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Dealing with an unhappy team leader

Or... how to solve a team problem as a team

I was fascinated to read about the captain of Arsenal Football Club apparently reacting angrily to being substituted during last weekend's game against Crystal Palace. It is unusual for a captain to be substituted with half an hour still to play, but what interested me most was his reaction to it.



In the video, you can see him walking off the field clearly not happy. But then the crowd started booing him (I believe this wasn't the first time either). He tossed the captain's armband to his vice-captain (who had to pick it up off the ground) and goaded the crowd, telling them to "f*** off" before taking off his team shirt and walking straight down the players tunnel to the dressing room, instead of to the bench to sit with his team-mates, which would have been normal practice.


Since then, his manager has publicly said he should apologise, refused to say whether he will retain the captaincy and offered the player counselling, which is clearly a form of blaming. It not only says to Xhaka, "this is all your fault', but also suggests that the club bears no responsibility for creating the situation in the first place. To his credit, manager Unai Emery has said: "we are responsible, the club and I". Apparently Xhaka himself is "devastated and sad".

All pretty normal and understandable reactions, but is there a better way to deal with this situation? Is it the sole responsibility of the manager (head coach) to deal with the situation?


Let's look at some other perspectives.


This player is the team captain and as such, deserves at least some respect from the fans and the other players. That he was booed off the field is not a sign of respect, but clearly the fans don't see his strengths as a player as sufficient to offset his weaknesses and don't want him playing any more.

Team manager Unai Emery has placed his faith in his captain and bears some responsibility for the situation, as do his teammates. Like any other team sport, its performance is a shared responsibility. If one player is not performing, what do the team do about it?


There is no doubt Xhaka reacted badly to being substituted, and he could and should have reacted better, but something triggered this behaviour in him, and I doubt it was just being substituted. One website suggests he has been set up to fail, which is another perspective, about which I am not going to pass judgment. It is not the intention of this article to judge anyone, nor to apportion blame.


The role of a team manager (also often known as a Head Coach) is to get the best out of the whole team. Instead of looking at this as a Xhaka problem to be 'solved' by dealing with Xhaka, we could look at this as a team problem to be dealt with as a team and by the team.




With the team in a room, we could explore the whole situation systemically, from every perspective, honestly and without blame. There is even a model we could use to work with this situation - the COIN model, which stands for Context, Observation, Impact and Next. This model is very useful for managers to use in feedback sessions with a staff member. Here is a way of using it in a team setting.


As in any other feedback setting, it is important that the person receiving feedback be absolutely clear on what was seen and heard, what the impact of that was on the team and the wider organisation, and what next steps are required.


CONTEXT

It is important in every situation like this that we establish boundaries for the discussion, that it be about one explicitly-named issue and that issue only - in this case, Xhaka's substitution and his reaction to it. The coach or facilitator needs to obtain agreement from everyone present that this is the issue being dealt with and from then on, to keep people from bringing in other irrelevant details.


OBSERVATION

With Xhaka listening, the manager and the team have the opportunity to say what they observed during the game and what led up to the moment the decision was made to substitute the captain, and most importantly, what he was directly observed doing immediately thereafter. It is important here that no-one pass judgement; this is just about what was observed first-hand.

Xhaka, too, must be given the opportunity to say what he observed from his position.


IMPACT

While most of the impact of what occurred is now in the public domain, the manager and the rest of the team have the opportunity to explain how Xhaka's substitution and his reaction to it affected them personally and their role in the game. While substitutions are common in every game, this one would have left an emotional scar on most of the other players, and it certainly didn't help the team win the game (the score was 2-2 at the time and the game ended that way).

Again, it is important for everyone to keep what they say to how they themselves felt or were impacted by the event. Xhaka needs to be free to explain how the substitution decision - and the fans reaction - made him feel.

By this stage, the person receiving feedback - Xhaka in this case - usually feels contrite. Faced with unarguable evidence of the impact of his actions, he almost has no choice but to apologise to his manager and team-mates. But that's not the end of the matter. The rest of the team now also feel compassion and a desire to help solve the problem as a team.


NEXT

The manager and team members can now talk through what needs to happen next. First step is the desired outcome. Presumably Xhaka was brought into the team for good reasons; no team deliberately hires bad players, nor makes them team captain. The ideal situation is often that the problem be resolved and the player continues to perform at the level for which he was hired.

Does Xhaka also want that? Are the team united in their desired outcome? If so, then everyone needs to say what they need in order to achieve that. Some team members may not want Xhaka to be captain, some may want him to alter the way he plays, the coach will have his preferred style of play that the team have been practicing for months; all views are valid and need to be heard.

Assuming all parties want the relationship to continue, I would guess that the team would want Xhaka to apologise to them, to the club and to the fans. They might also want him to accept future substitutions with good grace and understanding. There might even need to be a fine levied. Perhaps his role in the team is not fully understood by the fans. Perhaps he isn't the right player at all.

Whatever the next steps that are agreed, what is important that the team make those decisions as a team, because they are all affected by them. A team functions as a team only when everyone can be honest with each other, when there are agreements about acceptable standards of behaviour to which they hold each other accountable, and when they can overcome challenges together to achieve mutually agreed objectives.

Even who makes certain decisions should be decided by the team.


And when one member of that team behaves in ways that are detrimental to the team as a whole, the team needs to act with empathy and compassion as well as discipline.

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