The Best Referee is the One You Don’t Notice

Disaster was averted last week when the NFL referees and owners came to an agreement that ended the referee lockout and brought the experienced referees back to the field for the weekend’s games.

As a little background for those not following the story, the NFL (the major American football organization) has a unionized referee system. Over the summer, contact negotiations between the owners and the referees broke down causing a lockout of the referees that was still happening when the football season started in September. To avoid postponing the season the League brought in a group of “replacement refs” to fill in while negotiations continued.

The owners wanted to use the replacement refs to show the union that they had the upper hand. They noted that viewership and stadium attendance had not declined since the beginning of the lockout. However, fans were becoming increasingly unhappy with the performance of the replacements and

The issue came to a head on September 25 in a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers when one of the replacement referees called a touchdown that fans across the country insist should not have been a score. The call ended up winning the game for the Seahawks and creating fan outrage so widespread, even President Obama tweeted his displeasure.

Shortly after that game, the owners conceded to a couple contentious contract points and ended lockout. When the union referees returned to the field, they received a standing ovation from the assembled fans at the stadium.

As any team athlete knows, the best ref is the one you don’t notice. Referees have a critical role in making sure games are fair and players are safe but when this is done properly, the officiating appears seamless and the refs fade into the background. The fiasco of the replacement refs made the referees the story instead of the football game.

Most organizations have these behind-the-scenes MVPs as well in different contexts. Whether it be a great technology department, a diligent administrative assistant, or a competent billing office, there are a wide variety of roles in which the better job somebody is doing, the less likely they are to be noticed.

The NFL does not want the replacement referees to be the thing everybody notices any more than the hospital wants its billing office to be its most noticeable aspect because that would mean something was going wrong.

The take-away message from this scenario for managers in any industry is to pay attention to people in these roles and make sure they are being properly rewarded for quietly keeping the wheels turning in your organization. Remember that taking these people for granted today can lead to a world of problems down the road.

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