Be careful with the sports metaphor – also in HR

Sports metaphors in HR

Leading a company or managing a team in an organization is not like coaching a soccer or a basketball team. It’s not. There are some similarities – such as how to motivate, coach, prepare and celebrate successes – but even in those cases you should be careful. The metaphor of sports can limit you as well.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very inspired by the late John Wooden who I think was one of the best coaches in sports history. He won the NCAA championship ten times in 12 years – seven of which were in a row. His insights into how to motivate a team and how to get the best out of talent are inspirational. Also, when I see Al Pacino give his half time speech in “Any Given Sunday” I get goosebumps. And I have previously argued that these guys’ know a lot about spotting, assessing and motivating talent and that this insight is useful.

But, I am surprised how far many take the analogy. In US, football is the most frequently used sports metaphor to explain how business works, what leadership looks like, and how employees are expected to perform. And this I think is dangerous.

The great benefit of metaphors is that they simplify and that they can create a sense of understanding. Metaphors and analogies often distort our thinking by disproportionately focus. For example, if you use the sports metaphor you are likely to be narrowed in the following ways;

  • All interactions in the marketplace are games to be won (some are, but most are not)
  • The only objective is to win the game – at whatever cost (not at whatever cost)
  • Customers are spectators (you should involve them – use co-creation etc.)
  • You should fire employees who are not ‘in the zone’ (who is in the zone all the time at work?)
  • The rules of the game are fair and fixed (no they are not)
  • There is a referee who will be fair and impartial (nope)

Further, there are also so many differences between an organizational and sports context. The most obvious include the composition of team, context of work and intensity of context. But more importantly, what is a talent and high performer in a sports context is so very different from an organizational context.

So I think you should be careful before you rename your ‘managers’ to ‘coaches’ – as they have done at Eastman Chemical – give out gold, silver and bronze medals to best performing teams or assess your talents from a sports understand of what a talent is. It may work and be appropriate, but many times companies experience the hidden bindings of analogies.

HR must be careful not to fall into the trap of using sports as the primary analogy. It is tempting in talent management and performance management, but it carries risks. Business is like a game, but it is not exactly like a game. Be inspired by sports, but also be very careful not to make it the center of your understanding when designing processes in your organization.

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