What baseball teaches us about managing people
AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek
(MoneyWatch) What do you do when your team just cannot seem to put one foot in front of the other and walk, let alone run?
That is a question facing Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. As the major league baseball franchise heads to the one-quarter mark of the season, they are hovering around .500. Five years ago, this would have been fine. Today, it is unacceptable. On paper the Tigers have a fearsome hitting line-up, a killer pitching rotation with some of the best hurlers in the game, a closer who did not blow a single save last year, and a collection of reliable role players.
Baseball for me is a good analogy for organizational life. In fact, it is often said that baseball is like life, only more so. First off, the season is long, running nine months or so from spring training to post-season play. Games are numerous. Players are human and have ups and downs, mentally and physically.
And the kind of typical exhortations that work in others sports, like football or basketball, simply do not work for baseball. No one says "play harder" in baseball. And If you hit safely three out of 10 times, you are a darn good hitter. Most hitters are in the .250-.280 range. In short, failure is part and parcel of the game.
Competition in the major leagues is tough; you don't get to the "show" without being able to do something well, and so on any given night in any given city a weak team can thump a strong one. There is a saying in baseball. You will win 50, lose 50, and it's what you do with the other 62 games that determine success. Win half of them and you are a .500 club. Win two-thirds of them and you have the makings of a champion.
Baseball is a team game, but like so much of organizational life, it really comes down to individual contributions. It is up to the manager to harness those contributions in ways that benefit the organization. To that end, here are some suggestions:
- Spread wisdom. Talking "baseball" means more than talking balls and strikes. It means sharing insights and strategies. Invite conversations about the work.
- Juggle the lineup. Managers love to put players in different spots in the lineup to see if they can get their hitting stroke back. This can be applied to employees. Give them new tasks, and maybe even new responsibilities. It may awaken their competitive spirit.
- Kick some butt. Players are paid to play. If they slack off, they deserve a reprimand. If you sense your team is going through the motions, instill a sense of urgency. Discuss what must improve -- sooner than later.
- Instill confidence. Make each player feel special. Rather than focus on what a player is not doing, concentrate on what he is doing right. Same in management. Talk about the contributions a player is making.
- Skip the pity party. Players get hurt, but you cannot make excuses. In management, similarly, you may not have enough people to do the job may be short on resources and time. No one likes a whiner, so managers must keep their team pointed on the objectives, not wallowing in their shortcomings.
Following these guidelines will not ensure success, but it could make your own employee lineup feel better about themselves and even turn into a veritable "Murderers' Row." After all, as in baseball, you still gotta play the game.
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