Cricket, identity and the paradoxes of group life

So was it right that he was sacked or not?

Those of you who are not cricket fans, or not UK residents (or both) may not have heard that Kevin Pietersen, England’s best but most unpredictable and unreliable batsman, has been told that he no longer figures in the plans of those managing the England cricket team. This follows a disastrous tour of Australia where the team lost all of their matches in the annual grudge series with the Australian team known as the Ashes. (The competition is called the Ashes following England’s shock defeat to Australia in 1882, when the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died and its ashes had been sent to Australia. Every year since then the England team has struggled to wrest them back).Image

What is interesting about the sacking is the soul-searching it has provoked in the press well beyond the sports pages. This is not just because sport, to bowdlerize Clausewitz, is war by other means (or if you like, and after Elias,  the civilising of our aggressive instincts in highly interdependent societies), but because it appeals to our sense of identity, our ‘heroic we’. Pietersen’s sacking has provoked very strong emotion in a wide variety of people, not all of them avid cricket fans. Clearly, it’s not just about the game.

And the commentary in the press has not always followed the course that one might have predicted. So, for example, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne, the in-house conservative in what is an overtly conservative paper described the episode as a ‘morality tale for our times’. Oborne uses the story to mount a critique of neo-liberal economics and the kind of hyper-individualism that it breeds:

“Neo-liberals have little time for social institutions, are contemptuous of national borders, and dogmatically advocate the free movements of capital and people. They regard community, place and nation as worthless superstitions. Above all, they place the individual first.”

This is the kind of writing that one might expect to find in a newspaper tending to the left.

He argues that the England selectors made the right decision to dump Pietersen for his egotism and disloyalty (and here we stray onto much more familiar conservative territory). Nonetheless, Oborne draws attention to the ways in which what we as British people value has come to change over time. Previously: “It was assumed that men and women of exceptional gifts would devote lives of service to their community rather than further their own interests. It was recognised that extraordinary talents came by the grace of God and were not a mark of individual virtue.” The article promotes collective values, community, loyalty and team spirit.

Just as confounding was an article in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper by Martin Kettle. Here one might have expected to find exactly the hymn to collective values that are present in Oborne’s article. Instead, Kettle argues that despite Pietersen’s unreliability, the England team and selectors should have been able to work in a way which accommodated his genius. He goes on to say that Pietersen has been scapegoated, made to atone for all that was wrong with the miserable England performance in Australia. In his article he points to a variety of paradoxes of group life, like this one in politics:

“Like cricket, politics is a team game played by individuals who are preoccupied with their own success, to the extent of actively trying to do down those on their own side.”

Drawing on an article by a colleague in the Times he argues, again paradoxically, that the team and its managers moved to oust Pietersen because they needed him so much. In contemporary political life, he says, enormous emphasis is placed on conforming and being ‘on message’. We must make more room for, and learn to live with, errant geniuses, like Churchill, for example, if our teams, whatever shape they take, are to thrive. Kettle cleaves much more to the idea of individual genius, partly on the basis of being a classical music fan and making a parallel with the opera diva.

In general it seems to me that there are similar things going on in organizational life. Many work teams are struggling with the ongoing paradoxes of trying to achieve things together, although the problems of particular talented individuals may present themselves in much less extreme form.

There is a parallel between what Kettle argues about political life to what happens in today’s organisations, where a good deal of energy is spent by managers trying to convince employees to conform, either by ‘sharing the vision’, being positive and constructive, or hitting prereflected targets. It is important to pull together, but I understand these approaches to go beyond the appeal to the collective spirit and to be an attempt to cover over difference and contestation, and to get all employees to ‘align’ and point in the same direction, i.e. the direction of senior management’s choosing. It becomes much more about the managerialist principles of predicting and controlling. All organizations need to cohere, but equally, they also need to experiment, evolve and change. From a complexity perspective this is only possible through the exploration of difference which will usually involve conflict.

Another paradox of group life, then, is that teams may only cohere if they can be more open about and discuss the conflicts that they are enduring. There may be no resolution to differences, despite much current management literature assuming that conflict can be analyzed and responded to with managerial tools and techniques.[1] If conflict occurs, managerialism promises, then it can be tuned by managers using the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little, but just right.

In the Pietersen saga there is very little made public about the reasoning behind the decision: current coverage suggests that even Pietersen doesn’t know why he has been sacked, although one might guess that he has a pretty good idea. It does seem clear, though, that there has been very little discussion of the conflicts within the team, which is not the same as saying that the conflicts haven’t been expressed.

The psychoanalysts Smith and Berg[2] point out that group life is riven with paradoxical pressures which provoke anxiety amongst group members and can dissolve into stuckness, or polarized conflict. So, on the one hand we want to be a member of a group, but we want to retain our individuality. Equally, all groups have to focus on completing a task together and at the same time they have to look after the needs of group members. The ability to become involved in the working life of the group at the same time implies the ability to take a more detached view.

Smith and Berg suggest that groups may follow a number of strategies to avoid dealing with the emotional pain of working with their contradictions.  They may try to find a ‘middle ground’ of compromise hoping that the contradictions will disappear. They may try to settle on one pole of the paradox, as they seem to have done here with the Pietersen paradox (can’t live with him, can’t live without him), by expelling the supposed cause of the difficulty. In doing so they may have weakened themselves fundamentally. Or they may do what they have done up till now, which is to yo-yo between accommodation and rejection, first deciding they needed to drop him, then reversing the decision and trying to include him (before this final rupture).

In all these instances groups are trying to change the inherent nature of group life, Smith and Berg argue, where thriving groups have to be able to endure the opposing tensions that being a member of a group evokes.

Of course, there are also differences between a sports team and a work team: cricket is highly competitive, and teams may change from match to match, with new, talented newcomers coming through all the time. What is interesting here, though, is that the same human dilemmas present themselves again and again and throw up real difficulties for the managerial orthodoxy of predictability and control. (For a parallel example in football the film The Damned United is a very good example of the confounding of one of Britain’s most famous football managers, Brian Clough, by a group who refused to be led). Leadership and management are also ensemble improvisational activities which provoke strong and complex feelings in people, feelings which there is no alternative but to work through if organisations are to innovate and evolve.


[1] A good example of this is the standard management textbook, Rahim, M.A. (2010) Managing Conflict in Organizations, Westport, Conn: Quorum Books.

[2] Smith, K. and berg, D. (1987) Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis and Movement in Group Dynamics, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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