Sport provides us with many opportunities to analyse human behaviour and group dynamics. Often this happens under an intense amount of stress that is not easily replicated in other situations.
In sport the stressful situations last for 90 or 100 minutes before passing again. In business the stressful situations are most commonly felt over longer periods of time and may lead to chronic stress and even burnout. With this said we can learn many valuable lessons from sport that we can apply to our organisational environments to improve effectiveness.
Arguably the greatest upset in the history of the Rugby World Cup was South Africa losing against the Brave Blossoms of Japan. As the world sits back, with some reveling and some mourning we asked the question, what can we learn form this and apply it to the world of work.
Not many can claim to have ever been under the same amount of stress as the rugby players in question. There is some evidence that suggests doing some of your work by being observed by others (such as a manager or supervisor) actually increases performance. This was demonstrated by the classic Hawthorne studies. For the uninitiated the Hawthorne studies revealed that individual workers’ output increased whenever an intervention was applied regardless if the intervention was designed to increase or decrease productivity. In layman’s’ terms, they turned the air conditioning warmer to see if typists in a typing pool would type more or less. They produces more. When the turned the air conditioning cooler the same thing happened. Which led them to the conclusion that it’s not the air conditioning that had an impact on production, rather, the fact that they were being observed, increased the production.
Further research has also been done on optimum performance under stress and the conclusion is that stress improves performance up to a point of optimum performance and applying more stress actually decreases performance. There is an interesting counter balance here. When one has absolutely mastered a competency the application of more stress improves performance even further, but when one has not mastered the competency, more stress will improve performance to a point and then it will go into decline.
What does this have to do with rugby and how can we apply it to our own working environment? A couple of take home points can be derived from this.
1.) Increasing pressure on your staff may improve performance
Try putting yourself and staff under pressure by creating deadlines and project plans. Gauge the amount of pressure to apply by closely observing your staff’s reactions and performance output.
2.) Practice “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA)
William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett Packard (HP), famously used this approach in their company. The basic premise is this, by continuously observing staff in everyday activities will allow them to get used to the “spotlight”. If they have to do a particularly difficult or important task they won’t be distracted by the sudden interest of management.
3.) Increase pressure only when skills are mastered
The last point is probably the most important. We all have high-performers in our team who time and again respond to high-stress situations with excellent performance. The manager needs to caution against applying more pressure before a skill is learned and mastered. One could argue that the lack of recent match exposure that the Springbok captain had prior to this game impaired his judgement. As the game wore on and the pressure increased a lack of exposure to recent similar situations could have caused him to make the wrong decisions.