Create a Highly Motivated Team? Here's What You Can Learn From the Olympics

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- 5 min read

Since the Olympics started last week in Rio de Janeiro the motivation of the athletes is highly inspiring. The comparison of the displayed motivation of the athletes with the average motivation in corporate organizations is quite painful.

Just imagine yourself an Olympic team with the same levels of engagement as the global workforce. This means an Olympic team in which 87% of the athletes are disengaged with the sports they are playing. Probably not a very good combination, right? So, let's turn it around and let's see what we can learn from the athletes who are currently setting world records and performing at the top of their game in pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.

1. The power of purpose

For Olympic athletes, it's all about the gold medal. For employees, it's often unclear. Dean Tucker's book Using the Power of Purpose cites some pretty startling research (thanks Ari!). Of the employees surveyed:

  • 37 percent clearly knew the company's goals;
  • 20 percent were enthusiastic about those goals;
  • 20 percent saw how they could support those goals;
  • 25 percent felt enabled to work towards them;
  • 20 percent fully trusted the company they worked for.

To emphasize the problem, Tucker translated these statistics to a football team. From the 11 players:

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We're no experts, but we surely won't put any money on the possibilities of winning an Olympic gold medal with the team above. The question remains, what can we learn from the Olympic athletes when it comes to purpose?

1. Create your team's gold medal

The one thing that drives all athletes to perform at their best is the idea of becoming an Olympic champion. This goal is so important to them that they go through four years of hard work and endless training sessions. All they care about is having their ultimate shot at Olympic gold.

Translating this to your workplace means creating your own 'gold medal'. Gather your team and envision the ultimate goal. The goal that makes your harts beat faster and your adrenaline levels rush. Keep crafting the goal until everyone feels like you have defined the team's ultimate 'gold medal'.

2. Track progress

Once you know where you are heading, it's important to track your progress along the way. Athletes meticulously track their progress to ensure they're on the right path. It keeps them motivated. It gives them the opportunity to experiment and see what works and what doesn't. It gives them satisfaction and confidence when they know they are moving forward.

In business, tracking a team's progress is just as essential. Nobody will care about the purpose if you don't know if your actions get you closer to gold. If you do, motivation will rise every time you find yourself closer to your goal.

3. Celebrate successes (and failures)

Every success further strengthens team motivation. Celebrate it. And celebrate your mistakes as well. It's fine to be disappointed at first but try to keep focused on what you learn from the mistakes and see them as yet another way not to reach your goal.

Not only makes a clear purpose your team more motivated and successful, it also makes tedious tasks a lot more bearable. Think of athletes and their extremely challenging training sessions. They're not all fun, but they're just another stepping stone to success.

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2. Focus on your talents

This one is an easy one. Olympic athletes have focused their entire life on their strongest talents. Make sure you and your team do too. Don't focus on what's in your job profile, but rather focus on what you do best. Everyday.

A practical way to do this:

  • Gather your team
  • Make an overview of all the tasks at hand
  • Distribute the tasks by letting each team member pick the tasks that fit his or her talents best

3. Work when you work best

Athletes don't train when they are scheduled to train. They train when they train most effective. If that means training in the middle of the night on a mountain, then that's what they do. They don't waste energy by training on arbitrary hours of the day if these hours are ineffective.

Learn from this. Find out when you work best and don't sit in the office just because you are scheduled to do so. If you foresee any problems with your employer, ask them to allow you to conduct an experiment. You ask permission to work for one week whenever you want, you just have to make sure you finish your work. If you want to work at night, work at night. If you want to start late and end late, do just that. After a week, evaluate and extent or stop the experiment. Slowly but surely you can find your own Olympic schedule.

4. Experiment

Olympic athletes are continuously experimenting and adjusting their training schedule. Instead of a fixed long-term plan, they focus on experimenting and making small adjustment along the way. Or as Mike Tyson once said: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face."

In business, do the same. Whether you call it the Lean Startup approach, DevOps or Agile Scrum, business are increasingly starting to realize that the world is too complex to plan too much ahead. Make mistakes fast, learn from them, and adjust your way of working.

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