Is there a ‘State of Origin’ in your workplace?

Athena Chintis

We love sharing insights from our HR community. This week Athena Chintis gives us some lessons that can be learnt from the world of sport. Hope you enjoy the read – Emma

After the excitement of the recent State of Origin decider, I’ve been thinking about the unique team environment that Origin players must operate in.

We’ve all heard the “Mate Against Mate” line and watching week-in-week-out teammates play against each other usually gives us a really exciting game of footy.

But what is it like inside the team camps? How do players go out on the field and aim to smash guys they usually play alongside?

And what are the lessons for CEOs and senior leaders who have to lead a team of people who’ve been brought together under unusual circumstances?

Brad Clyde’s view from the inside

I had a chat with Bradley Clyde, a legendary league player who was “widely acknowledged as the best lock forward in the game”. Brad played for the NSW Blues 12 times in State of Origin games so I was keen to get his insight into the challenge of playing alongside and against your usual teammates and captain.

Brad was clear that the overriding objective was to win the Origin games and everyone on the team was united in that shared goal. “We all worked to generate a culture to win, with that willingness to jump into the trenches with each other.” At the pre-match camp, the team developed their game strategy and their bond.

Brad recalled how past Blues Coach Phil Gould would inspire the team. “Phil is a strong communicator and in the last few nights before the match, he’d tell us “bedtime stories” about inspiring moments in history: war, diseases, Everest. He’d tell us we had to go out on the field and take a bullet for each other.”

“He’d tell us we had to go out on the field and take a bullet for each other.”

According to Brad, Phil Gould created an environment where everybody felt included. “We had a strong team culture, where we could break down the barriers and connect with each other.”

And as far as ‘mate against mate’ goes, Brad spoke passionately about his desire to always be regarded by his peers as a good player. “I wanted to win but I did not want anyone to get injured.”

It speaks volumes about the success of those team building efforts that today Brad says some of his closest friends come from his days playing in Origin and Australian representative teams.

There are some very valuable lessons here for CEOs and team leaders.  

Lessons for CEOs and leaders

There are plenty of everyday work situations where leaders have to create a strong team from people who have divided loyalties.

In the case of company mergers or department amalgamations, people who have been former rivals now need to work together. Or sometimes, key people are poached from a competitor organisation and have to ‘change their team’.

Building a winning team in any of these situations requires strong leadership and a sound strategy. Here’s my advice:

1. Build a ‘brand’ that everyone scrambles to work for

State of Origin has a powerful brand of its own.

That means Origin players all badly want to be part of their State team. They want the honour and the glory, and they accept big compromises to be included, like having to play a different position. Both teams in the 2017 series included players – like Jarryd Hayne, Michael Morgan and Darius Boyd– who are out of their usual playing position. It amazes me how champion footballers leave their egos at the door just to be part of an Origin team. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for newly merged corporate teams to take a leaf out of this book?

That strong motivation means the State teams can get by with just a few days in the pre-match camps, but leaders should not expect to have a strong new team in a week.  A new team will need time and careful nurturing before they pull together as one.

2. Go offsite

It’s a good idea to get a new team offsite for a few days, to help cement their new working relationships.

Just like the Origin teams have their pre-match camps, it’s important to be physically together in the same room, especially if the team is not together on a daily basis. The Origin camps focus just as much on building a strong and united team culture and a winning mindset, as on their gameplays.

Being in a neutral environment, with a facilitated session, can really help to ‘clean the slate’ and allow people with previous differences to work towards common goals and a way forward.

3. Create an open environment

Putting people into a situation where there could be inherent conflict can really impact on their sense of psychological safety. I talked about this concept in a previous article, which looks at Google’s research about how important feeling safe is for successful teams.

For leaders, it’s critical that your team members feel they can trust you and each other.  To achieve this trusted environment, you’ll need to lead open and honest conversations, and ensure people are heard and feel included.

Leaders who show their vulnerability get the most discretionary effort from their teams.

In my experience, the leaders who show their vulnerability do best in creating a culture of safety and openness. They are also the ones who get the most discretionary effort from their teams.

4. Know your purpose

There’s no doubt that employees work better and are happier when they feel strongly connected to a sense of purpose in their work.

One of the reasons we love sport is that we see players and athletes pushing themselves beyond what seems physically possible.

They play when injured, sick, sad or just plain exhausted and sometimes those performances are the most inspiring.  Look at Johnathan Thurston’s amazing effort in Game 2 – pushing through the severe pain of a serious shoulder injury to kick the winning goal that kept the Maroons series chances alive. I think sportspeople elevate all of us when they extend the limits of what humans can achieve.

I think sportspeople elevate all of us when they extend the limits of what humans can achieve.

So it’s easy to see the higher purpose that explains why athletes commit to unbelievably tough and disciplined routines.  

Your team members also need to know their higher purpose and hopefully, your organisation has invested in understanding its true purpose. Leaders need to be personally committed to this vision and be able to communicate it to their people.

Great coach, great team

Ultimately, at every State of Origin, we see the triumph of strong teamwork and solid coaching.

Good leaders make good teams. It’s as simple as that.

Good leaders make good teams. It’s as simple as that. If you are authentic, connected to your purpose, open, honest and vulnerable, you’ll attract great people who will work with you and the rest of the team, no matter what your team’s origin was.

About the author

Athena Chintis is a senior HR professional who specialises in creating a successful culture for fast-paced organisations. She is currently a State Councillor & Secretary – NSW for the Australian HR Institute (AHRI) and on their Committee for Diversity & Inclusion. She is a keen rugby and rugby league supporter and believes there are many useful lessons for business from the world of sport.


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