What can the England football team teach us about making work life better?

If sport can shake off decades of macho management practices, then so can corporates!

The media focus around World Cup can be wonderfully distracting, but it can also give us a cracking insight into some of the most highly performing organisations in existence.

Over the last few days there have been some awesome articles revealing the progressive working practices used by the England team. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are tons of similarities between the way England work, and the way we reckon companies should be working.

Now I know England didn’t make it to the final. But out of 211 countries eligible to play in the World Cup, they are in the top 2%. Which is not a bad place to be. Imagine if your company was in the top 2% of highly performing companies in your field!

Okay. So what do we know about football and companies?

Well they’ve been thinking about it all wrong

For a long time there have been well documented parallels between the world of work and sport. How does a coach get the best out of their players? How do you get a team to gel? How do you get your people in the right positions?

You need only read Harvard Business School’s research on Sir Alex Ferguson (legendary Manchester United manager) to see this in action (link). And the short Netflix documentary about it isn’t bad either (link).

But these analyses fall into two traps.

First, they always look at what sport coaching can tell us about business leadership, never the other way round.

Second, it’s always about the amazing coach and how that individual inspires other individuals, rarely about the group culture.

With the England team in this year’s World Cup we have a different story. This time it feels like the world of organisational culture has had an influence on the team sport culture. Of course Gareth Southgate (the England manager) is due high praise, but he would happily have that dispersed and spread amongst his team.

The culture and vibe feels authentic and positive in the England camp, and it isn’t coming from the old, macho, one man at the top, powerful leadership style that is sadly the norm in both sport and business. This time it is more progressive, collective, and human.

Happy lads. Via the Guardian. Eddie Keogh/TheFA/Rex/Shutterstock

So what have we seen?

1. Supporting the players as people over professionals

Southgate helped one of the players, Fabian Delph, to get home to see the birth of his child. Missing a crucial game against Columbia that England won after a massive struggle.

He could have kept him in the squad. Forced him to play for the good of the country. And that game might have been easier. But he knew that Delph’s mind was going to be elsewhere, not focused on the game. He also knew that it’s important to be at the birth of your child.

Then Delph came back. A buzzing new parent, and a grateful man who felt understood. How energising is that?


The happy father, Fabian Delph. Photo via ESPN.

2. Building a team of people who understand each other

‘Teaming’ in football normally means understanding each other’s roles and then having a bit of a piss up for team building. But what really helps a group to become a highly performing team, and ascend up through the stages of group development (link), is openness.

Being open with each other as people, not just professionals.

Southgate has used techniques borrowed from 60s psychotherapy popularised by Carl Rogers:

[Players] sit down together in small groups to share their life experiences and anxieties, and to reveal intimate truths about their character and what drives them. (link)

In the 60s these were called encounter groups. We still use them regularly in our work with businesses when we really want to help teams form a strong bond.

We want to help them know who each other really are. Knowing who we are, with our ins and outs and ups and downs, helps us to have context for each other’s decisions. It helps us to feel connected and to support each other appreciatively. Openness increases psychological safety, which is the precursor to personal responsibility. And a team full of awesome people who take personal responsibility, can be the best team in the world (or the 4th best ?).

Our Swiss client in an encounter group.

3. The importance of rest and space

Football is of course an intensely physical game, and the English league (where most of the England players play) is the most physically gruelling in the world.

Instead of pushing the players to play in every game and train every day that they weren’t playing, Southgate gave them plenty of rest time. He encouraged them not to use social media and to be present in the training camp with their teammates. He organised fun activities to give their brains and bodies a break.

“You can keep pushing and pushing and pushing, but you have to take moments to relax and unwind.”- Gareth Southgate (link)

We need this in business too. How many people do you know who work far more than the 40hrs per week they are paid for? How many agencies bill their team out at 100% or even 120% of their time? How many people take sick days for extreme tiredness, burnout, and depression brought on through overwork?

We encourage people to take space, engage with nature, work from home, and give generous holiday allowances. The work is always better and the humans are happier.


The England team fooling around with unicorns. Photo via the Guardian by Eddie Keogh for FA/Rex/Shutterstock

What can you take back to your company?

Organisations are nothing more than groups of humans trying to work together. There is nothing beyond that. Everything else is a fiction.

So here are 3 tips to help you build a high performing team and organisation, inspired by the England team:

  1. Treat people like people, not just professionals. When you take decisions, think first about what the human need is and how you can meet that, not what the business need is.
  2. Work hard to understand yourself and others. Take time to ask questions and listen to answers. Run an Encounter Group session with your team (message us for the process).
  3. Take space and get some rest. The world is busy and demanding and you’re probably not sleeping enough. Make sure you take your holidays and look after your physical and mental health.

If you want some help in changing your organisation, we’d love to give you a free coaching call ~> jim@flux.am or jon@flux.am