Taking over as the head coach of a new team is a big challenge, particularly when done in the middle of the season. And even though Jason Garrett is not new to the Dallas Cowboys, he suddenly faces new and often conflicting demands on his agenda: He’s been tasked with installing a new culture, he needs to figure out his relationship with Jerry Jones, he needs to get up to speed on the defensive side of the team, he needs to assess the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the team, he has to please the media and the fans and on top of it all it would be really, really nice if he can secure some wins on the field for a team that had hit rock bottom.
All these things had to be done quickly and effectively: quickly, because with eight games left on the schedule when Garrett was appointed, he needed to get things turned around in a hurry; effectively, because performance expectations in the NFL are very high and his boss is likely to have little patience with him if he didn’t score some quick wins, literally and figuratively.
A new head coach doesn’t just take charge of a few football players who he must get to know, train and choose to retain (or not). Garrett now finds himself in a situation where he is suddenly responsible for a whole new portfolio of relationships, including the coaching staff, the front office staff all the way up to Jerry Jones, members of the media, us fans, partners and sponsors, player agents and all sorts of other sycophants, hangers-on and free-loaders circling Valley Ranch.
In the process, an unwary head coach can end up mislabeling others, being mislabeled by others or getting caught in undertow of poorly articulated or unrealistic expectations.
During the summer, I had the opportunity to meet Jean-Francois Manzoni, a Professor for Leadership and Organizational Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jean-Francois wrote an entire book on the subject of managing expectations in a leadership role, aptly titled "The Set-up-to-fail Syndrome". Among many other things, the book details how boss-subordinate relationships, if they do not get off on the right foot, can quickly deteriorate and end up in a vicious cycle that can prove very damaging to a manager’s effectiveness and reputation.
His basic premise is that human beings apply labels to others all the time. A positive label in many ways is the equivalent to a get-out-of-jail free card: many mistakes will simply be overlooked or downplayed. A negative label requires an inordinate effort to overcome, if it can be overcome at all. Nowhere does this apply more than in the relationship dynamic of fans or media members with players or coaches on a team. The reason for this is that applying labels helps us make up our minds and form opinions faster without having to painstakingly analyze and evaluate all available facts. This is especially true when there is an information vacuum that does not allow us to really know the players or coaches.
"Wade Phillips was too soft", "Roy Williams is overpaid and doesn’t work hard enough", "Tony Romo doesn’t shout enough on the sidelines and therefore is not a leader", "Garrett is a Princeton grad who often outsmarts himself, particularly in his playcalling", "Jerry Jones is an oil-man so he cannot know anything about football". I could go on and on, but you get the picture. These are labels that cling tighter than a six-year-old in the cereal aisle to each of the dramatis personae above. Take Jerry Jones: every wrong decision he makes we take as further proof that he needs to retire, and quickly. Every good football decision he’s ever made, he simply got lucky, or, when you think about it long enough, it was really somebody else responsible altogether. Sound familiar?
The issue with labeling is that most negative labels are self-fulfilling. Here’s another example: When Wade Phillips originally joined the Cowboys, he was described as 'a players coach who knew what he was doing'. However, once it was determined that Wade Phillips was soft, everything Wade Phillips did from that point on was looked at through biased glasses and we all saw what we expected to see: The guy was soft. And the more he tried not to be soft, the more convinced we all became that he was in fact really, really soft. Softness of the distinctly marshmallowy kind even.
Back to Coach Garrett: The initial euphoria of his press conferences and his ‘have a great day’ message is slowly beginning to wear off. And where everything was looking rosy at 3-1, the loss to the Eagles has dampened the mood considerably.
Garrett and the Cowboys need to be aware of this. Labels are given and received fairly early and quickly in relationships. As fans, most of us proudly wear our proverbial rose-colored glasses. But not all of us. And not all the time. What may be an objective reality will be interpreted very differently depending on the type of label you’ve attached to a person.
Here’s an example of Garrett, and how any type of behavior or personality trait can and will be interpreted very differently, based on a pre-determined label you’ve given the person. It's a fine line:
Winning is a great deodorant. A couple more wins and the majority of fans and media will see the Garrett on the left side, and it will be hard for Jerry not to remove the ‘interim’ tag from Garrett’s title. But watch out when the mood begins to turn: Jerry will not hire the guy on the right. Instead he will turn to another candidate who has the right labels attached to him, regardless of whether this reflects ‘objective reality’ (if there is such a thing at all).
The importance of the first few weeks cannot and should not be underestimated by Jason Garrett, they may well decide his whole future in the NFL. And it's about much more than winning a couple of games. To avoid being mislabeled, Garrett needs to find time on his already packed agenda to agree and define clear expectations with Jerry Jones. He needs to give all the stakeholders (media, fans, front office, team etc.) a better feel for Jason Garrett the person in order to help them resist the temptation to stick some hasty and reductive labels on him. And he needs to give everybody a clear understanding of what he stands for.
Investing in this type of relationship-building up front will carry huge dividends: Not only will a positive label result in more credit if you do things right, but negative or ambiguous things will be far more easily overlooked. Also, the amount of time and effort that may be needed down the road to correct a negative label may be more than Garrett can afford, thereby impacting his and his team’s performance – and ultimately reinforcing the negative label. And then everybody can once again say: See, I told you so.