by Steve Adubato, PhD
Any organization looking to understand how NOT to communicate and manage, just has to look at the NFL’s Jets. By any reasonable standard, the so-called “management” of this team has botched its communication from the day it announced the signing of Tim Tebow. This is not about football, but rather about how leaders manage and communicate with their key team players as well as stakeholders or, in the case of the Jets, their fans and the news media.
Just consider a few of the most obvious communication, leadership and management mistakes the Jets have made involving their “quarterback situation” this season, which provide many lessons for the rest of us in business.
Apparently, Tim Tebow believed that he was coming to the Jets to get a considerable amount of playing time as quarterback, either as the No. 2 to Mark Sanchez or as the potential starter. I’m not sure exactly what was “communicated” to Tebow by Jets owner Woody Johnson, who clearly wanted Tebow as a fan attraction. (On the record, Johnson has denied this, though it was widely assumed that is why Tebow landed here.)
But those who managed the team on a day-to-day basis, in particular coach Rex Ryan, had no intention of using Tebow in that role — especially once they saw him in practice.
The lesson here is don’t overpromise in an effort to recruit or attract people into your organization unless you are confident you can make good on that promise.
By creating this initial QB confusion about Tebow and raising expectations about his overinflated role, it undermined starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was already on shaky ground.
Therefore, every time Sanchez threw an interception or played poorly, Jets fans would yell Tebow’s name to communicate their displeasure. But again, the Jets management had no intention of replacing Sanchez with Tebow, which perpetuated a hoax on the fans and was devastating to Sanchez’s confidence. Managers in all arenas should bolster and support key team players instead of having them think that they are one mistake from being replaced — especially if it is not true.
When things really got bad for the Jets and Sanchez and it was clear the starting quarterback had to be replaced, that replacement was not Tim Tebow, but rather Greg McElroy. This was humiliating for Tebow, who was left on the sidelines (in uniform) to watch McElroy play in what he was convinced was his role as backup QB. This is about communicating with members of your team and key stakeholders about what is real and what is not.
Tebow was apparently so upset about being passed over that he met in private with coach Ryan and communicated his displeasure. Of course some sort of miscommunication took place because, according to several news reports, Tebow told Ryan that if he wasn’t going to start at quarterback, he didn’t want to play at all.
Therefore, while McElroy played the entire game last week, Sanchez and Tebow stood on the sidelines. After the game, the message publicly communicated was that Tebow had quit on his teammates by refusing to play, while Ryan refused to talk about the meeting he had with Tebow. Tebow later communicated that he must have been misunderstood by Ryan because he would never quit on his teammates.
The biggest leadership lesson here is that once you engage in a misleading truth, it forces you to work overtime to keep track of your message. Ultimately, this only guarantees an ugly and embarrassing ending.
P.S. — Late in the week, it was announced that McElroy wouldn’t play QB because he was less than honest in his communication about a head injury he suffered. Rex Ryan announced that Sanchez (not Tebow) would start as QB. Apparently, the culture of less-than-candid communication continues.