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Lessons from the Olympics and Strictly

‘The role of leadership is to create an environment in which people thrive’

Exploring environments which consistently bring the best out of people, such as the Olympics,
we can see that there is something in the overall architecture of that environment that is
creating the conditions that encourage and enable people to improve their performance.
At the highest level it is the leadership that creates the structures, systems and culture that
drive performance. Using examples from two different environments I will show what
leadership can do to ensure that they attract, retain and develop the talent that exists within
their organisation.

The Olympics is an obvious example – it is an environment that brings the best out of people
and the term Olympians is synonymous with high achievement. There are structures in place
that ensure for each Olympic cycle there is a group of athletes ready to embrace the challenge
of realising their full potential in their search for a gold medal. These same structures or
components can be seen in other high performance environments such as the BBC’s Strictly
Come Dancing which uses the same systems to ensure that year on year there are more
celebrities willing to take part in the hope of lifting the glitter ball.

For both environments there are components that build a strong desire in the population to be
there – the Engagement Factors. Once they are engaged there are clear means for them to
develop and perfect their skills – the Performance Factors. It is in the dynamic balance
between these two sets of factors that the conditions in which people thrive. In exploring this
balance leaders can help determine how best to develop these factors in their own
performance environment.

Engagement Factors

Engagement – the extent to which there is a symbiotic relationship between the environment
and the population

In the case of the Olympics – the Olympians need the Olympics, the Olympics needs the
Olympians. As obvious as this sounds it is essential to realise and cultivate this relationship to
maximise the Engagement Factors within the environment.

Each Olympian is a unique human being with their own complex set of needs and ambitions.
These needs and ambitions are met through their actions and behaviours – one of the key
characteristics of high performing individuals is the congruence between their behaviour and
the goals they set out to achieve. Every individual looks for a community or environment in
which their needs can be fulfilled and what they do fits in with the people around them. The
best place for someone with Olympic hopes is the Olympic environment.

Someone such as Usain Bolt with his unique talents and his strong desire to be considered a
Legend requires the Olympic Games with its motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” for him to realise
his ambition. In the same way, to support its motto and values the Olympics needs to attract
and retain talented individuals such as Usain Bolt to fulfil its own broader mission.

In the same way the environment of Strictly creates a symbiotic relationship between the
celebrities and the show – they both need each other to survive and thrive.

The Engagement Factors – the symbiotic relationship between individuals and the organisation

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If these links are strong great sacrifices are made by the individuals to remain within the
environment – these factors help build loyalty, commitment and dedication. If these links were
weak individuals would leave to find somewhere else to meet their ambitions and the
environment would shrink and lose its importance.

Engagement is critical to keeping people within the environment. Leaders must ensure they
create a mission statement or cause that is inspirational and helps appeal to the needs of the
people they want to attract into their organisation.

Once the Engagement Factors are in place and there is a strong desire for the population to
remain in the environment it is important to look at the mechanisms that drive improvements in
performance.

Performance Factors

Performance Pressure – mechanisms that drive the need for ‘better’ and ensure the rewards
are worth the effort

There is something inherent within the Olympics that provides the pressure to innovate,
improve and discover the marginal gains that lead to the phenomenal performances we
admire during each Olympic games.

The mechanisms to create this progress are the combination of Performance, Assessment and
Feedback. Using the Usain Bolt example – at the outset it is very clear what constitutes high
performance – the first person to cross the line in the final race. Not only is the definition of
success clear it is directly connected to the Olympic ideals and Usain’s talents and personal
ambitions – this maintains and furthers an important link to the Engagement Factors.

Clear and unambiguous definitions are the first step to creating effective Performance Factors,
the next step is to ensure that the methods for assessing performance are accurate and
reliable. Usain Bolt and the rest of the competitors require total confidence that the methods
for measuring their performance is fair and valid.

Finally comes the Feedback. Feedback is an essential for learning, development and progress
and comes in many forms – personal satisfaction, recognitions and acknowledgement from
other competitors, teammates and the spectators and of course the rewards associated with
success, such as the gold medal. What we see in high performance environments is the
hierarchical nature of the reward systems – the highest achievers receive the greatest rewards
– rewards that are highly sought after, are scarce in their nature and directly appeal to the
needs and motivations of the individual.

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These three things, Performance, Assessment and Feedback, work together to create a
positive feedback loop and perpetuate more of the desired behaviours within the environment,
allowing high performers to rise to the top and be celebrated for their success.

We can see the same mechanisms operating in Strictly, however there are different definitions
of performance operating. There are the technical aspects of the dance which will be judged
against set criteria by the panel and popularity as assessed by the audience. As there are two
different Performance and Assessment criteria we see two different behaviours shown by the
contestants – the technical prowess of their dancing and doing whatever they can to appeal to
the audience. Feedback is given in terms of scores that allow the highest performers then
advance to the next round. This feedback loop perpetuates the desired behaviours until the
best couple is ultimately crowned champions.

Leaders can learn from this cycle within the Performance Factors to clearly identify what
constitutes high performance within their organisation, have trusted and accurate methods of
assessment, and provide feedback that recognises and acknowledges high performance. It is
vital that definitions of high performance, assessment methods and feedback have a direct link
to the overall mission and aims of the organisation as this ensures that performance,
assessment and feedback are meaningful and relevant to the individuals.

It is the balance between the Engagement and Performance Factors that create the conditions
that stimulate and sustain high performance.
Too much pressure and not enough engagement will lead to burn out and stress.
Too little pressure and an engaged population will become bored and apathetic.

Leaders who understand this dynamic are best placed to ensure they create the optimal
conditions that unlock human potential and allow people to give their best performance in the
contribution to something bigger than themselves.

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Mobius provides coaching, training and consultancy to help leaders understand the factors
that drive engagement and performance within their organisations. Clarity allows leaders to
remove the interferences preventing full realisation of the performance potential that exists
within their organisation.

Our Performance Environment Analysis is a powerful diagnostic tool that allows leaders to see
how these six components interact, what is working well and the most effective course of
action to stimulate real and positive change.

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