Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast of all time, as well as one of the most dominant athletes in her field. Coming into the Tokyo Olympics, all eyes were focused on her as she was predicted to be the clear winner again. Yet, perhaps the cracks were starting to show. Sports Illustrated published an interview several weeks ago that — with the power of hindsight — gives subtle clues that Biles was on the cusp of walking away.
And walk away she did. Biles shocked the gymnastic world by bowing out of the women’s all-around finals. The bravery to make that decision should be applauded. We should also look deeper into how she got there — and what lessons that has for an organization’s top performers.
Lesson #1: Even your star performers will wobble
Every company has its superstars. These are the high performers who can be counted on to get the job done. Everything they touch turns to gold, just as Biles usually came home with the top prize.
However, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to perform at the highest of levels indefinitely. At some point, people are bound to hit a bump in the road. For your top performers, this can be especially shocking when it happens for the first time. They aren’t used to not succeeding — and once their confidence is shaken it can be difficult to get it back.
Employer support: Make space for resilience training. Resiliency is the ability to appropriately recognize adversity and then access existing protective factors. One way to help your people do this is to ask people to do think about a time when they had a setback — and ask them to remember how they came out of it. For most, it will be a positive remembrance, and knowing that you’ve already navigated a setback successfully gives you the confidence to face the next one. That’s an easy activity to add into resilience training or a wellbeing guide.
Lesson #2: Great expectations can lead to burnout.
If ever someone was subject to unrealistic expectations, it would be Simone Biles. But what happens when we strive so hard to meet those expectations? And then fail to live up to them? Burnout, followed by disappointment. Are there unrealistic expectations on certain parts of your workforce?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when someone is overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. At work, burnout is primarily the result of one’s workload, mismatched skills, insufficient rewards for effort, perceived lack of control, and a lack of a supportive community.
Employer support: Burnout in the workplace —if not due to a lack of sufficient headcount — can be partly managed by saying “thank you” more often. Gratitude does wonders to boost morale. Leaders should also signal the appropriate work/life balance — one easy way is to set expectations about working hours. Finally, more and more companies are adding wellbeing days, where the entire company switches off so that people don’t stress about coming back to a full inbox and can truly recharge.
Lesson #3: It takes courage to speak up when things aren’t right
Psychological safety is generally defined as the ability to show your true self without fear of negative consequences on how others view you or your career. Biles must have worried about the future consequences of withdrawing but did what was right for her and her teammates. For far too long, psychological safety has been ignored, under-prioritized, or brushed under the rug not just in gymnastics, but in organizations as well.
If people don’t feel safe at work, they often won’t speak up — and businesses lose out. They may not get critical feedback about when things aren’t working the way they should. They miss out on the benefits of diverse voices. They lose out on the innovation that comes from risk-taking.
Employer support: Creating safe and inclusive environments is everyone’s job, but policies such as zero bullying and acknowledging (rather than punishing) failed ideas are a great start. Showing employees what healthy conflict looks like can also empower people to speak up because they know disagreements will be handled civilly.
Lesson #4: Great performance requires great mental health
Covid-19 shone a light on how important mental health is and made workplace conversations easier to have, but there’s still a long way for many businesses to go. While depression and anxiety often dominate the conversation, it’s time to consider subtler conditions such as burnout, disengagement, lack of passion, too high of expectations, and more.
Biles understood the link between her mental health and her performance — and was right to walk away to protect her body and heal her mind.
Employer support: It starts at the top with a company’s leaders willing to be vulnerable. Then, include everyone in the conversation. For example, Facebook ran a campaign called #OpenUp several years ago that encouraged people to share stories in a dedicated and safe space. The campaign was underpinned by butterflies, which are considered a universal symbol of hope.