I get it. Since men who love sports have run the business world for many decades, using sports analogies in the workplace has become a humongous cliché.
You probably roll your eyes every time a colleague tells you whose “court” the “ball” is in, to keep your eye on that ball, or not to drop it. So, that time you overheard the sales manager go on a long rant about a game plan, a full-court press, the bottom of the ninth, fighting for those extra yards, swinging for the fences, and a slam dunk—all in one hopelessly-convoluted metaphor? Try to forget it ever happened.
But before we go any further, let’s make a disclaimer.
Yes, sports analogies can sometimes alienate employees who don’t care for sports, and sometimes they lack the necessary clarity to teach important lessons and ensure everybody is aligned. But the reality is that valuable lessons can come from anywhere, including sports. And when it comes to performance management, organized sports are a natural laboratory. After all, where else can you find humans volunteering to enter a super competitive field, with very specific rules, and clear-cut ways to determine performance?
Here are five useful performance management lessons we can take away from sports:
1. Seek maximum efficiency
In sports, competitors are bound by the same rules, which means that everybody is constantly striving for peak efficiency. For example, if basketball were like other industries, larger businesses would just throw out six or more players to compete against the other team’s five. Even if their people weren’t performing well, the sheer numbers in the larger team would likely win out (and their poor performance would slip under the rug).
But this simply isn’t an option in sports. Since the rules strictly forbid putting out more than five players, basketball teams are forced to be as efficient as possible with their five.
In sports, your weakest link is often the difference between winning and losing. So, rather than just hiring out for more help, athletes are forced to identify their weaknesses and work to improve them. For example, if a tennis player’s weakest link is their backhand, they have no choice but to work tirelessly on their backhand until it becomes less of a weakness (or even a strength). Otherwise, all their opponent has to do is hit the ball to their backhand side over and over again to beat them.
While applying this principle to the workplace is bad news for underperformers who are coasting under the radar, it’s sound business sense for the rest of us. If your performance management efforts aren’t able to both pinpoint weaknesses and help determine ways to improve upon them, it’s safe to say the efforts are inefficient.
2. Always be coaching
In sports, coaches certainly can’t afford to save feedback for irregular performance reviews. Rather, they need to provide constant coaching during a game or match to give their team its best chance to win. Challenges come so fast and furious in sports—usually in the shape of competitive opponents—and scoreboards make it perfectly clear when you are succeeding or failing.
Not only does constant coaching allow coaches to correct any problems before they become too large, but it also gives them the ability to identify strengths immediately and encourage their athletes to focus on those strengths. And a coach’s guidance isn’t always high-level strategy. Sometimes, the best thing an athlete can hear are words of encouragement. In the right context, “Go! Go! Go!” is all athletes need in a given moment.
Another term for constant coaching is frequent feedback. Not only does frequent feedback in the workplace allow managers to help improve employee performance faster, but it shows employees that their managers care. In fact, studies show tomorrow’s workforce thrives on frequent feedback and, frankly, they expect their boss to provide coaching as well as management. Long gone are the days when employees are satisfied with annual performance reviews. Whether you’re holding formal performance reviews on a frequent basis or in a constant state of “coaching,” employees want an ongoing performance management program.
3. Don’t forget team chemistry
In sports, as in many other arenas, talent is often perceived as irreplaceable or critical. But at a certain point, building teams that will succeed is more about finding the right talent. In team sports, it’s not enough to just find the most talented athletes and call it a day. As any coach will tell you, a team that works well together will always beat a team that is slightly more talented but doesn’t work as well together.
The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts in a well-constructed sports team, while “All Star” teams are usually the exact opposite. You need to find athletes that have chemistry with each other and make each other better. And from there, each player needs to have clearly defined roles.
There’s no better example of this than the “Miracle on Ice.” When the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team famously defeated the historically-dominant Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, they did so with a ragtag group of college students who—according to pundits everywhere—lacked the talent necessary to have any real shot at gold. But their coach, Herb Brooks, understood the importance of team chemistry and clearly defined roles; he was willing to pass up more talented hockey players for those he believed would win together.
In performance management, it’s important to not only evaluate how an employee performs in an individual role, but also how they perform in their team environment. There may be situations where it makes sense to move an employee to another team where they will fit better or to fire a talented, yet toxic employee. But to do so, you need to look at teams from a broader performance standpoint.
4. Think long-term
Professional sports teams that don’t think long term usually find themselves in a lot of trouble when the long term comes around. In fact, focusing on the short term can be risky business, even in the relatively short term.
Consider this odd fact: In every major American sports league, the team with the most regular-season wins ever during a season has never won the league championship that same year. Focusing on short-term wins without consideration to the long-term goals can backfire, and since you’ll be hard-pressed to find any sports team admit that they’d rather have regular season wins than championships, this is certainly something worth considering.
It’s the same in the business world. Performance management programs must be forward-thinking and designed to match the performance of employees with long-term business objectives and goals. For example, if a salesperson is exceeding their quotas (“Killing it!” you hear them say) but the new customers they’re bringing on board cost the company more money than they provide, is the salesperson really “killing it”? Probably not.
5. Use the best resources
What do you think would happen if a professional tennis player showed up to an important match with an old-fashioned wood racket and worn-out Chuck Taylor shoes? Or what if a professional runner spent the majority of their time training on their downstairs treadmill? Or what if you saw a professional basketball player smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer right before a game? The sporting world is so competitive that the mere thought of using lesser equipment or practicing old-fashioned health habits is laughable.
The sports world is obsessed with resources. These days, top athletes usually have their own line of sports equipment, personal trainers, and even personal dieticians and chefs at their disposal. The clear-cut nature of sports with its wins-losses structure keeps performance always at the forefront of everyone’s minds so finding resources that will turn losses into wins is vital.
And while sometimes the sports world obsesses too much over using resources to gain a competitive advantage (*cough* Lance Armstrong!), the business world could still learn from this mentality. Far too often, organizations are stuck using outdated performance management tools and resources because their losses aren’t nearly as prevalent or because, frankly, they’re stuck in the past. While the world of performance management has grown and advanced, far too many business leaders are bringing the equivalent of wood rackets and worn-out Chuck Taylors to their annual performance reviews.
One more takeaway
If your performance management efforts aren’t where you want them, there’s one more takeaway sports has to offer.
Whether you call it determination, or perseverance, or sticktoitiveness, or simply practice, countless stories in sports teach us that if you work hard enough, you can be the best at whatever you put your mind to. The same principles of constant improvement that shapes valuable performance management programs can help you create and sustain those very programs.
After all, Tom Brady went from an NFL Draft afterthought to the winningest NFL quarterback ever, Lionel Messi overcame a growth hormone deficiency to become one of the greatest soccer players of all time, and Jackie Robinson overcame hundreds of years of racism to change the game of baseball (and American pop culture) forever. No matter where your performance management efforts are today, you can turn them into an invaluable asset for your organization.
You just have to resolve to work at it and never stop. To quote the late basketball coach, Jimmy Valvano, “Don’t give up; don’t ever give up.”
The business world can gain performance management takeaways from sports. Here are 5 http://bit.ly/2tN4vph http://bit.ly/2tN4vph