All that glitters is not gold

Mar 01 2013 by Bob Selden Print This Article

Gold! Gold! Gold! and Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! are two phrases that have been built into the Australian psyche by dint of Australia's outstanding success in the Olympic Swimming contests over the last two decades. But in the recent London Olympics, Australia won only one gold medal for swimming – the worst performance since the 1970s. In fact, Australian Swimming results at the Olympics and World Championships have been on a steady decline since 2005.

And so the reviews (two of them) into the failure of the Aussie swimmers to live up to the pre-games hype, have begun.

These reports, one conducted by Swimming Australia on culture and leadership and the other an independent report also commissioned by Swimming Australia, plus the media and public comments on the Olympics failure, make interesting reading for those interested in managing groups of high performers.

Why would such reports be so interesting from a management perspective?

Well, firstly let's look at the results of a comparable sport, Paralympic Swimming. Australia has performed consistently well over the last four Paralympics. In London, they took home a swag ("swag" is an Australian slang word for pack or bag) of medals. Why this difference in results?

Both Swimming Australia reports focus heavily on leadership, or in the case of the Olympic Swimming Team, the lack of it. And rightly so. The independent report also devotes a lot of time to governance issues which also need to be addressed.

However, both reports miss some vital issues that should be evident to any good student of management, and to successful practising managers.

First, swimming, despite all nations referring to their swimmers as a "team", is an individual sport. There are teams within the larger group, such as the relay teams. However, at its core, swimming remains an individual sport.

Second, officials of Swimming Australia have failed to recognise the difference between a team and a group. Although there are some similarities, both need to be managed and led quite differently.

And finally, Elite swimmers are paid a reward for the medals they win.

Let's look at the issue of "individualism". Each swimmer needs to be managed independently. So, for example their performances need to be benchmarked against their previous personal best (PB) performance, not whether they win a particular medal. Managing swimmers as individuals (as part of a larger group) places a lot more emphasis on the personal accountability (in both results and behaviour) needed by each athlete and requires a certain management style to be successful.

Then, on the topic of rewards for individuals, Michael Gikding points out in The Conversation:

"Three weeks before the Olympics, Swimming Australia imposed a new 'high-performance' funding model on its swimmers, reportedly to "see medallists rewarded". The timing made it difficult, even unpatriotic, to question the new model but in the wash-up after the Olympics, it warrants scrutiny.

"The new model meant swimmers received a low base rate for participating and then a sliding scale of bonuses depending upon their performance. These performance bonuses ranged from $35,000 for individual gold medals to $4,000 for 8th position. . . and nothing for less than that.

"The model is profoundly revealing in two ways. First, it highlights the extent to which an economic understanding of human motivation has permeated all corners of Australian society.

"Second, it starkly demonstrates the limitations of financial incentives in achieving outcomes. The model failed. It is generally agreed that the Australian swimmers performed well below expectations." Gilding concluded.

However, on the face of it, such a rewards proposal would seem logical. After all, this is an individual sport, so why not reward individual performance?

As readers would know, I've long campaigned against this culture of individual rewards for the wrong reasons. Rewarding people for winning medals sends the wrong messages to all athletes, i.e. you are only rewarded if you win a medal. It also helps create internal competition within the group and leads to a culture of elitism.

One athlete commented that "he felt that it was not really about whether you swam your heart out, it was about whether you could sell your heart out."

Another young swimmer described this focus on winning gold "as like looking at the sun – something you had to turn away from after a while."

Whatever happened to recognition for achieving results that were better than your own previous best?

Compare this to the Paralympians who consistently talked about "My PB" (personal best) and were delighted when they met or exceeded their PB, irrespective of whether they came first or last. From a group perspective, it was also interesting to note how often individual Paralympians talked about the great PB performances of their fellow athletes. Obviously, they had truly bonded as a group.

In conjunction with the release of these two reports, an episode that has caused a huge public outcry and media frenzy in Australia, is the public acknowledgement last week that the men's relay team took the banned sedative Stilnox during the lead up to the Olympics and that they harassed other swimmers in the games village. They also originally denied taking the drug.

These are but two of many intransigencies that demonstrate the lack of personal accountability accepted by each athlete.

The Swimming Australia reports are also useful from a management perspective to once again review the important differences between teams and groups.

In summary, groups are formed by at least two people who interact and may share some interrelated task goals. However, the majority of the work group members do can be done without relying on other members of the group.

Teams on the other hand, are groups that have three additional characteristics that set them apart. Their members must depend on one another to achieve their task goals. Each member must have a particular role to play in the team, and there must be team goals and objectives that can only be achieved by all the team members contributing to a team total output.

So in a team, If one member doesn't fulfil his or her role, it's not just that person's own functional area that fails, the whole team fails (as in the relay teams).

This distinction as I've pointed out previously is important in at least two ways. Firstly, as a manager, it impacts your style of communication. If you have a group, you will need to do far more one-on-one communicating – your style can also be more varied depending on the needs of the situation and the personality of the particular group member. With teams, there will be far more one-to-team and intra-team communication – your style will need to be far more collaborative (if not, morale and motivation is likely to drop off).

It also has obvious implications for your "team building" initiatives. With groups, your efforts should be more directed to social interaction – collaboration will be built through personal relationships, not the dependence on one another for results. With teams, you will spend more time in problem-solving, team building exercises and team role definitions.

It's interesting to note that there was a considerable lack of "team" socialising both leading up to and during the Games. Paralympians on the other hand seemed to enjoy one another's company and had a camaraderie (as evidenced both during and following the Games) that could have only been built around positive group dynamics.

For me, the two most important issues for managers resulting from this story are:

  • The impotence of using an economic model of motivation to achieve results, and
  • The lack of an understanding of how important it is to manage groups and teams quite differently in order to achieve success.

As managers, you might also like to now consider whether you manage a team or group and in particular, check whether your people:

  • Have set objectives that aim to improve performance over their previous best performance (particularly important if yours is a group) rather than comparing their performance to outside influences?
  • Have set objectives that directly relate to positively impacting team outcomes (teams) or in the case of groups, objectives that will demonstrate behaviours/activities that lead to group cohesion?

As an Australian, I'd really like to think that Swimming Australia has learnt some management lessons from this experience. However, I have my doubts.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.