Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Culture shock

Stuart Hogg
Stuart Hogg - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

By Border Badger

The Six Nations is over and done.

Scotland once again flattered to deceive as challengers and finished the tournament with a minor scandal as the ‘seditious six’ went out for late-night beers after the Italy game and incurred the wrath (apparently) of the Scottish management and, certainly, some of the Scottish paying public, when the team then struggled to keep the lid on what could easily have been a 50 point whipping by Ireland.

There’s an obvious question here: if we had beaten Ireland would anyone be talking about that incident? I suspect not, but I think the fact that it happened has shone a light on a potentially bigger problem in the Scottish setup.

I have a professional interest in organisational and team culture and have studied it to an extent. So it’s something I look to analyse in the way teams and organisations behave. Since my knowledge and background are based in a business, rather than sporting context, it’s worth clarifying a couple of terms.

The Team are the “producers”. Not just the guys on the pitch though: it’s the entire group of individuals who get the job done. The whole playing group. They’re the people with the skills and abilities to produce the wins that the “customer” (you and I) really want. It’s what we invest our time and money for.

The “Organisation” is much wider. The organisation includes the team but also means the management, media people, physios, S&C people, kit people, admin people who ensure the team get on the bus on time and the people who make sure that every player has studs in his boots and a well-fitted gum shield. It’s the old story of JFK asking a janitor what he was doing and the guy replying “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. That’s the organisation: Everything and everyone is important.

Organisational culture can be described as “the way we do things around here”. It’s a shared understanding, ethos and set of values that all within the organisation live by. A strong culture is one where everyone buys into these values of their own volition, not because they’ve been ‘told’ to do so or risk punishment if they transgress.

So what has this got to do with Scottish rugby?

For me, the concern is not that the players went out, nor even that they ‘disobeyed’ the coach to do so. My concern is that the culture in the Organisation is so poor that they felt content it was okay to do so. They were content that this would not be seen as important in the context of their Team, their Organisation or their stakeholders – us, the paying public.

Or worse. They didn’t care.

The strongest cultures are self-organising. In a strong culture, the people within the organisation ‘police’ themselves. They don’t need to be told. Everyone tacitly understands that this is “the way we do things around here” to succeed.

On the pitch, that culture is what drives you to keep getting up off the floor to make the next tackle. To hold the line and trust your teammates. To keep fighting even when you’re aching and fit to drop. Off the pitch, culture is what gets you up in the early hours to train, even when you haven’t been selected. It’s what makes you check that tiny bit of detail three times to make sure the organisational machine runs smoothly. It’s what makes you think “No. I won’t go out to a nightclub because that might affect performance or reflect badly on us.”

If you look at some of the great team cultures that we know in our sport, the best in class really stand out. The All Blacks are the gold standard but probably difficult to emulate. From what I can see, their culture is ingrained in the national psyche to the degree that, I suspect, the coaches don’t actually need to put much effort in on that front. Everyone wants to be an All Black. The backroom staff all want to be part of the All Blacks being successful. The values they work to have been ingrained since the days of PineTree Meads and his ilk and are passed down with the shirt.

I suspect that the culture in the Ireland national setup was built by Joe Schmidt. The senior players pass that culture to the incoming players year on year and it pervades their setup. The coaches since Schmidt have benefited from that, so they and their backroom team can concentrate on S&C, playing, tactics, boots and gum shields. I honestly don’t imagine any of that Irish team hitting the town the week before a big game.

For example, closer to home, think about the turnaround that Richard Cockerill made at Edinburgh. The culture at Edinburgh before he arrived was clearly toxic. Cockers changed that almost instantly though. He took no prisoners and created a strong, hard-nosed culture. Unfortunately, the skills you need to change a culture quickly are quite different from those you need to ensure it persists. Cockers methods, while powerful, were clearly unsustainable. Mike Blair, however, is now benefitting from a lot of the culture that Cockerill created, and can now concentrate on the playing tactics.

Where does that leave the Scotland national setup and can we compare ourselves to other national rugby cultures? I lived in Wales for almost a decade and was often stunned by how harsh they were about failures in the national setup. They simply didn’t accept failure in the National team. Mediocrity was not an option. I fully expect that Wayne Pivac won’t survive the Italy loss. Even if he doesn’t go immediately, I don’t think he’ll be the Welsh coach come the World Cup. The stakeholders, the paying public, simply won’t accept it.

So why should we?

Back to the party six. Most of them are in the senior leadership group and they decided to go out on the razz less than seven days before a major match, apparently in contravention of team protocols. Ignoring talk of rules, team protocols and ambiguity, I think one of the following is likely the case:

a) The organisational culture is actually okay with that.
b) The culture is so weak that they didn’t feel it was wrong (or not wrong enough).
c) The culture is toxic to the degree they either didn’t care or were in ‘open rebellion’ mode.

Point a) seems not to be the case as they’ve been ‘told off’ which leaves only b) or c) as possibilities.

Either of these is hugely troubling.

We can point to the fact that captain Stuart Hogg has a part to play here, and he does. However, he is there to support and embody the culture of the Organisation. If the culture in the Organisation is so poor that it has also lost the Team leader, the problem is fairly deep-rooted, and although Hoggy’s dissension is a symptom of the issue; for me, it is not the cause.

Talk of binning Hoggy as captain might paper over some cracks and may even allow him to show his club form again but, if the organisational culture isn’t right, it’s really a sticking plaster on a broken bone. So where is the fix? An expert on organisational culture, Edgar Schein, once wrote that “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” I agree with that statement and, if we accept that, then the problem sits firmly and squarely on Toony’s shoulders.

How does he turn it around?

It has to begin with getting the Teams’ leadership on-side. They’re the ones who will convince the rest of the group to stick with it when things aren’t going well. Who will persuade the players to get back up and get in the line when they’re aching and tired. And will put an arm around the shoulders of the guys who’re not selected to play.

Toony can worry all he likes about what they do on the pitch and have 500 variations for every play available, but if the whole organisation doesn’t buy into the culture we’ll always have the ‘beer-hound six’ moments and the ‘noble loser’ tag.

However, if Townsend has lost the leadership group to an irreparable extent and can’t create and manage a successful culture, then Scottish rugby desperately needs to find someone who can. It doesn’t matter how close we are to the World Cup, if we go into the tournament without a solid organisational culture that everyone buys into, then we will be ‘also-rans’ before the first ball is kicked.

32 Responses

  1. As a businessman, you will know that leaders , lead, by example. There is not a single one of those revellers that should be retained. In our average years a few bright lights appeared. It is not about them. They are setting a poor example for the next generation on which we must build the future and define ‘ they way we do things’.

    I think you underestimate the fans of you think we would have forgotten it, had we beated Ireland. Actually that is a mute point , should be disregarded or deleted. It would not be forgotten because we are used to seeing outstanding performances followed by immature schoolboy howlers.

    We need a complete flush out. Sadly those legacy players who feel it is their team, must go and we the rugby public must accept there is a cost to change.

    We need someone completely detached from Scotland and Scottish culture, to lead them out of it. We already had it in Vern Cotter, but got scared.

    As a by the way, the side we should have beaten was Wales, that was the one that got away. But that is a side matter and a subject for another day. Gregor Townsend will be characterised not by beating England, but by the humiliation we suffer at the hands of much poorer Welsh sides.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I agree with much of what you say. But I don’t think simply culling those that are amongst our best current players would be constructive. Behaviours absolutely need to be changed, but in order for those changes to be ‘sticky’ they need to change voluntarily. I don’t think a winning culture can be produced through implied threat or by making examples (step out of line or you’re out!). It may work in the immediate term but, as soon as the heat turns up, cracks will appear. Cockers at Edinburgh is the perfect example of that. It’s also a very tired 20th Century management style that has been proved ineffective.

      Those players are amongst our best and will be well respected throughout the Organisation for their playing ability at least. A far stronger culture will be created if those players are part of it.

      1. Even 30 years ago, when I was at uni, it was recognised that things are not as simple as carrot and stick (MacGregor’s Theory X and Y) and that a culture where the individuals in the organisation felt some sense of ownership (Ouchi Theory Z) was the way to get a long lasting, genuine motivation to perform on a daily basis.

        Given Townsend is such a devotee of the study of high performing teams, it would seem that he’s either getting the execution wrong, fundamentally misunderstanding or taking the wrong lessons out of his research, or simply needs someone like Mike Blair to act as an intermediary.

        Given how precipitously the National team’s performance has dropped in the last year, and how Edinburgh’s fortunes have improved in the same timescale, there’s a real case for the latter.

        Could the answer be to bring Blair back into the National setup on a short term, part time basis ahead of the World Cup?

      2. I am not sure what part you agree with? From what I can see you have just re-enforced your opinion.

        I have told you the revellers are a poor example ! Even on the pitch , ‘Hoggy’ makes decisions that exclude the team. I have told you that we need to dump those that wont change , because they think they are bigger than the others, it is not their team. But you want to change the culture and retain them? No , I never said I was making an example, you did. It is not about making an example or punishment, it is about a salvaging what remains fertile and recognising that some are just not capable of change. We need to accept that and it may cost, but so be it. Ireland aren’t exactly missing players they have deliberately excluded are they , England aren’t missing the most talented stand off in the premiership. They are just never mentioned anymore.

        My message is clear, we must prune deeply, or we will lose the entire structure. Then shape it and fashion it according to shape.You don’t need to be a Management Guru for that , any good gardener will keep you right.

        Leaders don’t need to be told what to do , they ooze culture, an internal compass that is aligned to right, aligned to the way we do things around here. Followers, they need to be told what to do.

    2. Very strident opinions when you don’t know the full facts. Reading what Nigel Carolan and Rob Baxter have said, I think there is some dubiety about what happened. I haven’t seen any suggestion the players drank excessively.

      1. Stuart, what has Rob Baxter got to do with our national team? What gives him the right to challenge the SRU’s rule clarity. Perhaps he has under his responsibility to his players and I am not aware of that (in which case I might feel better about the matter) . I found it a bit humiliating reading his comments on our Union’s actions or lack there off . Am I alone ? Sorry I never read the Nigel Carrolan comments so remain silent on that aspect.

      2. I’ve read that Finn Russell stayed out when the others returned to the hotel.

        Was out until the early hours then went back to his parents rather than the team hotel.

        He then skipped the team recovery day.

        Given he also rocks up in poor shape after too many burgers and beers and then shows this attitude is there a place for him going forwards?

      3. What I find funny no-one in Paris is complaining about Finn, Burgers and Beers. Where did you hear that from, I expect a full disclosure to the BBC by the usual suspects.

        What does late night drinks have to do with making the wrong choices on the pitch? Are we missing the real issues here, the 80 minutes that count and the crazy choices.

      4. Unfortunately there have been a fair few photos floating about.

        Originally read about it on the Glasgow forum but have seen it in other places too.

        I think he probably gets away with it at Racing because their pack is gargantuan and much more dominant than Scotlands.

        As fir your second paragraph this article is about culture.

      5. And culture has nothing to do with making selfish choices on the pitch that show complete disregard to team and break the thin glimmer of trust that exists ? really.

        Are we getting confused with the Edinburgh festival culture.

      6. This article isn’t about decisions on the pitch it’s about team culture. Try to stay on topic please rather than this odd tangent.

        Ah hang on it’s half term isn’t it…now I understand.

      7. Dear Horace. ‘Culture’ is the topic , culture , specifically organisational Culture, is the topic, it is actually the problem to be understood according to the writer, debating what cuture we actually have. Decisions both on or off the pitch are the symptoms of a culture and all we can actually read as they are public knowledge. Read the article.

      8. What are you on about? Nonsensical ramblings. Do you think the culture impacts decisions on the pitch or not?

        It clearly does just as the flagrant disregard for team culture shown by going out on the p*** shows either exactly that or that no good culture existing in the first place.

        Do you see now how it all links together?

      9. Horace : I am pleased to see are you now arguing my point for me ! If you cannot beat them, join them . Fantastic. Clearly I have been on topic all the time. Your apology is welcome. Glad to see you got there in the end.

      10. I do not believe anything other than what was reported by the BBC. That Finn on his own story is a complete nonsense IMO.

      11. Poor old Hoggy. What was Rob Baxter thinking. Hoggy gets it in the ear from the SRU and his regular boss sticks an oar in to further antagonise the situation.

  2. Do you want a new culture or the old one. Do you want a new culture led by the old leaders ! You cannot teach old dogs new tricks. I think loyalties need to be challenged.

  3. @Stooryfoot wrote:
    “Given Townsend is such a devotee of the study of high performing teams, it would seem that he’s either getting the execution wrong, fundamentally misunderstanding or taking the wrong lessons out of his research”

    Spot on. That pretty much sums up where I think the issue is likely to lie. As to the required solution: that depends on which of the causes is the truth. We’re unlikely to ever know and it’s possible Townsend himself doesn’t know.

    [as an aside: Loving the name! Big fan of the mighty Ps!]

    1. Thanks Badger, I’m new in town (5 years) so I thought it was fitting. It’s a great place to live!

      Here’s hoping the lessons get learned quickly – whatever the cause of the issues.

  4. An interesting piece. Quite a few years ago, in the context of public service leadership development, I worked with a well-known, published advocate of the theory of Organisational Culture.
    I was a bit sceptical initially, but did begin to buy in to his ideas. Particularly when I reflected on a culture/organisation that I had been lucky enough to have worked in for many years where excellence was sought at every level in the organisation, where everyone was encouraged to achieve excellence, and where behaviours and attitudes that didn’t meet the standard were frowned upon, by peers and managers alike. We didn’t ‘win’ every game we played, but we certainly tried.
    I can see the connection here to our national team’s, or any sports team’s, search for sustained improvement.

    1. Thanks John. Really interesting to hear your own experiences and you hit the nail on the head talking about ‘peers and managers alike’. A strong culture becomes self-perpetuating.

      I too was a bit of a sceptic when I first got into the subject but over the years I’ve come to believe that creating and managing the right culture is vital for both performance and continuous improvement.

  5. @Tenc: I agreed with your 4th & 5th paragraphs. The stuff about getting rid of players; not so much.

    You’re making assumptions about what players think “because they think they are bigger than the others”. I’m not sure any of us can say that (one way or the other) but my view is simply that a strong culture within the organisation could (and should) be able to change that.

    Talking about pruning and plant management is simplistic and flawed. Organisations and people are a wee bit more complex than that. If we ‘prune’ players, the organisation doesn’t simply re-grow. The players need to be replaced. If we still haven’t resolved cultural issues then the problems will persist and re-surface in the new players. It’s probably one of the reasons successful companies don’t just ask gardeners.

    1. I completely disagree . Successful companies do prune, they cut out the deadwood, you know that as well as I do. They also recognise you cannot change some people. They focus on those they can change and the others decide it is not for them and go, or in a few cases, they man up and change.

      Yes I can only look on and make some guesswork, but I am not wrong, Management degrees are hardly rare, experience is hardly rare, I trust my self. Some have an attitude that is not right in a team. First of all they were in denial that the breach was anything to do with them. Nothing to do with me ! The first rule of change is dis-satisfaction with the status quo, and that lot are quite satisfied with the status quo.

      They need to want to change. They are all people, good managers need people skills to embody the culture. You will never win them over by the current tactics. Cotter had the answer, slow deliberate change, not big bang. You need to give the vision and keep taking them back to that picture. Ask yourself this, who would you want to run your company ?

      I have been around long enough to understand people, I know whom I would not have in my side. I can assure you it will get an instant improvement when they go and then slow but deliberate change. The reality , is that there is someone ready to fill their jersey , right now.

      But they need to go , I cannot be clearer on that point and that includes your favourites. That is the harsh reality. Ask yourself , are they really wanting to change ?

    2. Genuinely fascinating insights. IMO the problem(s) are squarely with Townsend, in my extensive quality assurance experience in the Civil Service where there is good leadership there is good performance. Simple as that. We have went from the “fastest rugby in the world” debacle to the more pragmatic defence orientated style. Yes we have won in Wales and in England , after calling for GT to be sacked after Japan, he seemed to learn…………..but we haven’t improved and the very reason this thread is here is that the squad isn’t happy. Unquestionably Hogg is absolutely brilliant and Russell is the same, a good leader would build the team around this and ensure we get the very best out of them. Russell has looked “off” and Hogg obviously isn’t well advised / coached as he clearly tries too hard. See Edinburgh under Blair, a team pulling fighting together, I don’t see that with Scotland.

      1. Thanks John. Great observations and I completely agree.

        Setting aside the whole culture thing for a moment, I can’t help feeling that Townsend is trying too hard to be ‘clever’ – the ‘Toony tombola’ thing is no longer amusing! In my opinion he’d be better served by working to create a consistent environment where the players can flourish. But that’s probably a post for another day!

      2. The tombola is short term ism. Creates fear, which gets a short term performance gain but shows no investment from either party longer term and stifles creativity. You cannot create a culture in that environment.

        How would you like this to be your workplace? Would you stay ? Ah, no you cannot change because once capped you lose your freedom. Another tactic, cappem and dropem. We are building up a lot of problems for the next coach by one that should never have been appointed in the first place.

      3. So few words , yet so very right TENC. In a few sentences you have nailed it.

  6. Love it if Racing win the ECC. Finn at the fore as always. Jones on the scoreboard again for Quins. Shame that the ever mercurial Marcus Smith missed a sitter under pressure.

    1. They’ll have to work hard to do so. Especially up front – their line out was terrible…

    2. Finn was top gun for sure. Huw Jones had a mixed game, he took his score well and shone in a classy Quins back line. As you say, shame about the kick, it was a stinker.

  7. didnt know where to put this, but is there recent evidence that Blair Kinghorn might be developing into a credible number 10?

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