What we can learn from an Olympic athlete to make workplaces better.

person swimming on an olympic pool

The Olympics has seen a lot of drama with the pandemic and all of its challenges as well as the heightened stress levied on the athletes.

As I listened to the plight of Simone Biles, I shuddered at the thought of the pressure, but it was some comments of Katie Ledecky, the USA swim team gold medalist, that really got me thinking.

In a radio interview, Ledecky spoke about the pressures on swimmers. She said swimming was all about numbers and that, in the swimming community, swimmers are actually less known by their name and more by their best time.

She also spoke of the constant scrutiny of Olympic athletes. She said they were always being watched with every move critiqued, every mistake noted, and every loss of a second or two broken down. Just listening to this made me feel stressed out and unhappy so I can only imagine what she, Simone BIles, or any of the other athletes must feel.

Then I got to thinking about workplaces. How many people can say they experience things like Ledecky’s Olympic experience? Before you laugh, think about it.

How much of your job success is based around numbers? Do you have goals, largely set by someone other than you, to hit at a specific time? How often are you or your team described in terms of whether you are hitting these targets or not?

How about scrutiny? Is your manager a micromanager? Do you feel you are watched from the minute you arrive to the minute you leave? Worse yet, do you feel monitored outside the workplace too? Are you put under pressure to answer emails when you are off the clock? Are you expected to be on alert 24/7?

If you are a manager or business leader reading this, think about your workplace. Is your organization basing success on hitting arbitrary numbers or on steady improvement? Are your employees judged on whether they hit a score, sales target, or bottom-line profit percentage or are they reviewed on their total performance based on competence and behavior?

How about management style? Are your employees micromanaged? Do they have reasonable autonomy, or must everything be reviewed and approved? Are they empowered to do what they know to do or are they watched to ensure they comply with every standard and policy? And what do managers prioritize, things done wrong or things done right? Do your employees experience more criticism or more encouragement?

Olympic athletes train thousands of hours and miss out on many of the things we all take for granted in pursuit of realizing the one-in-a-billion dream of wearing a medal and representing their country as the best of the best in the entire world. If all of that is not enough to make their “workplace” pressure worth it, everyday employees, with virtually no chance of fame and glory, have very little hope in seeing an end to their day-to-day, career-long misery.

If this has you thinking, and I hope it does, is your workplace one that creates the high pressure of the Olympic athlete? If it does, in any way, what can you do to influence a change?

If you are not in management, begin asking questions and find a few like-minded allies to help in the effort to make change. If you are a manager or business leader, begin turning the tide. You have a big voice. You can decide to do things differently for your team, department, or even the organization as a whole.

Here’s the bottom line. Katie Ledecky and all the Olympic athletes deserve better and so do workers everywhere. Let’s make work better, and by doing so, make life better.  

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