In business, using sports analogies is often a powerful way to get people focused and motivated. But tread lightly, as using such lingo isn’t always a layup.
Not everyone can hit a home run each time at the plate, and incorporating appropriate analogies into the company playbook may even have damaging effects, according to some linguistic experts I spoke with. Even so, it is certainly possible to use sports analogies to help motivate your team and achieve company goals. Here are four tips for channeling your inner Vince Lombardi-lite:
1. Avoid the full-court press. "Jargon has its place in organizations, as it’s usually developed as a linguistic shorthand that helps efficiency tasks," says Raina Brands, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School. "But it can also alienate others." For instance, nonsports fans might start to feel left out, she explains.
Worse, an overreliance on sports metaphors can turn off clients, too, she says. Brands's advice: Know your audience. If your message seems exclusionary because it’s always “going to the mat” or “hitting them where it hurts,” the only one “taking one for the team” is you. These offhand expressions may also be obscuring your meaning, rather than doing what a metaphor is supposed to do, which is illuminate it to your listeners.
2. Aim for clarity. Greg Bustin, author of Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture, says winners and losers in business are not as easily defined as they are in sports. And this often results in false analogies that aren’t translatable from one field to another.
"If you’re going to use them, it has to be more than a slogan on a T-shirt," says Bustin. To drive success, business leaders should strive for clarity rather than spew platitudes, he adds.
3. Set clear goals. Employees can’t hear you think, so slogans like "step up to the plate" will die in the dugout unless you’ve provided some context to the request. The result of not setting expectations and offering slogans that lack context can be deflating: Leadership teams end up high-fiving in the end zone while the CEO thinks they are only on the 20-yard line.
Bustin’s advice: Your team wants to be successful, but it will struggle unless everyone truly understands what success means to management. If you are going to lean on analogies to communicate ideas, the challenge is to convert them into executable plans, not pseudoinspirational jargon. After all, "a clear outcome is what generates stories and excites sports fans” as well as employees, says Bustin.
4. There's no I in team. Sport can never truly reflect day-to-day demands of business. Your company isn’t in business to achieve victory over another (although you probably compete with other companies in the marketplace), but rather to create something of value.
But clarity in game planning for both coaches and managers creates confidence, and in the end, using sports analogies to deliver big-picture messages is low risk, high reward.
Just stick to a broader message. Zeroing in on individual performers--for instance, using terms such as "drop the ball," "head in the game," "fish or cut bait"--is fraught with potential for misunderstandings and even hurt feelings. Using goal-oriented analogies offers employees a sense of inclusion.
Regardless of how you feel, sports clichés are embedded in corporate language and have evolved to fit a culture of that extols the virtues of creating goals, teamwork, and competition. And besides, says Brands, you couldn’t get rid of them if you tried.