Eventually, we’ll reach the end of another football season in Europe. Clubs will be considering improvements to their squads. So, what happens when a new signing enters the dressing room? Does it lift the moral and emotions of the whole squad? How does it impact current players? Will it affect their well-being, or team cohesion and performance? And what role does empathy or empathic leadership play?
A squad of athletes may be compared to any social group. Findings have been consistent across studies from military units to troops of baboons. These findings show that a new member will cause disruption that impacts all group members. The faster the new member is integrated, the sooner this uneasy period ends, which is good news for those seeking cohesion and ultimately the success of the group or team.
In sport, a new recruit presents a challenge to the leader. Although a new signing can boost a dressing room, it’s not always easy to judge the reactions across a squad. To do this, an empathic leader utilises knowledge and understanding of individual athletes, and this highlights the importance of close relationships.
In most cases, a leader will know least about the new recruit. One temptation maybe to focus on this one individual, although the whole group is experiencing change and will benefit from the leader’s understanding and if necessary, support. Dynamic communication and reassurances about the situation will help.
There’s also a social hierarchy within groups that new recruits disturb. Typically, low-ranking members of a group (in sport this may relate to younger or lower paid athletes) suffer more stress than higher-ranking members. Yet evidence suggests that when a new member enters, it is the higher-ranking members who will be most affected. Positions are threatened. In sport this is literal; in both status and selection. The stress experienced may result in behaviour that is out of character. Perspectives become cloudy during this period of adjustment. A lack of clarity is due to what is going on at a neurochemical as well as an emotional level.
The perceived threat means adrenal glands are activated and blood becomes awash with glucocorticoids, like cortisol. Any consequences of this are significant if the stress endures, with both mental and physical health at risk. Again, assimilating a new member into a group as soon as possible is better for everyone.
Once a new signing is integrated, glucocorticoid levels will subside, social behaviour will normalise and the stress experienced will dissipate. Thankfully, there are ways of minimising the time this takes.
A new member entering a group can be less threatening and integrate faster if the climate is empathic and relationships are close. In effect, individuals will feel more secure and be more resilient to change. Furthermore, a neurochemical consequence of an empathic climate is elevated levels of oxytocin, a counter-balance to cortisol; and helpful for mental and physical well-being. As a result, the stress experienced will be less significant and social behaviours less volatile.
It is important to remember that a new recruit should be a positive event for a club or any organisation. An empathic leader and an empathic climate offer protection against the potentially negative consequences of their arrival and should speed up integration. Moreover, leaders of groups or teams in any industry need to remain aware of the perspectives of those they lead and how these perspectives may be influenced by any change, including change of personnel.
Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation
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