Careers advice: When to Kiss and When to Miss

04 October 2023

A major sporting achievement by resilient and strong women, who inspired millions, has been overshadowed by the behaviour and negation of personal values by people in power within the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).

‘Kissgate’ and the follow-up #SeAcabo movement in Spain have recently occupied the news headlines in Spain and the rest of the world. This is, of course, a highly complex situation concerning issues like #MeToo, feminism, resilience, success and failure, to mention a few.

To the multitude of narratives and mounds of analysis, I am adding my own interpretation and reflections on what can happen when you are insulated from changes in the organisational culture and the new and different values shared by the other team members. It seems that the organisational culture appeared different at the different levels within the Spanish Football Federation. To me, ‘Kissgate’ illustrates the complexity of employment and how organisational culture is interpreted and exhibited by different members of the team.  

So, what happened?

Rubiales, the President of the Spanish Football Federation, very publicly kissed the footballer Jenni Hermoso on the lips and on camera when Spain won the final of the Women’s World Cup against England in August. Following criticism, Rubiales delivered a speech to the Spanish Football Federation, in which he claimed the kiss was consensual and refused to resign. Moreover, he attacked the player and her supporters by describing her accusations as “false feminism”.  The speech was attended by most of the Spanish Football Federation management team who applauded it, implying that they all supported the content and tone of the speech. Amongst these was the Spanish Team Coach Jorge Vilda, who had led the team to the victory.

In cold light of the next day (and the associated headlines) Vilda, despite criticising Rubiales the day after the speech, was sacked by the Federation in what was seen as a face-saving exercise to allow Rubiales to remain in post. However, another member of the coaching staff was also present and also applauded the infamous speech, Montse Tome. Unlike Vilda, Tome went further and offered her resignation the following day acknowledging an inappropriate reaction. Tome is now the newly appointed coach of the squad. By the time I am finalising this blog, Rubiales has resigned in the face of legal action. I hope you are still with me, as this is a really complex sequence of events, but not untypical for many work-related situations.

How does this relate to organisational culture?

Rubiales presumed he was operating in an organisational culture that could be generously described as “laddish”.  His physical gestures and behaviour in the presence of and to women appear highly unprofessional. While historically such behaviour might have been observed in some organisations, we do not expect this in the world today. We not only have #MeToo but corporate values and cultures are more aligned with the moods and values of the society as a whole. This obvious misalignment of Rubiales to the unwritten rules of his organisation led to a conflict, escalating in a legal case against him and the #SeAcabo movement in Spain.    

This is a powerful example of how one part of an organisation, in this case the senior management, has lost touch with what was happening at the players’ level. Rubiales and his backers did not acknowledge that the female players rightly anticipate that they should be treated on a par with male footballers and that their values and their opinions count.

‘Kissgate’ was not the first sign of trouble. In 2022, 15 of the Spanish squad resigned after complaining about the toxic environment engendered by the manager Vilda. They felt they could not work under the pressure they were subjected to by the manager and by the time of the World Cup only three of the 15 had been reintroduced to the squad.

The RFEF and Rubiales supported Vilda and dismissed the complaints issuing a statement: "The Federation will not allow the players to question the continuity of the national coach and its coaching staff, as those are not their responsibilities. These types of manoeuvres are harmful and are not within the values of football and sports." 

Clearly there was a growing lack of alignment of values between the management and the players.  

So, did Rubiales miss the opportunity to observe and learn, to ask questions and understand how the culture was evolving within the Federation, and to address the root cause of the issue?

Understanding and adapting to the organisational culture contributes to job satisfaction and success in the role. So, I am offering a framework (CULTURE) to support you in:

  • Change

Be open to change, “Everything Changes” sing Take That, “but you”. However, it is important to remain flexible in your approach and ready to change it as and when required. Inability to sense shifts in cultures can have unexpected consequences and result in conflict such as ‘Kissgate’. 

  • Understanding values 

Understand the values that underpin the mission, the vision and the strategy of the organisation. These will be the guiding principles, but also be aware that different groups within the organisation might hold different values and the way values are prioritised change over time through societal changes. In the best-case scenario, your values will align with the organisational values, but often there can be scope for conflict (see how Tome felt forced to applaud Rubiales’ speech, which clearly was negating some of her personal values). 

  • Listen attentively (to minimise “the unknown unknowns” *)

Be an attentive listener. Make a note on how people are throughout your organisation, how they communicate with each other, what body language they use in meetings. Observe how colleagues behave during heated conversations and at celebrations, how they are in less formal settings. Learn from their experience, what is important for them and how they prioritise their values. In this way you can stay in touch with the unwritten rules. Rubiales certainly should have known that a non-consensual kiss was not acceptable.

  • Tailor your behaviour

If you are aware of the way people behave and of the unwritten rules, you have the opportunity to tailor yours accordingly. Some organisations might have a more assertive and direct style, while others will be more subtle and diplomatic. Did Rubiales and Vilda think they could interact in business contexts with professional women players as they might have behaved with their mates on the football pitch?

  • Use your network

Unless you talk with people throughout the organisation you will not get the insights into the culture and how it might be shifting, particularly lower down the organisation tree. Invest in building positive relationships with colleagues across different levels and teams. Demonstrate respect and willingness to work together.

  • Respect diversity

Be culturally aware and demonstrate respect for diversity in all its forms within the organisation.   

  • Evaluate and feedback

Ask for feedback and unlike Rubiales evaluate this feedback to understand where the issues might lie. Don’t be afraid to admit and learn from your mistakes.    

Cultural adaptation might take a long time and you might find yourself in a culture where too many of your core values are being compromised. So, while it might be a rocky path to take, be prepared to fight for those like the Spanish players did and stand for your ethical and professional standards.

* Donald Ransfeld, 2002