Where sports and business diverge
How urgency of purpose can inspire your workforce
“Professional sports are a microcosm (or reflection) of society.” Usually, this sports-business parallel is used to explain or justify athletes’ dysfunctional behavior such as substance abuse, sexual assault, greed, or gambling. Away from the headlines of scandal, however, there are key differences between how human resources are managed in professional sports compared to most other business endeavors. By examining these, we might better evaluate what business could learn from sports. Here are some examples:
Conversely, internal equity – paying coworkers at comparable pay rates according to their position in the organization or their seniority – is unheard of in professional sports. It is understood that one player may make 100 times more than a teammate at the same position. Unlike the world of work, this lack of internal pay equity is not considered devastating to team cohesion. Contrary to the predictions of equity theory, these pay disparities do not usually lead lower paid players to reduce their efforts or contributions.
Why does it work?
Thus, professional athletes playing team sports play in an environment in which players have no internal pay equity, potentially wide pay swings, little job stability, regular changes of teammates, the possibility of doing nothing but watching for long periods of time, constant public scrutiny and second-guessing, and continuous appraisal. Yet by and large, teams manage to function and prosper, some remarkably well. Despite oversized egos and in some cases entourages of hangers-on, most professional athletes perform in a cohesive fashion. The many problems associated with professional sports and professional athletics do not seem to center around their human resources practices, even though those practices seem to break many accepted rules.
Perhaps the secret lies in the fact that everything matters in sports, and that everything counts. The constant scrutiny of players’ performances provides sports work an urgency that is missing in many other work environments. The clear tie between individual performance and group outcomes can foster short-term cohesion that compensates for pay inequities and personnel turnover. The regular resolution of group effort – daily wins and losses, clear yearly measures of team success – can galvanize team members to pull together and work cohesively.
This should be informative for business leaders. Employees crave purpose. They want their work to matter, both for themselves and for the success of the whole – they want to know that it matters. They want to identify with their company. Instead, they often get the message that their contributions aren’t important, and that one’s highest priority is catering to or flattering the boss or staying out of the way. A prime example is the yearly performance appraisal, during which employees may hear about problems that had occurred months ago and were saved up for the appraisal discussion. Conversely, many managers will completely whitewash employee problems in order to curry favor with employees who come to see positive evaluations as their entitlement. Many employees know that they will rated as good performers well even when they feel empty and ineffective, and that their pay and job stability are not tied to their contributions. In this vacuum of meaning, they fixate instead on internal pay equity and jealousy over symbols of advancement, further squandering their ability to contribute.
To provide employees with a clear, regular rationale for why and how their efforts contribute to the organization is a crucial communication function of leaders – not something that can be satisfied by wall plaques claiming that “people are our most important resource”. Not having Super Bowls and playoffs (or even the Color War of summer camp) to energize staff, the business and non-profit leader may need to make the case for individual contribution more creatively and more regularly. Goal setting at all levels, better performance metrics, more frequent informal appraisal can all contribute as well. The results may be well worth it – just look at what purpose and urgency do for athletes, those people who are supposed to be the microcosm of society.
Fred Mael (www.maelconsulting.com) is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.