at reunions. There’s also an element of education needed here, as the narrative of why something is important needs to be passed down to new team members.

Practical:

Keep souvenirs from your team adventures. The ruder the better. If a new member joins the team, explain in a revering tone, what the value of the object is to the team and what it means.

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Thumbs up

5. Use humiliation for good

There are definitely things I regret doing captaining a rugby team. Fortunately no one but myself and/or my team mates suffered as a result. These failings of ability or character are added to the pile of reasons why you should stay together. Unfortunately to get to the level of stupidity we achieved usually requires a social lubricant. However, putting people in challenging situations, completely out of their comfort zone can also work. Once you have established a level of trust and fairness amongst team members, it takes less coercion to get them involved.

Practical:

Stupidity and silliness are to be encouraged. If you don’t drink, find another way that people can let loose and lose their inhibitions. The more stories you have, the more together you will feel.

6. Go on adventures

There are only so many times you can go to the same pub before people start looking elsewhere. Getting people away for a long weekend is a great way to supercharge your team spirit. The Architecture team frequented a Belgium Beach Rugby tournament, which is as fun as it sounds. We essentially packed a whole season of stories and craziness into 3 days. It doesn’t need to be expensive, it just needs to be away from the usual haunts. But if you can do it, there’s nothing quite like descending on an unsuspecting neighbouring country. Who will either look upon your team in horror, or in excited curiosity.

Practical:

Take your team away, at least once every six months, to supercharge the team narrative.

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Beach rugby in Ostende

I’ve shared a number of ideas for developing a cohesive team. There are others but it would be great to hear from you. What have you seen work well or perhaps not so well when building cohesive teams?

 

 

 

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