UW News

August 3, 2021

What the Olympic Games can teach us about the workplace

Olympic rings lit up at night

The Olympic Games brings to mind another arena that is both collaborative and competitive: the workplace.

Athletes at the Olympic Games in Tokyo are not only displaying their athleticism, talent and grit. They’re also modeling new ways of being a leader — on and off the competitive stage.

With the wide range of sports at the Olympics, we are witness to the variety of ways to compete and collaborate. Sometimes an Olympian goes for the win, and sometimes they decide to hold back, working with teammates, or even rivals, and exhibiting heroic displays of good will and kindness — all under the challenges and constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve watched rival swimmers hug in the pool at the end of a race, cyclists take turns drafting and runners pull each other up off the track.

The Olympic Games brings to mind another arena that is both collaborative and competitive: the workplace.

“In both the Olympics and the workplace, how you perform matters in an individual context and based on group or team outcomes,” says Bruce Avolio, executive director of the UW Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking and a professor of management in the UW Foster School of Business. He researches what constitutes genuine leadership development and other related areas in organizational behavior.

UW News asked him what we can learn about work by watching the Olympics.

What do the Olympics have in common with the workplace?

In both the Olympics and in broader organizational contexts, it takes a lot of discipline, focus, self-sacrifice, support, feedback, mentoring, failure, resiliency, persistence and intrinsic motivation to be successful. It takes those same qualities to build a team where the people on that team have a common mission and objectives and are aligned, focused, supportive, challenging, inspiring, empathetic, inclusive, clear in their expectations, and willing to step up or step down.

In the Olympics, a highly diverse group of people can come together, compete with each other, and come away respecting their competitors and admiring each other’s accomplishments. Some can even agree to share the gold out of mutual admiration, even if they competed with one another. A sports team where members have this team-based mental model can take years to build, and likely the same is true in most organizations dealing with greater complexities and dynamic changes.

Your research is on positive forms of leadership. What example of this do you see on the Olympic stage?

There are many positive forms of leadership including: ethical, servant, considerate, inspiring, humble, authentic, transformative, instrumental, innovative, supportive, directive and empowering. Every positive form of leadership is reflected in aspects of the athletes’ behavior and how they work together, in the coaching of those athletes, in the support they receive from friends and family, and in the organizations and sponsoring organizations that support this high level of competition.

I would also say that every negative form of the above is likely present. Some athletes will take performance-enhancing drugs that are forbidden, coaches or family members will push athletes physically or mentally too far, an organization that is charged with running these Olympics will allow abuse to go on for years before taking a stand to eliminate it, sponsors will take advantage of these young athletes’ careers and peers will promote themselves over others.

I am not suggesting the good and bad are equal. Rather, when you bring so many stakeholders together, you’d be naive to think there would not be things done wrong.

During the Olympics, we’ve watched athletes alternate between sometimes collaborating and supporting each other — and other times competing to “go for the gold.” How do people within organizations balance these two options?

A lot of times, people balance ways of engaging with each other really well and many times very poorly. A company has to build an overall culture that promotes cooperation and competition. Businesses live and die based on competition, but they also can cooperate with each other to be successful. This occurs more often now in terms of drug research, where you collaborate across large groups and then at a certain point you open it up to competition, perhaps later on in the drug trials.

In the Olympics, athletes have to compete with each other, but you also see them helping each other prior to or following events by providing feedback, support, encouragement and direction. One can still compete at the very top of their game, and if everyone is being collaborative, it’s still likely that the very best competitor in the moment will succeed.

Many workers are starting to return to the office after working remotely. What lessons about teamwork can they take from the Olympics? 

Be mindful of the range of contingencies and challenges you are going to face and prepare as much as you can to address them. Athletes spend years preparing their mindsets and bodies to compete in complex routines against the best competitors. That is no different from going back to a complex world of work, and knowing that people’s expectations will be very different about where and how they are supposed to work together.

Each organization can view this as being its Olympic challenge, where we have to examine the many pathways that can lead to success, customized to meet the individual needs of our workforce. Be ready to test and experiment new ways, and to adapt and change if some don’t work. The pandemic has been a massive experiment for our world. Coming back to work successfully will also require judicious experimentation.

Ask yourself, as any great athlete would: What kind of feedback do I need, or we need, to optimize our full potential and success? How can we treat all members of our team equitably based on their needs to optimize their performance? How can we provide just-in-time support to foster team development? Ask yourself, do I know what people fear? Do I know what people hope for? How can my team share in the responsibilities of trying out different ways of working differently? What are the “new” norms, rules or boundaries for how we should work? What is a win? How do we score points differently in work and at work now versus how we scored points before the pandemic? These questions are all applicable to work and to what goes on at the Olympics.