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Canadian divers Jennifer Abel, left, and Roseline Filion share a laugh during a welcome ceremony at the Athlete's Village in London, England Wednesday, July 25/2012. (Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail) The camaraderie exhibited by Canadian divers Jennifer Abel, left, and Roseline Filion in London this week is a good model for business teams, experts say.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

As Olympic athletes go for gold in London, you're probably facing your own challenges to perform stronger and faster at work.

Canadian workplaces have clearly become more competitive, according to a new survey. Forty per cent of 300 senior managers polled by staffing service OfficeTeam said they believe employees are more competitive with each other today than they were 10 years ago.

Olympic athletes and their coaches can teach us a lot about competing and winning, career experts say. Here are some pointers from career coaches who have worked with elite athletes.

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Train regularly: Elite performance requires focusing on a major goal, breaking that down into smaller goals and keeping to a strict workout routine, said Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice-president and managing director of the California-based Apollo Research Institute, which studies the future of work and careers.

"You need to continually review your progress and adjust your training if you're falling short," she said. Top performers spend as much time on practising and perfecting the basics as they do on stretching beyond to the next level.

Don't dwell on setbacks: A common thread in stories of champions is that they pick themselves up after a setback and do not dwell on it, Dr. Wilen-Daugenti noted. Athletes and business leaders can benefit by using visualization to literally keep their eye on the prize. "Refocusing your attention on something positive can shift you out of a rut and get you back on your climb to the top."

Seek out role models: Finding a seasoned mentor who has been there before will help reset your direction when you reach a fork in the road and give you objective feedback.

Top athletes also develop mentoring relationships with those who have been on the podium before them and can share lessons and short cuts they've learned. "Informational interviews are a great approach. People who have succeeded are happy to give you the time because people like to talk about themselves and share lessons with someone who's eager to learn from them," Dr. Wilen-Daugenti said.

Keep competition friendly: "Rivalry between co-workers can often become more intense when the economy is uncertain and people feel pressure to prove themselves. Although it's natural for employees to want to stand out among their colleagues, it shouldn't be at the expense of others," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam.

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Support the team: Olympic teams are known for their cohesiveness. That kind of camaraderie and trust can help reduce conflict and spur motivation in the office as well, Mr. Hosking said. There's no advantage gained by disparaging co-workers' performances. Being a cheerleader for others and having a winning attitude will make people root for you and want to be on your team.


Make feedback constant: To improve performance, it's essential to give good feedback not only when things go wrong, but also when things are working well, said Peter Jensen founder and CEO of Toronto-based Performance Coaching Inc. and an instructor in leadership at Queen's University School of Business who has coached seven Olympic teams.

Too often, managerial advice is directed at "constructive criticism," he said. It's more important to comment on good performances, he said. For example, when you see exemplary performance comment: "You did really well; that was amazing. How confident were you when you started? What types of things did you do to prepare?" This helps employees evaluate their own work, and builds their confidence to succeed again.

Openness builds trust: Elite performers can be strong-willed and ambitious but also insecure, said Mark de Rond, associate professor of strategy and organization at the University of Cambridge and author of There is an I in Team. He said it is important to have a process by which people can safely bring conflicts and concerns into the open in front of the team.

"Setting some clear ground rules … will help build that feeling of safety. My three rules are: What happens in here stays in here. If someone talks, everyone else listens. And if something isn't working, don't give up on it without trying to find a way to fix it," he said.

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Understand individuals: Business managers have lost sight of the fact that teams are driven to high performance by virtue of the skills and ambitions of the individuals in the team, Mr. de Rond said. Too often, management advice treats a team as a single unit and suggests team-building exercises that get people doing collective tasks with pep talks about being "all in this together."

The risk is that managers end up seeing their teams as a bland, uniform whole. "Managing a group as individuals with different skills and motivations and temperaments will actually help you get the best out of a team."


Some workplace team members take competition too far. Here are OfficeTeam's tips on how to handle them:

The pole vaulter: This person jumps to nab all of the high-profile assignments, leaving the less visible work to everyone else. To get the edge, make your interests known: Volunteer for key assignments and acquire hard-to-find skills that make you indispensable.

The boxer: This worker has a jab for everyone, whether it's a snide remark during a meeting or a sarcastic e-mail. Don't succumb to the negativity. Remain professional and try to work out your differences. If the behaviour doesn't stop, alert your manager or human resources department.

The sprinter: This person tries to win favour by working quickly, even if the results are sloppy. To compete, don't cut corners yourself. Become known for delivering quality work.

The gymnast: This employee bends and twists the facts, sometimes taking credit for others' work. If you have to work with this person, be sure to share your original ideas and contributions with your manager. Document the designation of duties and key conversations to avoid finger-pointing down the line.

The marathoner: This person can go the distance – in the cafeteria or at the water cooler, sharing rumours with anyone who will listen. Although it can be useful to have a sense of the political undercurrents in your organization, avoid associating closely with office gossips, and don't share sensitive information with them.

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