With speculation rife over who will be taking over as manager of Manchester United FC in the coming season, any talk of appointing current caretaker and former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is strictly under wraps.
With limited experience in top-flight football, the Norwegian currently in charge of the biggest club in the world has renewed players’ confidence and attacking flair. The turnaround from ex-manager Jose Mourinho’s dismal performance this season can be explained by what social psychologists call the social identity approach – the study of interpersonal relationships and emotional connections within a group.
Solskjaer scored 126 goals for Manchester United between 1996 and 2007 under manager Alex Ferguson, but he is best remembered for coming off the bench to score in the 93rd minute of the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. His winning goal in the dying seconds of this legendary match gained him the respect and adulation of fans and a place in the club’s history. When he was appointed interim manager the day after Mourinho was sacked, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s history at Manchester United means he lives and breathes the culture here and everyone at the club is delighted to have him back. We are confident he will unite the players and the fans as we head into the second half of the season.
Leading and managing
The way a manager leads can have major implications for the way a team performs. Once, a leader with “special” qualities, such as superior intelligence and self-confidence (like Mourinho), was likely to be regarded as effective and influential. But current research into effective leadership styles indicate that this is not the case.
It has been established that an emotional bond between manager and players brings trust, respect and increased effort towards attaining team goals. Usually, this relationship is developed over time through shared experiences. Yet Solskjaer has managed to gain this trust, respect and effort with minimal time to make it happen.
Research tells us that successful leaders are able to identify and communicate a clear vision and values to their team, knowing what it means to belong and pushing players towards performance excellence. The atmosphere, values, beliefs, connectedness and spirit of Manchester United were ingrained by Ferguson’s 26-year stewardship and his subsequent legacy.
So, when his protege took the reigns, understanding the unique qualities that define Manchester United, Solskjaer was more likely to be respected and listened to. In his first few weeks in charge, Solskjaer has brought the players together and a return to the relentless squad they are known to be.
As with former United hero Ryan Giggs’s short interim appointment in 2014, it is not the manager’s own will that can change or create something new, because he is required to adhere to and advance the established culture that already exists at the club. Rather unfairly for a manager who is an outsider, “one of us” (that is, one who knows what it means to be part of Manchester United) will, most of the time, be more favourably regarded than someone from outside of the club’s culture.
Irrespective of context, a manager who has no emotional connections with the team, is more likely to affect players negatively. Players can feel threatened when facing competition if they perceive a lack of emotional connection with their manager, thus reducing the level of drive and performance.
Stress and performance
Recent research has identified that a leader with whom a person feels an emotional connection (as a result of shared values and vision) can have an effect on levels of stress and performance. Stress is not inherently bad. When players feel they can cope with the demands of a situation, the resultant stress is likely to be helpful in terms of driving performance. This is known as a “challenge state”, which is beneficial for health and performance.
Conversely, feeling unable to cope with the demands of the situation is likely to be detrimental to health and performance, and is known as a “threat state”. I do not use stress in its common usage, to mean fatigue and overload, where a lot is bad, and little is good. Stress can be both helpful and unhelpful.
The benefits of a challenge state are derived from the increases in efficiency of blood flow to the brain and muscles, with threat states having the opposite effect. Recent research has identified that those who have little emotional connection with their leader are more likely to experience a threat state, which is bad for health and performance.
This has far-reaching implications that can explain recent events at Manchester United. By introducing a manager who understands the deeply entrenched values and vision of the club, a strong emotional connection has developed in a short space of time, contributing to positive stress and improved performance of players.
Based on the club’s recent successes, it is telling that the negative stress afflicting the team occurred before Solskjaer’s appointment, and has seemingly quickly disappeared since his arrival.
From this change in Manchester United’s fortunes, it is clear that strong respectful relationships and genuine emotional connections play a large part in the way a team functions. The ability to lead in this way should not be overlooked in a manager, even if actual experience in the job is lacking.