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Doing Gymnastics at Work

by Traci Pesch

US Women's 2016 Olympics ChampionsRecognize This! – The sport of gymnastics offers several lessons we can apply to make work more human.

My daughter did gymnastics for 6 years. It’s an intense sport for which, unless you’re deeply in it, it is hard to understand the level of commitment necessary. To be a top-level gymnast requires dedication of your entire mind and body, relentless practice of 30-40 hours a week, and mental discipline to engage in 6+ hour meets where you must focus completely for less than 2 minutes of competition on one element and then wait an hour or more for another less than2 minutes of complete focus on another element.

Gymnastics is a unique sport, but some elements are the same for all sports that offer us lessons for the workplace, too.

“Superstar” is relative.

Yesterday’s superstar is today’s team player. Look at Gabby Douglas. In the 2012 Olympics, she won the gold medal in the individual all-around competition. By 2016, she missed competing for the all-around final despite having the third-highest score. (Two of her teammates took the top spots, and only two competitors from each country are permitted to compete.)

Is Gabby any less of a superstar? Certainly not! Her talent and skill still place her in the highest ranks in the world. And yet the rulebook lessens her. For those still clinging to a forced ranking model of performance valuation, think  about your superstars who are being labeled as less than stellar for no other reason than strict rules on how many “5s” you’re allowed to have.

False valuation models can break the spirit of even your best employees. Working more human requires us to consider how we can equip and encourage all of our people to do the best work of their lives.

Failure is inevitable.

Simone Biles, by every measure, was the standout hit of the Olympics. The strength, power and grace she packs into her tiny frame is astounding. She set a new American record for the most gold medals in women’s gymnastics in a single Olympics (4 medals) and joined an elite global group with a total of 5 medals in a single games. And yet, she wasn’t perfect. In the balance beam final, she wobbled badly enough she had to grab the beam. On this world stage, that’s failure. She missed the mark.

But she still took the bronze. How? Why was her wobbly performance better than other wobbly performances that didn’t medal? First, she incorporated harder elements in her routine. She intentionally set a higher bar. And when she did wobble, she put it behind her quickly and went on to finish strong.

Failure itself is not bad and can often be a sign of trying to shoot high. But we will never know what we can achieve if we don’t try. How much more innovative would our teams be if we lifted the fear of failure, gave them the room to try, support them as the make the attempt, then help them recover quickly, learn and move forward?

The team is only as good as the team.

I get annoyed by the phrase, “A team is only as good as the individuals on it.” It implies that the individual is solely responsible for themselves. Gymnastics teaches something different. The team is only as good as the team performance overall. Gymnasts must find ways to improve their own skills, yes, while also helping their teammates continually improve too.

How can we all train like gymnasts to support each other and make each other better? How can we build more human teams at work designed to elevate the team to success while simultaneously improving the individual?

With the 2016 Paralympics beginning, new inspiration is all around us. What lessons from the Olympics do you see that can be applied as well strive to make work more human?

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