Q&A: Dr. Dan Kirschenbaum, Chicago Sport Psychologist, on How Sport Psychology Applies to the Workplace
Posted on Nov 27th, 2009
As part of the Associated Geos series of issues for Geo Domain operators, we turn to Dr. Dan Kirschenbaum, a Chicago sport psychologist - www.ChicagoCBM.com. His long list of achievements include consulting with the United States Olympic Committee, the NBA, the LPGA and the Chicago Bears. In this interview, he compares the workplace and the playing field, finding similar solutions for setting goals in both winning times and down times.
Associated Geos: First and foremost, in what ways do the principles of sport psychology apply to businesses?
Dan Kirschenbaum: Sport psychology refers to the science of behavior – which is psychology – applied to sports settings, with an emphasis on helping athletes improve performance. In the office setting, principles form psychology help us understand what factors make people happy and productive, just as they do in sport settings. In sport, we talk about team leaders, leadership and coaching skills, and athletes who have a passion for the sport and team, and who give 110% in practice and during competition. In business, we also talk about leadership and factors that promote consistent as well as outstanding performance.
AG: Team building is obviously one of the most important elements of sport. What team building exercises can also most help workplace environments?
DK: Anything that motivates people to get to know each other, and allows them to be more dependent on each other.
If you look at research on altruism, for example factors that increase the willingness of one person to help another, we find that a personal connection gets people to help those in distress. For example, notice the signs made by homeless people. Those that say their name and something about them – like ‘I’m a Vietnam vet” – wind up getting more contributions than just those who ask for money.
This is what you want to do in team building, in sport or the workplace. Getting people to know each other and care about each other as individuals. Anything that will do that, from having parties to having work colleagues do projects or travel together, develop a real connection and build better teams.
AG: What are other exercises of strategies can leaders use to improve team building?
DK: Goal setting is important in improving performance. This is something that is widely used in business practices. One of the things I did with the Chicago Bears was for each of the players to set individual goals with the strength coordinator. I then graphed the performances relative to those goals and posted them every week during the off season. The public display of effort improve workouts dramatically.
Workplaces can use that sense of competition to challenge people to work harder. It helps if managers or coaches make it clear that they’re doing this to improve performance and encouraging higher level of performance from everyone. It also helps people to work better if managers and coaches figure out what goals will give them the best payoff. For football teams, they use this type of goal setting to get more of their players to have more gas in the tank, when the ‘4th quarter’ comes around.
AG: What are some toxic behaviors that can hurt a workplace environment?
DK: Behaviors that undermine the leadership can create demoralization by decreasing passion for the work; this is a very dangerous thing. One of the findings on leadership within sport psychology is that more experienced players in complex sports like football and baseball actually want stronger leadership and want leaders who make more definitive decisions, than less experienced players. Less experienced players want more of a democracy. In sports, a democracy means too much compromise. In football, for example, do you want the team to vote on what the next play will be?
If leaders of sport or business teams are compromised, you can expect more chaos and burnout. You need a sense of mission to get your players to rally around you. The leader has to behave in a way to show this conviction. You want definitive decision-making at that level.
There are parameters, though. Smaller businesses don’t need authoritative leadership, they probably can get by better with a more input-oriented democratic structure.
AG: Since the goal of all teams is to win, what is the best way to handle 'winning' without letting it go to a team's head?
DK: In professional sports, where people are paid tremendous amounts of money, when you look at their performances after they sign the multi-million dollar contracts, a lot of times their performance goes down. Teams should be paying attention to the patterns of personality and behavior over time, so that they can predict that even with the money, a certain person will still want to win and work hard.
In a workplace, it’s very rare that someone gets those kind of payoffs. In most business, compensation is based on sustained performance. It’s more like ‘what have you done for me lately?’ You may be great at what you do, but you’ve got to keep being great in order to get reinforcement.
Studies have shown that the best businesses, the ones that have great success, have this mentality. That is, they create a business culture that stresses that no matter what they’ve done, they’ve got to keep pushing to do better. They never settle on what they’ve accomplished. That permeates from the leadership down.
In amateur sports, good coaches build teams in ways to help the athletes feel admired by their peers. Regular meetings once a month where you celebrate accomplishments are very important, in both sports and the workplace.
AG: Subsequently, of course, when there is a bit of a losing streak, how does a manager or leader keep morale favorable, constructively looking to keep things going in a positive way?
DK: You focus on the task at hand. There are a lot of principles in sport psychology about managing anxiety and stress in a competitive situation. The hardest thing for an athlete to do is to perform exceptionally well under the greatest amount of pressure.
The Michael Jordans, the Tiger Woods of the world, are athletes who would rise to the occasion, who seem to do the most incredible things when they’re under the most pressure. How do they do it? What they do is build in consistent routines that they focus on. Watch a pitcher in baseball, a basketball player or a golfer, you can see their distinctive routines in action – like a basketball player before a free throw or a golfer before a putt. Athletes who use very consistent routines tend to perform better than those whose routines vary a great deal from play-to-play, situation-to-situation.
So in the workplace, if you get everyone to think about those routines as a company and on the individual level, it can improve performance during a downturn. This represents a focus on what we can do today to make things better, rather than on the big negative picture.
AG: Human beings are essentially flawed. What behaviors on the field or in the workplace are most easily forgivable and how does a manager or coach steer those behaviors to make them better?
DK: Let’s take the field scenario first. There has been a lot of research on coach effectiveness. When players make mistakes, some coaches yell at those players, essentially kicking them while they’re already down. That is the worst thing a coach can do. It just produces hatred in the player and in the teammates who care about that player.
It’s the same in the workplace. If you humiliate a person who makes a mistake what good does that do?
A better coaching strategy is to acknowledge the problem and then move on. If a ball is dropped, maybe its time to sit someone down and allow them the space to get it together, and be positive. Negativity will make the performance worse. During practice, mistakes can be followed with modeling alternative correct behaviors and then having the player imitate the corrected behaviors.
AG: How does stress affect a human body? What are the signs that stress is taking too much of a toll in one's self?
DK: In the workplace the term is burn out. The signs of burn out include exhaustion, lack of energy and less interest in what they’re doing. In a sport context you first notice that someone is not preparing themselves, not training hard or studying film. You’re losing radio contact with them basically. Grumbling, short fuses and people snapping at each other are also other signs of stress.
AG: Finally, what are three basic goals for 2010 can a workplace set to make their environment better for team or office place morale?
DK: First, it helps a great deal to systematically evaluate morale on a regular basis. Sitting folks down, doing questionnaires or getting an outside consultant to do this assessment will determine the level of contentment or satisfaction within the job. It’s not that difficult.
Secondly, some brainstorming from the workers and leadership can help. How can the company keep people energized? What projects can be set up and what little competitions can help keep the positive energy flowing and growing?
Finally, a powerful behavioral technique is self monitoring. Self monitoring is the systematic observation and recording of a person’s own target, goal oriented behaviors. Workers, in consultation with their supervisors, can set performance goals and self monitor their progress toward those goals. These efforts can get reviewed in supervisory groups, with constructive problem solving as well as encouragement for sustained efforts.
In addition, it is helpful to get consultation from outside experts who study the science of these scenarios. Businesses do this more than sports teams. And that is a place where sport can take a lesson from business. Effective consultants can often find it easier to think outside the box. They can bring in knowledge of psychology and find ways to apply it that those within the system can often miss.
Dr. Dan Kirschenbaum is a Chicago Sports Psychologist. Visit his webite at www.ChicagoCBM.com.