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Leaving Room to Say Things Suck — Leadership Lessons from “Ted Lasso”

Building A Team
Company Culture
Leadership
Coaching / Training / Mentorship

17 August, 2022

John Hartley
John Hartley

Senior Engineering Manager at Curology

A major sign of trust, comfortability, and vulnerability is for someone you lead to be able to say something sucks.

In Season 2 Episode 2, Coach Lasso is confronted with a disgruntled team. Twitter (which we know Coach Lasso isn’t fond of) was ablaze after pictures of he and Jamie Tartt at a bar surfaced. Without context, the team assumed Coach Lasso was bringing the former AFC Richmond diva back and were angry because of it. During an “extra spicy” practice, Lasso halts everyone and we get to this exchange with Sam Obisanya.

EXT. Pitch

Ted: I’m just tryin’ to help the team here.

Sam (walking off the pitch): Bullsh*t

Ted: Okay. (to the other coaches as he follows Sam off) Um, I’m gonna see what this is all about right here.

Ted: Hey. Sam! Slow down. Hey, you got something you wanna talk about?

Sam: No.

Ted: Really? It seems like you got something on your mind. Something like “I’m angry about a mysterious thing so I’m gonna do some cussing now.”

Sam: I mean, I am angry. And I did cuss, and every time I do, I regret it.

Ted: ’Cause people say cuss words when they don’t know the right ones to use to express themselves. Alright? Come on, talk to me.

Sam: I can’t believe you’re bringing Jamie back to the team.

Ted (confused): What?

Sam: I saw the picture of you and him on Twitter.

Ted: Oh, Sam, there’s a bunch of crazy stuff on Twitter.

Sam: How many locker room punch-ups have we had since Jamie’s been gone?

Ted: None.

Sam: None. Have we won yet? No, but we will. I believe that. Don’t you? Just because Jamie can score goals doesn’t mean he deserves to be here. (sighing, defeated) No teammate has ever made me feel as bad about myself as Jamie did.

Ted: Sam, I understand your anger towards him…

Sam (interrupting): It’s not him. I’m mad at you. You didn’t even talk to us about it.

Ted: Honestly Sam, I didn’t think there was anything to talk about. I told Jamie it wasn’t going to happen.

Sam (confused): Oh. Oh, now I feel awkward. Coach, I’m so sorry.

Ted: It’s okay, Sam, all right? You are a leader on this team. I want you to speak your mind.

There are a few critical elements within the conversation, but what can you glean from it? Notice the approach from Lasso. He doesn’t belittle Sam even though the information he has is wrong. He doesn’t defend the actions of being at the bar with Jamie. He cuts directly to the result of the conversation, “I told Jamie it wasn’t going to happen.” Ted then backs this up by praising same and letting him know he wants to hear these things from Sam.

Let’s break this down a bit further and turn it into some actionable steps.

Trust and Vulnerability

As discussed in previous posts about this show, Ted Lasso is known for fostering cohesive teams that have mutual respect and trust with one another. Trust is a difficult thing in a new environment. Without knowing each individual, the history of an organization, or the inter-group dynamics, all you can do is ask questions and be a sponge for issues that arise. Finding early wins, or even small annoyances/grievances and resolving them helps begin to foster that trust, but definitely does not end there. In the above interaction, Lasso doesn’t jump straight to “punishment mode” for the outburst, instead aiming to understand Sam’s point of view and then working to squash the rumor that bubbled up.

There’s also a valuable lesson in expectations that Sam gives Lasso when he says “You didn’t even talk to us about it.” By building the new culture, an expectation has been set that team leaders will be consulted on major team changes. Whether this is what Ted wants or not, it’s reality at this point. That gift of awareness is something that Ted can carry into the future, especially when making team decisions.

Once trust is established and those voicing their concerns know they won’t be punished for disagreeing, you can begin to peel back the onion on vulnerability. Being vulnerable can take many different shapes and sizes, but in the end it comes down to being able to speak what you believe is the truth in an effort to have an open discussion. Vulnerability can also be seen in the form of open disagreements, constructive conflict, or flat-out saying “this thing sucks.”

Come on, talk to me. There is clearly anger from Sam. Coach Lasso knows his team well enough to know this is abnormal behavior and he pushes for Sam to open up. This absolutely cannot be done if you haven’t spent time on building trust with the team. Think further about what you’ve done on your own teams to build trust. Do they feel comfortable bringing tough issues to you?

Forums For Voicing Concerns

Once you’ve created the trust that what is said will not be used against the speaker, you can begin creating more opportunities for opinions to be heard. In Agile, the “retro” is a great chance for this, but early on, some folks may not be comfortable voicing their concerns in a public forum. One on one’s or office pop-ins can create a less scary environment for some individuals.

If it comes down to it, an anonymous comments box could be the best way to get the thoughts and concerns of folks. The hope is that the forums will help prevent long-held concerns from boiling over and problems can be solved quickly as they arise. I’m always surprised when something is brought up from something that happened months ago, but it’s a good reflection point to see if maybe something was missed or was never fully resolved.

However you decide is best to create a “safe space” for feedback, be sure to keep it available. Taking away the forums will breed further distrust and will be seen as your lack of wanting to hear about worries or concerns. What are some of the ways you are doing this currently? Do you need to add a forum? Are your current forums working?

Lenscrafting

You don’t always get to filter the messaging that your team receives. Sometimes it’s semi-anonymous like Twitter and other times its other leaders or members of your company. The best approach here is to figure out what your team views as reality and work with them to explain the situation. If you were successful in fostering the above (trust and vulnerability, outlets for feedback) your team will likely react positively to your re-framing of what is real and what isn’t.

In the example, Ted gets right to it, doesn’t worry about re-shaping the Twitter lens and informs Sam of the end result. It’s okay to cut to the chase, but understand the different lenses that your team is using to shape their reality. This helps you prevent needless worry or scariness in the future.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

Taking feedback that something sucks doesn’t end when the person is done speaking, you must determine what you will do about it. If it’s solvable in the moment, great, get it done. If it’s a larger problem, it’s okay to say “I need to go think about this,” but be sure to add a follow-up date and next steps. An easy way to squash open constructive feedback is to not carry the accountability of fixing it forward.

If you’re a sponge that takes feedback and never outputs anything from the feedback, feedback will stop coming to you. Some tactics for following through:

  • Set a follow-up date — “I’ll let you know next steps by Tuesday”
  • Form an actionable plan for resolving the feedback — “Moving forward I will consult with Sam and Richard on major team moves.”
  • Follow through on the plan, accountability is key

What do your next steps look like? Which of these areas do you struggle with the most?

Final Thoughts

Your team telling you that something sucks is a gift. Regardless of the initial lens or way it comes out, you should listen. Don’t make it about you and become defensive, as that’s the quickest way to lose trust. Listen to what they have to say and work with them to craft a solution to the problem. Putting it back on them is to a degree a slap in the face. After all, they came to you, their leader, who they trust, to point out the problem instead of letting it fester.

One bad takeaway would be “I will tackle all items my team brings up,” because that doesn’t need to be the case. You should still hold tight to your non-starters and feedback where it’s not your problem to solve (think Ted telling Roy he won’t do anything about protecting Nate). Once you’ve had a chance to start solving problems for your team, teach them to solve the problems. Bring them along with you as you solve one or two, walking through your process so they understand your methods. Pretty soon you’ll have an autonomous self-solving team of individuals.

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