I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels between sport and business, especially how activities off the field can dramatically impact the results on it. Over the last few years, I’ve been watching the change at Liverpool Football Club with interest. It’s not so much the success that intrigues me but more the change in culture that began with the arrival of manager Jurgen Klopp.
Over the weekend, I listened to a great analysis of Klopp’s leadership on the podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat. After listening to the show I think there are two critical elements that have supported change at Liverpool and I want to share these with you today.
When he joined Liverpool, Klopp made the point of learning the names of all eighty employees at Melwood the clubs training ground. He lined them all up in the dining hall and introduced them to the players. Klopp explained to the whole group that they all had a responsibility to help each other achieve their best.
Creating a sense of inclusivity and family is critical to the Klopp approach. He works hard to make the players and staff feel valued, which creates inclusive energy that can sustainably engage people.
A study found that 74% of engaged employees believed senior leaders had a sincere interest in their well-being. While in a similar sample of disengaged employees, only 18% felt their managers genuinely cared about their well-being. The study suggests that leaders can increase employee engagement by expressing emotion and creating bonds that unlock better performance in colleagues.
This raises the question of whether engagement is Klopp’s secret weapon to delivering better results on the pitch?
In an analysis of 50 global companies, consulting firm Towers Watson found that companies with low engagement scores had an average profit margin of just under 10 percent. But those firms with high engagement had a slightly higher margin of 14 percent. The superstar firms with the highest engagement scores had an average profit margin of 27 percent.
I think the same is happening at Liverpool. By Klopp expressing interest in employees, he is dragging up their engagement and connection to the cause, giving everyone a sense of shared purpose.
We’ve seen how creating connection, engagement and shared purpose can lead to greater success, but this benefit could be quickly eroded without creating psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s characterised by mutual honesty, honesty of the team with the boss and the boss with the team.
Klopp creates safety by encouraging his team to take chances. He would tell his players he would rather see them shoot and miss, than not try at all. He famously will not criticise technical errors and instead consoles and then encourages players when these are made. Ultimately psychological safety is about letting players know they won’t be blamed for giving everything they’ve got.
Klopp also reinforces psychological safety by how he deals with mistakes. In 2018 Liverpool were beaten 3-1 in the Champions League final after two shocking mistakes made by Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. However, in an interview after the game, Klopp never blamed the goalkeeper. In contrast he complimented him, saying he was a fantastic individual who would recognise the errors.
Although Karius left Liverpool shortly afterward, the way Klopp treated him as a person is to be admired. It demonstrated to others they would always be respected and treated fairly at Liverpool.
If we want our teams to be creative, we can’t punish them for mistakes. Klopp goes out of his way to show that no one will pay the price for making mistakes.
It will be interesting to see if Liverpool can repeat their successes in the coming seasons. Building a self-sustaining organisational culture is a challenge that has eclipsed all but the best leaders. It will be interesting to see if Klopp can prevent the burnout seen at other clubs who have gone through a shift in culture.
Whatever happens in the future, I think Klopp’s success is best measured not by football results but how he is seen as a human. I will leave you with this quote from defender Virgil van Dijk which I think encapsulates Klopp’s success best.
“He is a fantastic manager first and foremost, but he is also a fantastic human being as well. How he handles us as players at the games and outside the games is outstanding. It’s a pleasure to work with him and with all the staff that work at Melwood. It’s an amazing environment to be in. I’m very proud and very glad that he wanted me to play at this beautiful club.”