In short, we’re talking football. In particular we’re talking about internal team conversations being reported to the media. But, more broadly, we’re talking communication and its relationship management role, and the impact even the smallest of words can have on a message.
The story, as it’s been reported to us, is that David De Gea, Manchester United’s star goalkeeper, who wants a transfer to Real Madrid, is alleged, by his manager Louis van Gaal, to have said ‘no’ when asked whether he wanted to play in the Premier League season opener. Manchester United subsequently revised this to suggest that De Gea didn’t say ‘no’ but instead said he was ‘not eager to play’.
The question I’m exploring here is, does it matter? Saying ‘no’ I don’t want to play is a cardinal sin in professional sport. Athletes who go down this path are accused of lacking the values and respect necessary of a professional athlete. But, is saying ‘I’m not eager to play’ any different?
It obviously mattered for Manchester United, as it was the club who clarified and remodelled the De Gea quote. So, what do these changes signal? Obviously, the directness of the ‘no’ has been altered. ‘Not eager’ is not quite as direct as an outright ‘no’. Also, a range of additional remarks were made (or reported) second time around, including adding reasons for ‘not being eager’ to play, which helps provide an official explanation in an attempt to stop others speculating the reason.
However, perhaps what is more interesting to consider is why these changes were made at all. One reason that jumps out for me is the way these softer changes work on a relationship management level. Let me explain.
We often think of good communication as clearly transmitting facts and information, but communication also has important consequences for relationships, working relationships or personal ones. There are many relationships in play in this story: Louis van Gaal and De Gea, De Gea and the public (or fans), van Gaal and the public, van Gaal and the other players in the team (particularly those who liked De Gea), van Gaal and Manchester United club administrators, van Gaal, Manchester United and future transfer targets considering the club and several others. The changes made to De Gea’s quote could have been made in order to protect or bolster several of these relationships. Let’s explore a couple of these further.
Reporting De Gea as directly saying ‘no’ to playing potentially damages De Gea’s image with the fans of the club. If you had a choice, would you rather be quoted as saying ‘no I don’t want to play’, or ‘I’m not eager to play because of the transfer speculation surrounding me’? The former hints at petulance, the latter, while still expressing a desire not to play, has some semblance of professionalism. Petulance is not something fans appreciate.
Fans of De Gea may not be happy with the way he was treated, and may hold reservations about the manager. Several teammates of De Gea may also be upset by the reporting of team conversations and may withdraw, or, even worse, may start questioning the manager’s decisions, particularly if results start to go south.
De Gea may feel let down by the club and the manager for this, which may in turn affect the relationship between De Gea and van Gaal. This appears to be unimportant given the pending transfer, however, it is a story that now adds to the van Gaal ‘history’, his narrative if you like. This may be a factor future transfer targets of the club consider when weighing up their decision to join Manchester United or not, or when current players come to renew contracts.
There might be other potential relationship consequences that you can think of. However, the link between language use and relationship management is an important consideration for managers and is highlighted nicely by this example. Managers who want to keep their working relationships gelling need to have good awareness of the wider impact of their word choices, even when reporting the words of others, particularly in delicate situations. Ideally, they will have a set of communicative principles they can orient to when dealing with difficult situations, so as to help ensure they do not need to issue corrections and clarifications. Defining what conversations should be reported to the media might be the basis of one principle.
Directness with language is one area that will always present an issue for football managers. Managers are known for and defined by their direct (sometimes harsh) communicative choices, and there are many situations in which managers need to be direct in order to achieve their managerial goals. However, developing skills regarding when to be direct, the potential risks of being direct and when to be indirect should be the focus of sports team managers, and indeed any leader. Directness may help you achieve personal goals, but it can sometimes be a challenge for relationship management in the long term.
Finally, several managers in the Premier League, like Louis van Gaal, are using English as a second language. Hopefully these managers are given time to continue learning the language as control of language is important for football managers in all aspects of their role. English culture is an incredibly indirect one, and while neither the manager nor the player are English, this saga played out in England and in front of the English media. For second language managers, learning to be pragmatic with language is an aspect of their language training that should be seen as crucial.