Good Sportsmanship in Business

A few weeks ago, I received a memorable lesson in sportsmanship via my daughter, the gymnast. This got me thinking about integrity, the abundance – or the glaring lack of it – in the office place. I’ll explain.

Turn, Turn, Turn

A few weeks ago at family dinner, our ten-year-old daughter proclaimed that it was time for a stricter coach who would stretch her limits and accelerate her gymnastics skills. In our role as supportive parents, we reached out to a few of the local gyms, and she was invited in to shadow their teams and show her potential. A week later, she was officially asked to join her first choice, and she gladly accepted.

The take-home lesson came when the head coach of her old gym asked her to drop by one last evening at the end of practice to bid farewell to her old teammates. It’s the formal custom of that gym for all departing members, and my daughter was nervous. What should she say? How should she present her decision? Why was she even being asked to do this?

On the drive over, I coached her through a few tactful ways to explain her departure. When the moment came, she did a fine job. Most of the other girls were excited for her, a few cried a little, and the evening concluded with an extended hugfest. The reception surprised my daughter, who was grateful for the opportunity. On the way home, we discussed what we saw as the benefits of the experience:

  1. CLOSURE: Her old team learned why she was leaving and had the chance to wish her luck,
  2. CONSEQUENCES: My daughter was shown the impact of her decision on her former teammates and coaches, and most importantly,
  3. SPORTSMANSHIP: A seminal lesson in how to respectfully handle change, even when it brought up feelings of loss or disappointment.

So why can’t adults act this way at work?

The next day on my long commute to work, my mind kept returning to how well the old gym had pulled off the departure of one of their athletes. The coaches had honored the efforts and achievements of my daughter and dealt with the issue in an open and dignified ceremony. How common is that? I think not at all, especially in the hard scrabble world of commerce.

Over the years, I’ve certainly seen my share of poorly handled sudden departures. The guy who disappeared in a sulfurous cloud of unconfirmed rumors regarding an online gambling addiction. The women who felt passed over by their manager, left the company, and later successfully sued for discrimination. The disgruntled secretary who was let go after one too many arguments with the boss. The intern who one day just stopped showing up.

Sadly, in many organizations, staff departures equate to no sense closure, reveal few consequences, and take place with zero dignity. The former teammate is immediately persona non grata, his desk and belongings stripped away by an underclass of office supply scavengers. Next comes weeks of trash talk about the former employees’ shortcomings, parentage, and peccadilloes.

I avoid this poisonous gossip like the measles. My personal policy: “never speak ill of the dead.” Not being in HR, I am fuzzy regarding the rules of what management can and cannot legally say. But I do know that real leaders are those who opt to tackle – and not ignore – these awkward circumstances.Treating departing employees with dignity is exemplary sportsmanship, played out courageously on the field of business.

When a manager takes the time to say something kind about the individual, to recognize her positive contributions over the ultimately negative outcome, he or she is demonstrating a commitment to a culture of respect. “A man lets you know who he is by how he treats others,” said the basketball player Mo Williams. The coaches at my daughter’s former gym proved without a doubt last week just how much they care for all the girls and boys they train.