Why business is like ... rowing

The success of our Olympic rowers brought to mind the usual lyrical parallels with business: teams straining in sync towards a common goal, in some cases getting an ear-bashing from a figure at the front who doesn't seem to be lifting a finger.

by Jennifer Harris, director of JRBH Strategy & Management,www.jrbh.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

New research charting the performance of the Cambridge University rowing team yields a deeper management lesson. Mark de Rond of Judge Business School studied the behaviour of the light-blue crew in the run-up to the 2007 Boat Race. His book, The Last Amateurs, due out this month, should be read by any manager seeking to get more out of their team.

De Rond noticed that the performance of individual oarsmen was influenced by the seat they were given in the boat. The craft has a hierarchy, he explains. Some seats are considered more prestigious than others. Stick a rower in a position that doesn't flatter his ego and his performance suffers; put him in a more desirable spot and his rowing improves.

The lesson to managers is clear: performance is as much a function of self-esteem as ability. So if you show a team member you believe in them - with a promotion, say, or by entrusting them with an important initiative, they'll up their game. But if someone feels they haven't won your respect, their performance will decline in line with expectations.

Of course, if performance correlated only with the bestowal of praise and prestige, we'd have cracked one of the great conundrums of management. It also helps to have top-class talent. That year, Cambridge's team included Thorsten Engelmann, a rowing world champion from Germany. At 17 1/2 stone he was also the heaviest rower in Boat Race history. Surely he's not the type to fret about self-esteem?


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