Performance Psychologist Human Performance Science
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Why the corporate world won’t adopt best practice from the Olympics

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As the Olympic Games kicks off in Tokyo this summer, we’ll all be intently focused on the achievements of our athletes, but what we can learn from them when it comes to delivering performance excellence at work? 

23rd Jul 2021
Performance Psychologist Human Performance Science
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The fact that Tokyo 2020 is going ahead at all, given the challenges we've all faced over the past 18 months, seems like a triumph over adversity in itself. As the Games commence, however, all eyes in the UK will be on Team GB as we look to them to deliver those gold medals. You'll no doubt read a lot about what we can learn from them about how to deliver performance excellence at work – certainly there is an opportunity for the corporate world to take these lessons forward. After all, the pressure to deliver high-performance is as pervasive in business as it is in elite-level sport. Lessons almost certainly won’t be learned though, for a number of reasons.

Clarity of purpose creates a performance-focused environment. In contrast, many of us in ‘normal jobs’ have conflicting purposes.  

Here, we'll analyse some of the more unhelpful elements of corporate culture that hold us back from achieving our 'personal best' and how organisations and individuals can overcome this. 

The belief that sport is different to business

It’s a truism to state that sport and business differ. The inference is that what makes someone excellent at sport does not necessarily apply in the corporate world. Of course, there are vast differences in the performance environment faced by an Olympian, an investment banker, a lawyer or an HR executive. Whether you are Dina Asher-Smih or a neurosurgeon, there are common factors that help you excel at your job. Attaining excellence is a function of quality planning, preparation and practice.

Which leads to the second objection – ‘I perform all day, and have no time for practice'. This view fails to appreciate a central component of practice – feedback. If you do anything that involves any skill whatsoever (decision-making, leading others, communicating effectively), quality and timely feedback is essential if you are going to get better.  The corporate world recognises this on some level – it just happens to be bad at eliciting and delivering feedback, in a cohesive, performance-focused framework.

It also misses the most important point explaining elite-sporting performance: elite performance is all about the process of how people go about getting better at what they do. What the business world should be doing is ensuring they are focusing on the processes that lead to better individual and group performance.

Culture Pioneers link

Motives

There are some powerful, psychological reasons influencing human behaviour that make focusing on the process such a challenge in the corporate world. They relate to our deep motivations. Successful Olympians across disparate disciplines share a common motive: to be the best versions of themselves. To that end, who they are, is tightly interwoven with what they do. This clarity of purpose shapes how they go about achieving their goals. Clarity of purpose creates a performance-focused environment. In contrast, many of us in ‘normal jobs’ have conflicting purposes.

Numerous factors motivate our actions, and often we are blissfully unaware of them. Fear is one such driver; of failing, of revealing incompetence, of showing vulnerability. Yet vulnerability is at the core of high-performance. Striving to excel involves accepting that there will be frequent failures. The road marked ‘self-improvement’ is lined with critique, and a need for humility that admits, and confronts, weaknesses. It is an anxiety-inducing journey. Elite-level sportspeople tolerate this anxiety because their drive to excel overpowers competing alternative drives.

Outside of elite sport, the motive to protect one’s ego is the most powerful thing influencing our behaviour. In so doing, opportunities for growth are closed down. You may recognise some ways this manifests itself:

  • Complaining – about anything that hinders performance
  • Deference to authority, undermining constructive confrontation
  • Displays of confidence/aggression in an effort to convey competence
  • Unhelpful, defensive colleagues who sabotage others work
  • Cultures intolerant of mistakes
  • Appraisal systems that are the antithesis of high-performance

All of the above are distractions, detracting from performance. Like bacteria-resistant viruses, hidden motives are resilient. Olympic athletes aren’t immune to these motives. Fortunately, the desire to be the best in their chosen field enables them to remain performance-focused.

The challenge for the corporate world is to find a purpose sufficiently compelling that employees are able to prioritise organisational and team goals ahead of the need to protect themselves from their insecurities. In doing so, attention can turn to addressing the only question that matters; how do we get better at what we do?

Interested in this topic? Read How companies can build a high performance, people-first culture.

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By Jillybo
27th Jul 2021 16:19

This is an excellent article as it gets to the nub of the matter - people's inability to be vulnerable, admit weaknesses that need to be worked on rather than protect their backs or be defensive or over sensitive to constructive criticism. Yes, the job for managers is a challenging one - both to understand how they constructively improve the performance of their staff whilst at the same time, not demotivating them. The parallels with sports performance are to me, very obvious, being involved in sport all my life. We have to be humble and learn how to manage disappointments and take defeat graciously just as much as being humble when we are victorious and understand that successful outcomes do not come without much hard work and a lot of hurdles overcome.

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