I suck at sports.
In college, my roommate recruited me to be on an intramural softball team. During practice, I got hit in the face by a ground ball. That’s how bad I suck. A softball that was rolling on the ground, broke the laws of nature, jumped up, and hit me in the face … just to make sure that I understood that the Sport of Softball knows that I suck.
Before becoming a CPA I was a middle school math teacher. Every year, on the last day of school, the teachers would play against the eighth-grade basketball team. In the 70-year history of the school, the teachers never lost. Until I played. That was the first and only year I played, and that was the first and only year the teachers lost.¹
I am a pretty good wrestler, but it turns out grown ups don’t wrestle each other. “Hey, Dave, after work do you want to go wrestle?” Nope. Dave does not.
But here’s the thing, even though I suck at sports, when I play, I’m totally engaged. How many people have said they hate watching baseball but love playing? That’s because we are wired to engage when we’re playing sports.
If we take active steps to effectively re-create the key aspects of sport at work, we will increase our own engagement as well as our staff’s engagement. And studies show that increasing levels of engagement at work produces profound results.
Robust meta-analytic studies show that higher levels of engagement boost employee well-being, performance, and retention. For example, engaged business units tend to deliver better performance, as measured in terms of revenues and profits, and organizations with enthusiastic employees tend to have better service quality and customer ratings.
The following are three things you can do bring the ethos sports into your workplace and thereby increase engagement.
#1: HOW DO YOU SCORE POINTS AND HOW DO YOU WIN? Make your objectives crystal clear.
Defining how you score points and how you win is a major problem for a lot businesses and for accounting firms in particular. Seems like a no-brainer, but the more clarity you provide here, the more likely you, your staff, and your firm will win. Without a clear definition of how to score points, you can only win by accident.
So what are you REALLY trying to do? Are you trying to solve a customer’s problem? Are you trying to provide a great customer experience? Are you trying to acquire new customers? Are you trying to bill more hours? Are you trying to come in under budget? Ideally, you want to do all those things, but in reality they almost always conflict.
In soccer, you score points by putting the ball in the goal. And if you get more points than your opponent, you win. Pretty clear. No one cares the distance a soccer player runs during a game.
Baseball is a little more complicated. You score points by getting players around every base, and past home plate. There are many ways players advance from base to base, and there are many ways to get out. But ultimately, you want to score runs. No one cares if you can beat ass when there’s a bench-clearing fight.
Wrestling is even more nuanced. You win automatically if you pin your opponent, but if nobody gets pinned, the winner is determined by points, and points are earned in a bunch of different ways. Regardless, the goal is clear: either pin your opponent or score more points. No one cares how sexy your legs look in your singlet.
At the firm I used to work at, they gave lip service to being a trusted business advisor and providing great solutions. But ultimately, the partners wanted staff who could come in under budget on fixed-price engagements and bill lots of time (with no customer complaints) on open-ended engagements. I failed at that firm because they told me that delivering great service was how I would score points, but in reality the game was to maximize my realization rate.
Whatever your goals, you need to clarify them in your own mind, and communicate them clearly to your staff. Don’t bullshit yourself with high-minded crap unless you are truly committed to said high-minded crap.
#2: COACH YOURSELF AND YOUR PEOPLE TO SCORE MORE POINTS. How do players get better?
Like I said earlier, I suck hard at basketball. I’m engaged when I play, but if I had to play every day and I wasn’t getting better, my engagement would drop like blood pressure after 100mg of Tenormin. Intentional and purposeful coaching and training is therefore essential to sports, and it is also essential to workplace engagement.
Fortunately, if you’ve done the work of clarifying how points are scored and how winning happens, the training path becomes clear. What do you need to study and practice to score more points?
Two major difficulties with coaching and practice are (1) commitment and (2) timely feedback. If your goal is great customer experience, are you committed to learning and practicing the things that result in great customer experience. And do you have a way of identifying and reporting (to yourself and to your staff) when great customer experience is happening and when it’s not.
The best coaches hold their players accountable, and they watch their individual players in order to give customized, individual feedback on how to get better. You need to do this with your staff, and you need to do this with yourself. Find one specific thing for a staff member to do more of, or to do better, that will help them score more points. Then give them full permission to focus on doing that.
Coaching needs to be individualized and specific. If I’m told to work on something that’s not specifically something that I need to improve on, then my engagement drops. And even worse, if I’m told to work on something and those in charge hold me accountable to something different, then I get jaded.
As a leader in your firm (even if it’s just a one-person firm), you need to commit to effective, concentrated, individualized training if you want to transform work into a sport.
#3: PUBLICLY COMPETE: How and when do we play for real, and how do we know if we’ve won or lost?
Sport is competition. Competition implies competitors. You need to identify the competition and publically compete.
Your competitor can be another firm. It can be another department within your own firm. Staff can compete against other staff, or you can compete against your own best past performance.
As you identify and communicate with your staff who they are competing against, make sure it’s fair. People will disengage if they feel like there’s no way they can win. Pee wee teams don’t play against professional teams. Brand new staff shouldn’t be expected to compete against veteran staff.
Competition needs to be public, too. Every sport has a scoreboard. What’s yours?
Some people will lose, and they will lose publicly. But if we’re committed to transforming work into a sport, we understand that losses can and should be leveraged to boost motivation. Again, this is a key function of a coach. After a loss, a great coach shows her players where they improved, despite the loss, and shows them a clear path of training and practice whereby the players can win in the future.
I’m not a CrossFit guy, but I do like the way that they turn their WODs (workouts of the day) into mini-competitions simply by having everyone write their name of the whiteboard when they’re finished, turning the workout into a game.
All employees need to know what the goals are, and they need to have a path to become awesome at achieving those goals. But work becomes fun and extremely engaging when you identify and implement healthy and positive ways to compete publicly.
And just let me know anytime you want to wrestle.
¹Before the game, I was joking around with the other teachers that I sucked at shooting, dribbling, passing, and rebounding, but I was amazing at fouling. And — for real — I decided that I would try to foul out because that would be best for everybody. Turns out, I suck so bad at basketball, I couldn’t even do that.
Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies. After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam. Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Utah, but manages to make it to Greenville, SC once a year to emcee Deeper Weekend. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.