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Brendan Rodgers: multiplier or diminisher?

By Ian Gray



I, like many others, have been glued to Being: Liverpool over the past few weeks: a unique insight into one of the world’s greatest football clubs. Amid the banality, there has been the odd gem of insight and real interest. Most striking have been the insights and thoughts of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, both of whom come across as knowledgeable and humble; real assets for the club, and surely future coaches/managers.

It has also been interesting to see Brendan Rodgers at work. It is strange, and somewhat tough for Rodgers, in that we are watching a time delay of how his day-to-day life is at Liverpool. As each episode has come out, Liverpool have been stuttering, with some unenviable records being racked up along the way. There is no question that Brendan Rodgers needs to be given time, even if results have not been good enough in his first couple of months in charge. However, in the last episode, the incident that will forever be known as the "three envelopes" incident" happened. For those of you who did not have the privilege of seeing it, or have not heard about it, where have you been? At the time of writing this article, there are 35 pages of Google hits for this incident.

The night before the first game of the season, Rodgers has a meeting with his staff and players. After showing them some video clips of the following day’s opponents, West Bromwich Albion, Rodgers pulls out three envelopes. Rodgers tells his team and staff that he has written three names of people he believes will “let the team down this season”. He re-iterated that this applied not just to the players, but to the staff as well. He then exhorted them not to be the name inside the envelope. An article in the Daily Telegraph notes that it is similar to a stunt pulled by Alex Ferguson, designed to ground his players, after Manchester United’s first title win under him.

What do we know about effective teams? What is the one thing that they need? Confidence. Confidence in themselves as a player, in their teammates, in their manager, and in the people who support them. Trust is key to this confidence. Shankly was the arch master at giving this confidence to his players. Stories abound of how he would denigrate the opposition players and teams and extol the capacity of his own players in pre-match team talks. Then, when they came off the pitch, tell them how they had just beaten one of the best teams or players in the world. Before a game Shankly would focus on one thing, and one thing only. Giving confidence to his players that he trusted them and that they would prevail.

In one fell swoop, Rodgers did his best to destroy trust and confidence within his entire team and staff. By leaving everybody in the dark regarding who he did or did not trust, he may have meant to motivate, but the thing it most likely achieved was to sow doubt and destroy confidence. Doubt within players, between players, between players and the manager and players and the staff, and from staff to manager. What were the players meant to think? What would you think?

If you are like me, it would be a train of thought that would have gone something like this. “Does the manager trust me? If he doesn’t then there is nothing I can do to change his mind, as he has already made his mind up. Which of my teammates can I trust, and do they trust me? Which of the staff might he mean? Can’t the physio do his job right? What will that mean for me if I get injured? If he knows there are some people here going to fail us, why are they still here?” And on, and on. Doubt after doubt after doubt, eroding confidence like sea waves against a chalk cliff. Just as that cliff collapses under the stress, so Liverpool did the next day in the face of West Brom.

Liz Wiseman, in her book, Multipliers, describes how the best leaders multiply the talents of their teams, while “diminishers” reduce them. Going through an exercise recently, based on this book, I was with 20 people who were asked to describe their best experience under a boss. Nearly all 20 pointed to their best performance being for managers who had confidence and trust in them, and their worst being for managers who had behaved in a way that showed a lack of confidence and trust in them. The unanimity on this was uncanny, but has been proven time and time again. Shankly knew what he was doing before management gurus made their millions describing how leaders like him got the best from teams by instilling confidence.

So why did Rodgers pull out those three envelopes and sow the seeds of doubt and sap his team’s confidence in such an indiscriminate manner? Was it trying to ape Ferguson? Only Rodgers can say. If it was, then he chose the wrong time to do it; Liverpool have not won the league for over two decades. He may be supremely confident, but it’s clear his squad isn’t. He should know what the best management thinkers tell us, and what Bill Shankly knew; that, unless you have a problem with overconfidence in a team (as Ferguson feared), build team confidence, don’t destroy it.