During his wrap-up comments after the University of Southern California football team beat Ohio State University in Columbus in 2009, Brent Musberger, ABC/ESPN’s long-time announcer, said that he believed that one of USC head coach Pete Carroll’s greatest attributes was his ability to keep his team loose.
Managers can learn something from Carroll’s loosey-goosey sideline demeanor. He prowls the sidelines but is often clapping, cheering, and giving “atta-boys” to his players. USC is a football juggernaut but even talented teams can get caught up in emotional swings, and Carroll’s style helps keep everyone calm, and inevitably, more able to pay attention to what is happening and what they must do.
The purpose of keeping a team loose is not entertainment; it’s a matter of keeping people focused. And that’s why managers — especially those coping with challenging conditions like declining resources, tougher competition, and more demanding customers — can do well to keep their teams loose. Here are some suggestions.
Instill camaraderie. Optimal team performance depends on people pulling together for one another. Camaraderie-building can happen naturally between teammates, but managers can encourage it by creating groups or units of people whose talents complement each other. Injecting some humor into the mix through jokes and gentle teasing can speed the meshing of individuals. Camaraderie builds when people can laugh with each other, not always at each other. (That is, you can tease, but make certain you are available to be teased yourself.)
Get personal. Know your people and their capabilities. The secret to maintaining a loose atmosphere is belief in individuals’ and the team’s ability to perform. Trust that people know their stuff and will execute. Being light and loose with underperformers is not advised. You need to get people in gear before you can ease up with levity.
Coach ’em up. The art of management is putting the right people in the right places so they can succeed. Toward that end, good managers spend their time coaching their people for performance. If a manager has established good rapport with individuals through his light-hearted demeanor, he has a better ability to connect and get them to listen. (Note: too much joking will undercut a manager’s ability to be perceived as serious.)
Make no mistake, too much fun and games is not healthy; it can be distracting and adversely affect morale. (USC lost its game to the University of Washington the following week.) Therefore, a manager must always make certain that people understand the importance of what they do. Treating people as though their contributions matter is critical. Likewise, holding people accountable for results is vital.
Just because work is serious does not mean everyone needs to take themselves or others seriously. You can be light and lively as long as you respect individual boundaries and the culture of work. Keeping things loose is not always easy, but it sure makes coming to work a bit more pleasant. And when people want to come to work, it’s a good thing.