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Creating thriving work environments - fresh thinking from high performance sport

The traditional culture of sport - obsessed by results, medal counts, league placings and based on a win-at-all-costs model - has, in recent years, been shown up as having a whole host of devastating side-effects. Cases of terrible physical, psychological and sexual abuse of the athletes by coaches and staff, doping of top athletes, burnout, high dropout rates, a mental health epidemic among elite athletes, to mention some of the most pertinent of these effects. It is becoming clear now that the human cost of being a part of one of these toxic systems which masquerade as high performance cultures is intolerable. Teams that gain incredible success on the field of play whilst dismantling the mental health of athletes along the way can in no way be labelled as high performance. We must start to consider the term ‘high performance’ in a more holistic sense. If an athlete such as Great Britain gymnast, Amy Tinkler, says that they would rather give back their Olympic medal if it meant they would not have had to go through the brutal system, then we can be sure that the system itself is absolutely nothing to be proud of, regardless of the medal haul. There are far too many stories like this, where athletes have reached the pinnacle of their sport only to be left bereft and empty. Their focus on winning being all-encompassing, to the point of sacrificing everything of real meaning along the way.

Parallels can be drawn left, right and centre with the business world. Levels of burnout are at an all-time high and continuing to rise; studies show that wellbeing among employees is alarmingly low, with 85% of respondents to one survey claiming that their wellbeing is on the decline and 89% saying that work life is getting worse.

The stigma around mental health in sport is slowly eroding, with sporting icons such as Simone Biles, Emma Raducanu and Ben Stokes taking steps back from performing in order to prioritise their mental health (and talking openly about it). However, there is still a long way to go for the culture, and essentially the specific environments, to catch up with how best to support people. In the workplace, 67% of people don’t feel they can discuss mental health at work. This mismatch between the rising percentage of people suffering from stress, burnout and mental health issues and the latent barriers to discussing mental health at work represents a serious inhibitor to progress as well as to the overall performance of organisations. It is imperative that we find better ways of working, that allow people to thrive (and therefore perform to their best) rather than just survive.

There is a paradigm shift underway in the elite sports world. For now it is only the most pioneering, curious and socially aware leaders that are embracing this shift. The likes of England football manager, Gareth Southgate; Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL Seattle Seahawks, and Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors NBA team. The new approach recognises that the harnessing of people’s intrinsic motivation and the fostering of deep human connection are the most effective driving forces of true high performance. Whether consciously or not these forward-thinking coaches and leaders are creating PIE’s, or Psychologically Informed Environments. The concept of a PIE was originally described in a paper about supporting people out of homelessness which defines a psychologically informed environment as “one that takes into account the psychological makeup – the thinking, emotions, personalities and past experience - of its participants in the way that it operates.” This deeper understanding of precisely how we can best support and motivate people has been largely missing from sport and business environments where ambitions are high and performance matters. It is worth diving in a bit deeper and exploring what makes a PIE and where that can inform how we change and adapt the behaviours and cultures that we see in the workplace today.

Key elements that make up a PIE include - relationships, staff training and support, and a psychological framework. Relationships and reflection, especially, are considered the cornerstones of a PIE. Burnout researcher, Jennifer Moss, has found that loneliness is one of the root causes of burnout. 74% of respondents to a survey on work life said that this past year is the loneliest they have ever felt. 1 in 5 millennials claims to have zero friends. Bearing in mind that a lack of a community has been equated with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, these figures become even more worrying. Clearly, fostering strong, supportive relationships is not something our current work culture is particularly adept at. And how many business leaders, teams or employees are allowed time for reflection? We are in a busy-ness epidemic, just as much as a stress, anxiety and burnout epidemic. Overwork is unsurprisingly another of the root causes of burnout, and 56% of people feel that their job demands have increased. The utter lack of time to pause and reflect during modern office life is another sign that our work environments are far from optimal, psychologically speaking. This speaks to the potential gains that could be achieved by switching to a 4-day work week, where there would be more time and space for people to catch their breath and consider what it is they are doing, rather than just barreling on from one rushed task to the next.

The next key element of a PIE to look at is staff training and support. This is about providing regular and continuous opportunities to reflect on (again) and develop both personally and in one’s working practices. People need to be well trained and continuously supported in order to feel they are capable of doing their job to a high standard. A mismatch of skills to job requirements is another of the most common causes of burnout. In the UK Sport funded World Class Programme, athletes have the ongoing support of a team sport psychologist, physiotherapist, nutritionist and other experts, as well as performance lifestyle practitioners to help with everything off the field of play. Professional sports teams are now starting to bring psychiatrists and clinical psychologists on to their permanent staff in response to the growing prevalence of mental health diseases. Employees in fast-paced businesses have arguably far more stressful daily work lives than elite sportspeople and yet the mental and emotional support they receive pales in comparison.

A psychological framework is about ensuring that working practices and systems incorporate key psychological principles and insights. At its heart this is all about leaders understanding the psycho-social and emotional needs of the people in their care and then crafting the environment to take account of those needs. Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors are known for their playfulness and joy of spirit on the court, borne out of his commitment to building an environment that encourages risk-taking, self-expression and a willingness to step out of conventional modes of thinking. He prefers to instill a fierce competitiveness in his players through emotional maturity rather than fear of losing. Kerr’s four key values are joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition, highlighting his innovative perspective of leadership in the world of elite sports that traditionally focuses on strong hierarchy, old fashioned mental toughness and an aggressive winner-takes-all attitude. In his own words- “It’s really hard to be an NBA player...when you think about the pressure to win, people booing you, what these guys need from us is compassion.”

Pete Carroll is one of the most respected coaches in the NFL and has a deep understanding of the psychological underpinnings of a thriving team culture. He embraces individualism, in that he believes every person should be supported to be able to contribute to the team with their unique strengths. In the words of one of his players, Richard Sherman, “One of the things Pete really focuses on is the entirety of the person. He focuses on your purpose beyond the game.” Carroll is at heart, someone that cares about his players as people, and that translates into the way he interacts with them, the resources he provides for them and is evident in the dedication to the job shown by his team in return. This is succinctly summed up by another player in the team - “When you’re playing for someone you know really cares for you, you want to give it your all 24/7.” All too often we see leaders who want to get the most out of their employees when they are in the building, but then don’t give a moment’s thought to them once they are off the clock. They are sticking within the professional confines of their role as leader, but missing out on a huge amount of the human capital that comes from Carroll’s model of holistic leadership. This links back to the idea that we should no longer accept high performance to be siloed in just one specific domain. A more general and sustainable thriving, across the different areas of a person’s life should be the foundation of true high performance.

Gareth Southgate, the epitome of this new type of compassionate, psychologically astute leader, has shown everyone the incredible power of a more humane and emotionally in-touch approach to creating high performing teams. He led an especially young and inexperienced England team to the semi-final of a world cup and the final of the European championships, defying all expectations. In interviews he provides a refreshingly calm and considerate presence, relentlessly circumventing the usual questions about the meaning of the result and showing a far broader and longer-term perspective. He re-focuses attention on the contribution of his players (and even the supporting cast), the process they are engaged in, and the experience he hopes to create for the team and fans alike.

The Roffey Park Institute describes five aspects of compassionate leadership which cycle round and support each other- being alert to the needs of others; being non-judgmental; tolerating personal distress; being empathetic; and taking appropriate actions. Southgate exhibits these aspects in spades. Of course he has technical and tactical expertise as well, but his super-strength is in harnessing hi empathy and care to provide a foundation of psychological safety for his team. From that foundation relationships bloom, players are freed from the usual fear and anxiety to be able to perform at their best and feel more connected to the higher purpose of playing for England.

Sport and business have always been able to learn much from each other. The mental health crisis in elite sport and the scandals around abuse in high performance centres around the world has led sport to reconsider what is acceptable in the hunt for success. Whilst a similar burnout and stress epidemic is evident in the workplace, it is happening in a far less public sphere, and so companies have not been forced into a reckoning in the same way as many sport governing bodies have. Most Olympic sports receive public funding and so are rightfully beholden to use that money ethically and socially-responsibly. Private businesses have less oversight on them in that sense. But as we have seen above, the most humane approaches are also those with the greatest potential for achieving the results we so desperately crave in sport and in business. Of course they are. It gets right to the heart of what fires people up and draws them together in the pursuit of a meaningful cause. It provides them with all the opportunity, support (and yes, challenge) that they need to make the most of their potential, drawing on their own unique constellation of strengths.

New Zealand rugby coach, Wayne Smith, once said that creating champion teams is a spiritual endeavour, in the sense that it involves creating deep personal connection between people, all in the service of a higher purpose. Spiritual in this sense really means unleashing the spirit of the individuals and team. Is it too unreasonable to ask for our work to provide the space for more of this kind of human flourishing? We have all the examples we need to show the immense benefits that are on offer for those who dare try.

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