How To: Rugby Rules for Management Skills
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On a recent vacation in South Africa with my expat husband, I spent some time watching rugby. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, think of American football played without protective gear or forward passing. Also, the game doesn’t stop when the ball carrier is down; in fact, it gets more interesting as members of both teams pile on and try to take the ball away to continue play. And then there’s the scrum, the complete free-for-all where players engage in what looks like any behavior necessary to snag the ball for their side. A scrum is called for whenever there’s some kind of rule infraction (just don’t ask me what those might be).
It begins in a curiously civilized way. The teams line up, single file, across from each other. The referee says three words: touch, pause, engage. At “touch,” the players all bend toward each other and touch fingertips across the line. “Pause,” and the teams freeze in place. “Engage,” and play begins. Those three words struck me as having real utility for our lives as managers as well as life outside the office.
Getting in touch starts the connection. While physical touching is usually discouraged in the workplace, you as a manager need to be in regular touch—connection—with your staff. This doesn’t mean micro-managing. It does mean having ongoing conversations about what people are thinking, how they’re working, what they’re feeling, and what resources they need that you can provide. It means being very specific about what they did when you compliment them for a job well done. These talks can be as simple as, “What worked, what didn’t,” or as complex as a strategy meeting.
Pausing is one of the most useful ‘inactions’ we can employ in most situations. Before the scrum, you can see the players focusing, gathering their energy for the action to come, for the achievement of their goal. A pause after you’ve made a connection, before you launch into your comment or conversation, gives you space. Space to focus on your goal, the result you want to achieve. And in the case of a difficult conversation, or something that can devolve into an argument, you have the chance to breathe deeply and consider the outcome you want.
Engage not in the frenzy of a scrum, but in the real work ahead of you. It might be a performance review, a coaching meeting, or a conversation with your teenager. It can be as serious as where to take your business next, or as lighthearted as what to have for dinner. The important element is being present. Engaging isn’t multitasking, it’s ‘uni-tasking.’ It’s bringing your entire attention to the person and issue at hand. In our hyper-connected world, it’s one of the more difficult things to do. It’s also the one that will bring the most rewards.
Touch. Pause. Engage. Three rugby rules worth adding to your management—and life—playbook.
Barbara Kurka, an experienced HR professional, offers executive coaching; management training, and HR consulting, the latter uniquely geared toward small businesses. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.