Damian Hughes

Damian Hughes is a Professor of Organisational Psychology and Change at Manchester Metropolitan University. His latest book, The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a High Performing Culture, shows how the DNA of a winning team can be successfully applied to any working environment, with dramatic results.

The intelligence of AI will never make as much of an impact on your team as emotional intelligence. As so many organisations look to the future and consider how AI can help grow their businesses, consider this: your most cutting-edge resource is already sitting in your workplace, waiting to be activated. All you need to do is set the culture.

The true evidence of a culture is how people behave when no one is watching. Shortly after Pep Guardiola became the coach of FC Barcelona there was a golden chance to score the first goal of the game. The quickly taken shot flashed past the goalkeeper’s desperate dive, past the post and missed by inches.

Before the crowd had the opportunity to process the events and react accordingly, Guardiola immediately turned around to look at the bench. He wanted to take a mental snapshot of the players that had not been selected. He wished to observe their reaction to the incident that had just occurred. Some footballers leapt from their seats in anticipation of the ball nestling in the back of the net, before taking their seats in a shared frustration that their team had not taken the lead. Other players neither moved nor reacted to the events, appearing to be uninterested in what had passed before their eyes. This detachment conveyed their personal unhappiness at not being included in the starting lineup. The following summer all of the players who had not reacted had left the club.

A team’s culture is about the conduct and behaviour of everyone involved. ‘It’s working together towards shared objectives, and as such is an immediately identifiable part of a group’s identity,’ said Guardiola.

This type of culture is known as ‘commitment culture’ – it’s one of five recognised team cultures:

1. Star – bring in your best people, pay them the most money, provide them with great resources and hope that they deliver. The evidence for these cultures shows that when it works it’s spectacular, but far more frequently the failure will be just as spectacular.

2. Autocratic – it becomes driven by one or two individuals. The problem with this is that if their decision-making is flawed or if they’re removed for some reason, the vacuum created can lead to dysfunction.

3. Bureaucratic – dominated by middle managers, decisions are made by policies and procedures, rules and regulations. It’s all about compromise. These cultures are quite slow moving.

4. Engineering – bring people in with technical expertise; you have people with a deep knowledge in a relatively narrow domain. What you find in this culture is that people make excuses for talent.

5. Commitment – in ‘commitment culture’ there is a clear purpose; people know the answer to the company’s ‘why’ and have a defined set of behaviours related to the purpose. People have to make a choice to join the organisation, and they’re very clear about what the expectations are and why they are what they are.

The evidence says that commitment culture tends to be about 22% more successful than any of the other four types of cultures. This is partly because it taps into a fundamental sense of belonging; research says that people stay loyal to these cultures even when they’re offered pay rises of about 36% to go somewhere else. A team that is committed to the shared goal will always achieve better results than any tech – even AI – will be able to.

So how do you create it? Quite simply, commitment culture is created when leaders are transparent and consistent. Be transparent – tell me the rules of the game that I’m playing. And be consistent – apply those rules across the board. This will create both psychological safety, because the team knows what’s expected of them, and trust, because they are seeing the leader’s consistency in pursuing the end goal.

Of course, you have to start with the right players. AI isn’t nearly nuanced enough to be trusted with team selection, or hiring. An algorithm might be able to create the ‘perfect team’ on paper but in reality the interpersonal dynamics might not work.

Consider the way that humans traditionally make decisions. One way of deciding something, is to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. We ask, ‘Is this a situation where I should intervene and invest my time, energy and effort?’ If the answer is yes then you might take action, if it’s no then you might turn a blind eye to it.

The second way we make decisions is based on our identity. We ask, ‘What sort of person am I? What is this situation? What would someone like me do in this situation?’ If it offended your principles you would address it regardless of whether it was to your advantage or not.

Barcelona wanted to recruit players who operate from a sense of identity, not from a place of cost vs benefit. So one of the decisions that Guardiola made while recruiting three new players was that they couldn’t have tattoos, earrings or ‘ridiculous haircuts’. What he was looking for at that time was people that identified with wanting to be a part of a group, rather than coming in and shaking things up within a group. They had a lot of people that were already doing that. They needed more foot-soldiers than Generals.

That doesn’t mean that they weren’t looking for excellence. One of the Directors at Barcelona said to me: ‘your talent gets you in the dressing room door. Your behaviour determines if we’ll keep you in the room or not.’ Their point was that talent is a prerequisite. It’s not an either/or – you’re either talented or you’re behaving the right way. It’s both/and – you’re talented, and you comply with some of the principles that we adopt.

Guardiola felt that Barcelona had been a star culture where people made excuses for talent. So if you were supremely talented you could behave in an inconsistent manner and people would excuse it, just because you were talented.

As part of creating a commitment culture, Guardiola instilled a couple of trademark behaviours for the players to adopt. The first trademark behaviour was humility. If you’re not humble you can’t continue to learn and get better. The second trademark he asked for was hard work. You invest in your talent, you don’t just cruise and draw on it, you invest in it as well.

Like all elite sports teams, Guardiola also relied on data to help form his strategy for turning Barcelona into a winning side. The key to using data effectively is knowing which piece of information to focus on. Guardiola narrowed in on research that shows that whoever can keep the ball for 70% of the game will win 91% of matches. This is because of the sheer physical and mental exhaustion that the opposition will be put through as they attempt to get the ball.

To achieve 70% possession, Barcelona started using a radar display in all of their training and all of their drills. This instant feedback loop improved their possession immensely, and their whole reputation became built on the idea that they were the best team at never losing the ball.

The combination of a commitment culture paired with effective use of data, turned Barcelona into one of the most successful football clubs in the world, and in the four years that Guardiola was in charge they won fourteen of a possible nineteen trophies – a success rate never matched. And it’s not just in Barcelona that he’s effective. Guardiola is considered to be one of the most successful managers of all time, holding the record for the most consecutive league wins in La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League – including his current team Manchester City winning the Premier League in each of the last two years.

AI will never be able to motivate a team the way another human being can. That’s because AI has never had to overcome pride, greed or laziness to give its best to the team; it simply can’t relate to what holds our people back. So while AI may be in our future, it’s the character and drive of each team member that will shape it.

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