Kneeling, Disharmony, and Group Cohesion
At this point, most Americans, and many who live outside of the United States, know that the National Football League is embroiled in a controversy surrounding players who choose not to stand during the playing of the national anthem. The goal of this column is not to provide yet another analysis of the situation and subsequent appeal for each side to tolerate the other, but rather to take more micro focus on the impact of the controversy on the individual teams. What has transpired provides a useful demonstration of the dynamics of group cohesion and harmony, and raises questions about how well groups of experts can overcome disharmony.
My focal point is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a well-publicized snafu regarding how the players chose to handle the anthem. Before a game in Chicago, they decided as a team to stay in the tunnel and not come out until after the song was over. In this way, no one would have to reveal on which side of the debate he fell. However, one player, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, was out on the field looking around when the anthem began. A former soldier, Villanueva felt it disrespectful to walk away while the song was playing, so he stood, alone, at the entrance to the field. The rest of the team joined him after the ceremony was over. His actions misinterpreted as a protest against his teammates, and his statement at the post-game press conference, that he does not consider kneeling an affront to the armed forces, largely ignored, the team became a flashpoint for the issue, and internal dissensions appeared. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said that he did not agree with the team staying in the tunnel, and wished he had not gone along with the plan. Linebacker James Harrison expressed surprise that not everyone agreed with the plan, as he had been given to understand. Offensive lineman David DeCastro and defensive lineman Cam Heyward each said that they had spoken with Villanueva to confirm that he was not trying to show up his teammates. As a result of all of this, many observers expected the Steelers to struggle in succeeding weeks. How can a team succeed if there are factions among the members? In fact, as of this writing, three weeks after the incident in Chicago, the Steelers have not crumbled, sit in first place in their division, have the second-best record in their conference, and in their most recent game beat the only undefeated team left in the league.
This episode provides a nice demonstration of why group managers need to balance interpersonal relations with task focus. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has not melded the players’ differing viewpoints on Chicago, but rather has oriented them toward the task at hand, reminding them that they are professionals who need to work together to accomplish the task that they were brought together to perform. While the players can differ in the locker room on the propriety of kneeling, when on the field all of that needs to be set aside so that the job can be done. This makes me think of Fred Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership, which (among many other things) argues that certain situations require a leader whose focus is on interpersonal relations, while other situations require a leader whose focus is on task needs. An example of the latter situation is one in which each group member has a structured, defined role and needs to know what to do to fulfill that role. If successful collective performance offers the possibility of recognition, typically in the form of raises, promotions, and awards, and if group members feel the leader is moving the group is moving toward success, interpersonal disharmony will usually have little impact on the group. This example clearly fits a sports team, and right now, the Steelers are moving toward successful task completion. Thus, the Chicago controversy does not seem to have caused problems for the team.
While I would never argue that interpersonal relations within a group are always secondary—I am, after an interpersonal relations researcher—I think that we sometimes get too focused on the relational dynamic at the expense of task needs. It is good counsel for a group leader to analyze what the situation demands and act accordingly. Of late I seem to have been on far too many committees in which a major focus has been on making sure everyone gets to hang an ornament on the Christmas tree and no one feels unhappy with anyone else. What the Steelers, or the 1970’s Oakland Athletics baseball team (three consecutive World Series titles despite regular fights between players in the dugout), or Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” cabinet show us is that people who might not care for each other can and will pool their efforts and produce at a high level if the situation demands that they do so.