April 7, 2023
What Ted Lasso has to teach us about the holding environment
I have had a very big week! I got my hands on the new book for the first time, which was very nice. I spent the week in the workshops we hosted with Peter Liljedahl, which was fantastic (we are in the process of adding photos and resources to this Google site, and if you want to get a better idea of what this looks like in classrooms, check out the #thinkingclassroom tag on Twitter and read the book). And I learned that an article I wrote about Wilton’s use of our Accelerated Learning Framework is going to be published in The Learning Professional in June. Doesn’t get much better. But this Coaching Letter is not about any of that, since I haven’t had time to think let alone write about what’s happened this week.
Instead, let’s talk about Ted Lasso.
I’ve been resisting writing about Ted Lasso as so much has already been written about the show, but given the last Coaching Letter about holding environment, I feel like the time has come. If you’re not a fan, or if you haven’t watched the first two seasons but are planning to, or if you have no idea what I’m talking about, feel free to skip this Coaching Letter. (Maybe instead you’d like to listen to Raj Chetty talking about the importance of kindergarten teachers in this episode of People I Mostly Admire?)
There are other glosses on the show out there from a psychology point of view (Jean Kim in Psychology Today; Bruce Grierson, also in Psychology Today; Erin Qualey in the LA Times, and those were just the top three hits on Google) but what I want to do here is focus specifically on the holding environment that Ted creates, because what he does is so deliberate. Engineered is maybe a better word for it. So let’s break it down. And to do that, I’m going to use the language of the Developmental Relationships Framework, since that’s the framework I like the best and use all the time.
Express Care. This is the easiest and most obvious component of the DRF, and it’s easy to spot in Ted Lasso. He’s an all around good guy. He is the very epitome of caring. He is dependable, he listens, he makes people feel known and valued, he is warm, and he is encouraging. For example, he makes sure the team makes a big fuss of Sam on his birthday so that he doesn’t feel so far from home. He brings Rebecca biscuits (known to Americans as cookies) every day, that he bakes himself. I think that usually when we talk about having good relationships, we are thinking about this warm and fuzzy facet of relationships. But expressing care is not all there is to relationships, and it’s not all there is to the holding environment…
Challenge Growth. This is one of my favorite Ted Lasso traits. It’s the demanding part of the Warm Demander. He does challenge people to grow, but he stretches them in ways that are non-threatening and indirect. For example, he gives everyone on the team a book. We don’t get to know what all the books are, but we do know that he gives Roy Kent A Wrinkle in Time which, as is explained in an aside for those of us who haven’t read the book (or who read it when we were children and never saw the movie so don’t remember a thing about it), is about a girl who has to take on the mantle of leadership because there is no one else who can fill that role. Roy presents as a super-tough, talented and unemotional rock of a footballer, and one of the charming aspects of the show is that someone so tough and macho has lovely relationships with his niece, Phoebe, and his girlfriend, Keeley. Roy seems dismissive of Ted’s gift of the book—and the idea of Roy Kent reading A Wrinkle in Time is just flat out funny—but then we see him reading a pertinent section to Phoebe and come to the realization that he has to take a leadership role. He does not take on this mantle gracefully, and he never loses his gruff exterior, but he goes on to be a warm demander himself—a less apparent one than Ted, but a warm demander nonetheless.
Provide Support. Ted is all about encouragement. I think he sees it as central to his mission in life. Ted and his sidekick convene an ad hoc support group called The Diamond Dogs. When one of their team-mates needs help, the Diamond Dogs get together to figure out what they can do. They don’t always get it right, certainly, but it’s this idea that that’s what friends do, they figure out how to provide support they way that any organization might problem-solve a challenge. Providing support is the other major tool of the warm demander.
Share Power. Ted is the head coach, but knows nothing about football. (This, incidentally, is also one of my favorite parts of the show, because many people have a mental model of coaching that is about coach as expert, giving feedback to someone who knows less than they do. But, as illustrated in Ted Lasso, sometimes expertise in the content area is not the most important thing. Sometimes, expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities are significantly more important. Sometimes, however, expertise is important; a good coach knows how to know when that is.) This opens up the opportunity, from a plot point of view, for Ted to share power, because he doesn’t really have another option. Nevertheless, some of Ted’s most strategic moves have to do with sharing power. Nate, for example, is the locker room attendant when Ted gets to Richmond, but Ted immediately recognizes that Nate knows football and has ideas about playing strategy, which Ted encourages him to put into play. Nate is so used to being ignored that at first he can’t believe that Ted is talking to him, or that Rebecca remembers his name. But Ted takes him seriously and later on makes him a coach. (And then what happens with Nate is one of the more interesting plot twists…) Sharing power communicates trust, builds perceived self-efficacy, and builds capacity.
Expand Possibilities. I see expanding possibilities as an outcome of the accumulated effect of all the others, rather than something separate. Keeley starts to see herself as a businesswoman separate from her relationship with Jamie and later Roy. Higgins moves towards the center of the team’s life and not merely Rebecca’s lackey. Roy tries out other opportunities beyond being a player, and shares his power with others. Nate sees himself as a contributor to the team’s success. Rebecca envisions life beyond her relationship with her ghastly ex. Jamie gets past his identity as the most important player on the team and learns not only to be more humble but also to become, slowly, an ally and a decent human being.
Outside the holding environment construct, there are other features of Ted Lasso that are aligned with the psychology of coaching and leading. In no particular order, here are the ones that I can think of:
Perceived self-efficacy. Ted is constantly encouraging, trying to ensure that people experience success and are not brought low by failure—rather, experience failure as an opportunity to learn. (I’m not sure he does a great job with that last part—the exhortation to be a goldfish because a short memory leads to happiness seems to exclude the opportunity to learn from failure, but nevertheless…) Perceived self-efficacy is, I think, one of the most important constructs in leading, coaching, and life in general, and I’ve written about it a lot: here’s the Coaching Letter I wrote when Albert Bandura died; here’s the description of Perceived self-efficacy that we use in our coaching training; and I believe that there’s a section on PSE in the new book.
Positivity and optimism. Ted’s optimism is relentless and, we learn, has cost him his marriage. The optimism has, most of the time, an uplifting effect. His folksy upbeat ways manage to be hokey and authentic at the same time, and this rubs off on the people around him such that, for example, Rebecca feels guilty that she hired him only to get back at her cheating ex-husband because she assumes that his lack of any knowledge of football will drive her ex’s beloved club into the ground. We know that positivity and optimism are really powerful: research documented in Dan Coyle’s The Culture Code describes how teams can be brought to their knees by one negative member—unless there is one undaunted optimist on the team, who will counteract the influence of the naysayer. Importantly, however, Ted does not display toxic positivity: he is not blind to problems nor does he minimize the concerns people bring to him. Positivity is a great thing until people feel like they are being gaslighted; Ted does not make that mistake.
Belonging. Ted’s whole ethos is about creating a sense of belonging. I wrote about Geoff Cohen’s new book, Belonging, in this Coaching Letter, but here are a couple of key phrases:
Belonging may seem like a comfortable but inessential luxury. However, it has potent, wide-ranging effects… even fleeting experiences of belonging, such as glimpsing pictures of people who care about us, can have far-reaching benefits. They raise our sense of well-being and self-worth, improve our performance, lessen our defensiveness and hostility, increase our tolerance of outsiders, and make us more compassionate. We become more humane.
“Soft” skills. There is a fallacy that soft skills are soft—as proclaimed with such delightful indignation by the leadership guru Tom Peters. This cuts both ways: not everyone who is “agreeable” is capable of creating a powerful holding environment, and not everyone who creates a powerful holding environment is agreeable. Ted has terrific soft skills, but he is not working to convince people that he likes them in order to make them feel good—or at least, not only that. His agreeableness, and his soft skills, are both means and ends.
Finally, there is the darts scene, wherein we see that Ted is strategic in the deployment of his folksiness. In a sequence that must be a nod to the sword scene in The Princess Bride, Ted lets the thoroughly obnoxious Rupert assume that because he is American, he does not know how to throw darts. But little does he know that Ted is actually left-handed, and does know how to play. Ted knows that playing to others’ stereotypes make him easy to under-estimate, and in this particular situation he exploits that knowingly and elegantly. And he ends with the ultimate coaching—and leading—mantra: “be curious, not judgmental.” It’s a little speech worth watching. You gotta love it.
Thanks, Jim, for making me watch it. You were so right. I would love to hear what any other fans of the show think of this newsletter! Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming