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How the halo effect dumbs us all down

Jul 18, 2021 Success, Sunday Nation

It didn’t come home.

In one of their most hyped football tournaments ever, England performed extremely well – but fell at the last hurdle, losing on penalties to Italy in the 2020 European Championship final last week.

More on that to come, but first, let’s talk about one of the curious phenomena of human behaviour. It’s called the halo effect, and it was popularized by Phil Rosenzweig in his book of the same name some years ago.

Mr Rosenzweig asked us to consider, amongst others, the case of the UK’s Marks & Spencer. Fifteen years ago, M&S was on a roll, becoming Britain’s Most Admired Company and ranked very highly across all nine categories used to decide the annual award. It became the poster child for good management. If you wanted to understand how to do great business, you studied M&S and the way they did things. The halo was shining bright.

Can any company be that good, though? Nope, and in the years to come, the halo slipped and results faltered, badly. M&S now became an example to all of what not to do in management. Had the company changed anything, though? Not really. Same people, same ethos, same practices. But now that they were not successful, those very things became blemishes, not attributes.

Back to Euro 2020 (held in 2021, due to a certain virus).

England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, had taken his team to the semifinals of football’s World Cup in 2018. He won plaudits then, for that was further than the team had gone for quite a while. But subsequently, fans and pundits started turning against their manager. Popular opinion marked him out as too timid and conservative, and the fear was that he might squander the generation of sparkling young talent at his disposal.

Nonetheless, England started last month’s Euros with a bang, defeating teams emphatically and confidently. When even the old enemy Germany was vanquished, popular opinion swung dramatically. This manager was now a man with a plan, “the one” destined to “bring it home.” His tactics and style were now being lauded as exceptional. He was a footballing brain, easily out-thinking more seasoned opponents.

Right until the end. When England lost the final by missing the last few penalty kicks, the fans turned again. The three players who missed the penalties were racially abused by supporters who were cheering them on only minutes earlier. One can understand the fickleness of imbeciles in the fanbase, but pundits and analysts now started providing chapter and verse on the manager’s mistakes: playing a defensive low-block despite taking an early lead against Italy; not being able to change his play even though Italy had begun overrunning his team after equalizing; and then not having the wisdom to let more seasoned players take the crucial final penalties.

The general feeling now is that the manager is too timid, too stuck in his ways, and squandering the talent at his disposal. Ahem. The halo effect writ large. The same guy was first a dud, then a genius, then a dud again. When he wasn’t doing well, his lack of experience and flamboyance were faults. When his team went on a great run, those things became distinctive attributes – he had a system and it worked. When he fell at the final hurdle, they became flaws again.

But wait – had those final penalty kicks gone in, sentiment would have been very different. Had England brought a major international trophy home after “55 years of hurt”, the manager would have had a statue built in his honour and his methods would have been held up as exemplary. A few inches here or there were the difference.

The truth is this: Gareth Southgate is a good manager and a very decent man. He is neither a genius nor a dud. He has taken his team to a big semifinal and final in close succession – more than most of his predecessors have ever achieved. He knows the game, he follows a certain system, and he’s created great kinship in his band of players. He came very, very close to winning this one. He is more than his fickle supporters deserve.

The halo effect dumbs us all down. We jump to strong conclusions, positive and negative, based on whether success has happened or not. The truth is, no organization or leader is as good as they look when they are winning; nor do they suddenly become useless when fortunes change. We need more nuanced views of success and its causes, and we need to be less shallow and capricious in our judgements. 

Easier said than done, though. I know I have fallen victim to the halo effect from time to time. So have you. We can all do better by not having wild swings in our evaluations of achievement based only on the most recent information.

(Sunday Nation, 18 July 2021)

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