Business Advice Centre

Saturday 24 February 2018

How do you deal with a struggling star performer?

Business Brain

Wayne Rooney talks to Roy Hodgson at a training session in Rio de Janeiro.
Wayne Rooney talks to Roy Hodgson at a training session in Rio de Janeiro.

Alistair Tosh

In a small business or within a tight knit unit, morale is everything. The very same theory applies to sport and football squads. At vital junctures, leadership, clarity and decisiveness is required.

England football manger Roy Hodgson faces his Waterloo this week at the World Cup and a crucial decision that will test his nerve and impact all those around him. This same decision faces business owners every week. What to do with a struggling star performer whose under-performance is threatening the objectives of the wider team?

That Wayne Rooney is England's best player is an arguable point.

What is not up for argument is that his level of performance seems to have dipped below the standards he sets for himself, and is well below what is required to excel on the sport's biggest stage. Maybe more significantly, the glare of the English press is shining directly on the 'Rooney conundrum'.

Hodgson, of course, is busy trying to establish a high-performance culture within his squad and hopes to reap the benefits in results. Never before has his leadership being so tested.

So the question is, what can managers do with a struggling star performer – in sport and business? To help you (and Roy) answer that question, I'm going to ask three questions:

1. Should you pick your best players ‘out of position’?

As the skills of a role evolve, so too must the skills of the incumbent.

Wayne Rooney has been accommodated in the team, but has been utilised in an unfamiliar role. On the evidence of the first match in the tournament, this appears not to have worked. It rarely works in business either.

It is evident he has not sought to develop the skills of his new role – such as 'tracking back' to help his defenders – and, as such, is making himself difficult to pick. If he has a future in the England team, then he will need to reinvent himself and embrace the skills for the role his boss wants him to play. It is that, or drop another player to accommodate him, with resulting morale issues.

2. What impact will dropping him have on the culture of the team?

Tournament football is no place to be struggling for form. This makes the decision all the more acute.

Teams have few chances to advance in the competition and therefore results are all that matters. Professional footballers, just like business leaders, are no respecters of reputation when it comes to underperformance.

If you've ever been part of a team that is 'carrying' an underperformer, no matter how talented, you'll know how frustrating it is to see a leader making concessions for them based on their past glories – particularly when the prizes can be great (be it an annual bonus or World Cup glory, extra sponsorship revenue for the FA, etc). I don't believe dropping Rooney will negatively impact the culture of the team, and may even earn Hodgson more respect. Dithering and inaction could undermine the boss.

3. Can I deal with the aftermath?

If Hodgson drops Rooney then it dominates the coverage in the build up to tonight's game. Teammates will have to field questions about Rooney ad nauseam and it may detract from preparation for a now-crucial game.

That being said, only Hodgson can decide whether Rooney has the character to deal with being dropped. Rooney has toed the party-line in the tournament build-up and has consistently pointed to the team as being more important than him. Will this still be the case if he is dropped?

Hodgson will need to decide if he can trust Rooney to act like Brian O'Driscoll did when dropped during the Lions tour last year, or whether he will 'throw his toys out of the pram' and cause a rift in the camp and unsettle the team.

A happy staff makes for better performance. Same applies to sport.

If it's the former, then it would pave the way for him to make the difficult call. Of course, in business, we're more fortunate in making tough calls since we don't have the intense press scrutiny of a national football team.

Rooney is a star, but he's underperforming. By dropping him, his boss may be more likely to positively impact the culture of the team and earn respect. So, in the face of this evidence, it seems to boil down to how Rooney himself will react. Can Hodgson make the huge call and come through unscathed? With results being all that matter what would you do if you were Roy Hodgson?

Alistair Tosh is Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute.

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