Opinion: Blaming culture for failure clutching at straws

The relationship between culture and performance in sport is a fickle thing.

If a team wins, it is often claimed that a strong culture was the reason for success. If a team loses, a ''toxic'' culture was to blame.

In many cases, the culture between losing teams and winning teams is very similar, and yet we clutch at straws to explain a failure to win, and focusing on culture seems a valid place to start clutching.

Recently, the cultures of teams such as the Black Caps, Warriors and Wellington Phoenix have come under scrutiny.

In some cases, the culture of entire sports can be dissected, as has been the case recently with cycling and Australian sport in general.

Imagine if the All Blacks had lost the World Cup final in 2011? Fingers would be pointing at the leadership of the coaches and captain, and the culture of the team. Fortunately, that didn't happen.

They won by the slimmest of margins and yet the culture of the All Blacks is often held up as exemplary while the culture of the French rugby team was considered less ideal. Would one try to give the French the win have changed that cultural perception?Independent business consultants suggested the culture of the Australian swim team was toxic, following its poor performance at the London Olympics. Many of the elements of culture revealed in their report tend to be associated more with pool-side party antics rather than excellent pool performance. With pranks, inflated egos, a lack of unity and unrealistic expectations it was more like a frat party than an elite sports team.

Personally, it is difficult to think of a bunch of swimmers as a ''team''. For the most part, aren't they a cluster of individuals doing their own thing in a pool with very little in the way of social interaction, communication, or teamwork?It is no wonder therefore, that the report found standards, discipline and accountabilities were too loose and there was very little in the way of damage control when problems did arise.

The father of organisational culture, Edgar Schein, suggests there are layers of culture within an organisation - artefacts, values, norms and assumptions. According to Schein the essence of culture is its core of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.

It seems the Australian swim team assumed they'd be successful at the Olympics, and when those assumptions didn't eventuate, the team struggled to adapt effectively and internally combusted instead.

Researchers have found that when cultures do not support adaptation, cultural strength can interfere with performance, but when culture and the need for adaptation are aligned, cultural strength boosts performance.

And so, the swim team resisted adapting to their environment and unexpected outcomes in a positive way and decided to get drunk, misuse drugs, breach curfews, be deceitful, and bully as a coping mechanism.

It was also a case of united they stood (especially when they had a winning reputation in the past) and divided they fell. Divisions between swimmers based on experience, gender, and performance became more pronounced.

Could it be suggested that the report may not have discovered a variation from the norm for the Australian swim team, but a reflection of what is normal in that environment?

Isn't it normal for most Olympians to go a bit crazy in the Olympic village? It wasn't so long ago that some of our New Zealand swimmers were under the spotlight for inappropriate behaviour. What happens when you get a bunch of relatively young individuals together, mix in a little water, and add a couple of inflated egos?In the end, the finger pointed at a lack of leadership and deviant subcultures to explain poor performance - a much easier and more palatable solution than highlighting there might be a problem with Australian sporting culture in general.

Oh yeah, they've also released a report on that as well.

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