Underperforming teams? Leadership lessons borrowed from sport

Written by
Changeboard Team

20 Oct 2011

20 Oct 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Sport and business?

Picture the scene: two of your staff standing by the water cooler...(insert accents/colourful language as appropriate to your company/business sector)...

Yeah I did see the Changeboard magazine with the London 2012 focus, I thought it was great. What about you?”

“Interesting stuff but do me a favour, what have we got in common with Olympic stars? I mean we’re just regular people doing regular work, not elite athletes. We don’t have long term planning for one-off competition like them. We can’t just specialise on a certain event. And we’re not exactly trained like they are or coached in any special way. So I’d say interesting but not that relevant to me at work.”

Components of success

Understandable cynicism perhaps and yet how often do business leaders look out of their offices over to the track and field for inspiration towards enhancing performance? Check out Sir Redgrave, Sir Woodward, Sir Ferguson or Lord Coe’s diaries at the moment and you will see the answer: very often.

Why is that? A chance for stressed executives to escape from the office? Business leaders living their unfulfilled sporting dreams? Maybe they’re just autograph hunting for their pestering teenage kids? Or could it actually be that elite sport offers an insight into wider areas and valuable lessons for the business world?

Listen to any great sportsmen talk and you will hear compelling evidence of how planning; team selection; strategy; preparation; leadership; teamwork  etc were the backbone to their success. Along with a rather large dose of bloody hard graft. And most importantly the way in which you will hear their message will be ‘inspiring’.

Overcoming negative psychology

British Olympic Association elite performance director and 2003 Rugby World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward talks about ‘the ability to think clearly under pressure’. In addition, Steve Redgrave writes about ‘mental discipline and overcoming low self-esteem’.

Hang on, low self-esteem in a 5-times gold medal winning Olympian? That can’t be right? But of course it is. The false assumption made by our friend at the water cooler is that somehow elite sportsmen have bullet-proof minds. And that is simply wrong as my work with Olympic rowers, professional rugby players, premiership footballers, downhill skiers and others in sport confirms.

How to improve resilience & performance

So what can we do to improve our mental resilience and therefore performance? What is it that lies behind the broader labels of motivation and engagement?

At a simple level it is all about having common goals and linking them to personal values. We often manage the first but not the second and the problem with that is that we miss the opportunity to build resilience. And without resilience we are vulnerable to stress.

Once we have common goals and link them to values we have motivation and engagement but hang-on we don’t get immediate results. ‘Why not? I want my money back Dr Hopley.’

Well I’m sorry but it’s not that simple. Next we have to identify the blocks to optimising performance. Most often these are not practical issues but problems with our thinking and perception.

Cognitive behavioural coaching

Dealing with this can be done in a number of ways. Good managers may pick up on issues and be able to work through the blocks with their employees. Consultants working with teams or groups of people can take a proactive approach when delivering resilience education through workshops. However sometimes specific individual coaching is needed. This is best done by using a cognitive behavioural coaching approach.

Just as in sport, employees need to be able to cope with pressure, negative thoughts and emotions if they are to perform effectively. Cognitive behavioural coaching trains athletes and senior executives in the skill of maintaining attention to task despite simultaneous difficult emotions.

Relinquishing control

In an ideal world managers and leaders should be allowing their teams or staff to develop by giving them control over what they do. Not only is this proven to reduce stress but also to reduce health risks (see the Whitehall 2 study http://www.ucl.ac.uk/whitehallII/). Inspire and lead? Yes but don’t over control.

I am often asked about underperforming teams. In my experience without a culture of honest but respectful communication, change is not likely to happen. Once people are talking openly about their concerns, more often than not we come back to the control issue. Research clearly shows that with greater control over what we do, we engage in tasks better. An important message here is: ‘trust each other to deliver’. And for team leaders supporting the team to deliver is the key.

In the run up to the 2008 Olympics, the GB Cycle team management took a long hard look at themselves. They decided that their role must change from being about control, to providing a platform from which the athletes could perform. And what a difference that made.

Inspiring potential in teams

Much is written about leadership and getting the most from your team in sport & business. Following the GB rowing squad’s recent performance in the World Championships in Slovenia (gaining 14 medals to top the table) it was interesting to see relatively little focus on head coach Jurgen Grobbler.

As one reviewer said: ‘Not [like] the charismatic rent-a-quote chief executive…but rather the unsung middle manager who devotes his life to extracting the last drop of potential from the human resources at his disposal.’

An example to all leaders in business perhaps?