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What the 8 Disqualified Olympians Teach us About Management

Around the world, one of the more surprising stories from the Olympics has been the disqualification of eight badminton Olympians. The disqualifications were for attempting to lose games to play lower ranked teams. I thought this story was perfect to start a conversation on leadership, and as managers, the importance of not enabling poor behavior.

The badminton scandal is a classic example of enabling poor behavior. Everyone believes in the spirit of the Olympics, but in this instance, Olympians gained a competitive advantage by losing early matches. With big money tied to Olympic medals, and many of these athletes struggling to earn a living from their passion, tossing a match to keep your competitive advantage, may not be the worst strategy.

An article on CNN highlights the controversy:

“The debacle has prompted wide debate on social media, with opinion divided on whether the players were exercising tactical nous within a poorly designed system or were guilty of failing the Olympic spirit and bringing the game into disrepute.”

Badminton is not the only sport where this happens. Think about in the NFL when a team has locked in their playoff position, they rest their stars and work for the seed that provides the best match up. In both instances, you cannot simply just blame the athletes for throwing in the towel, they are operating within a structure they did not create, and have learned the best way to reach their desired goal.

On the other hand, the point of competition is never to lose. If you are a star athlete, you should be excited to face the next opponent, and the next big challenge. If you want to be at the top of your field, you cannot back away from competition. Whatever your sport may be, you should be committed to always doing your best. This is a valid argument in support of the disqualification ruling.

The dichotomy shows that organizations and leadership need to define the behaviors, attitudes and results they desire to see in their employees. Not only do these behaviors need to be defined, there also must be organizational structures that include incentives for proper behavior, and reform processes for poor behavior.

Without ever realizing it, managers often enable behavior. Changing and curbing behavior that has been enabled is painfully challenging, and often, does not work. As an organization, enabling poor behavior can make deep, and negative, impacts on trust within an organization, performance, and morale.

I wrote a post a few months ago about fairness in the workplace. Just like fairness is critical to morale, so is behavior. People run on good energy and positive energy. When poor behavior is enabled, or not effectively dealt with, accountability does not rest in just the employee. By being proactive, documenting everything, and have clear distinct policies and rules of behavior, behavioral changes can made for organization.

My question for you to explore, is who is wrong? The Olympians or the Olympic Committee?

As a manager, how are you making sure you are not poor enabling behavior?

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Pat Fiorenza

Interesting comment from a friend –

“The point of competition is never to lose when it really matters, and to let the other guy win when it doesn’t really matter”. That’s all those pesky badminton players were doing.

Daryl Northrop

I think we need to be clear who is in charge of the Chinese Olympic athletes. It is *not* the athletes. It is the coaches, and the Olympic Committee of China. They follow orders from the top, just like many Olympic athletes. If the coach says “hold back in this match” or “lose this match” then they follow orders? It is not easy for an individual within a set, narrowly defined system, to defy that system. The coaches and Olympic committees of the respective nations are the ones who should be held accountable.

Samuel Lovett

Great post, Pat. I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about throwing a match in order maximize chances for ultimate success. At first I felt that if the Olympic committee doesn’t want players throwing matches, they should make the competition single elimination. The disqualified players were just using the given system to the best of their ability. But my current feeling is a little different – sometimes in playoffs, the best two opponents don’t meet in the championship game. That’s a reality of bracket competitions in every sport. It’s my opinion that if you truly are the best at your game, you should be able to roll over any opponent, even if you are playing with less rest and more fatigue – we see this with multi-event athletes in swimming and track to an even greater degree. I think the committee was right to disqualify the players, but hopefully this will lead to a reevaluation of the bracket system in badminton. To bring it back to your management metaphor, managers should make sure, to the best of their ability, that the system their team is working in is designed for success, not shortcuts.
(Sorry for rambling. I’m stuck at an airport and this was a great way to pass some time!)

Lindsey Tepe


This is a really interesting point about incentives. When I taught, I often saw this kind of behavior in regard to standardized testing – students had to make a certain amount of academic progress on standardized tests from fall to spring for bonuses. While teachers weren’t encouraging students to fail in the fall, many would not encourage students to take them seriously. Then, in the spring, there was a huge push for students to do their best and take the tests seriously.

Forbes also posted an interesting article about incentives in business: http://www.forbes.com/sites/billconerly/2012/08/03/the-badminton-effect-and-your-companys-incentive-system/

Samuel Lovett

Great insight into this badminton topic from Harvard Business Review, using the language of managers and organizations:

The larger message here is that organizations are often driven by an ethos, be it sportsmanship, competition, camaraderie or team spirit. These are fine and noble human sentiments and may indeed be the dominant ethos of the people in the organization. But if you don’t consider incentives and strategic behavior, there will come a day when strategy trumps ethos. We would do much better to design organizations from the outset with Denmark in mind.

(***Denmark was the team that upset the world’s #1 team from China which started unbalance in the brackets and caused other teams to want to throw games)

Sonja Newcombe

The Olympians are wrong, have u heard of ethics , integrity being honorable. These are old values but it still applies today. Regardless of our accommdating society, this is encouraging raw risk by the ignorant player. I am sure the Olympians knew , they were wrong but still did the action. Right and wrong still exist. At the end of the day , we have to look in the mirror and like what we see…….

Jerry Schmidt

THe Olympians are wrong. This is against the spirit of the Olympics. Granted, perhaps the orders came from above and they were just following them. We don’t excuse that in any other instance (or at least we shouldn’t) and it we do, we are no better than the cheaters themselves. We are deliberately underperforming for future benefit (at least, implied benefit).

As a manager, the best thing you can do is to model the behavior you want others to emulate. If you just “phone it in,” why should your employees try any harder? Lead by example. If you want high-performing employees, be a high performing manager.

Dean Turner

My view is to “be the best, you must beat the best”, it should be against every fibre in your competitive make-up to deliberately go into a match to lose. On this basis I feel the actions by the competitors was misguided and therefore they must now carry the consequences.

It is also naive to believe that this is an isolated incident, I am sure everyone reading this post will be able to call to mind that “strange” outcome, and how could that have happened!

As leaders and managers it is important to listen and watch as the human make-up is to “take the easiest route” and if there is an easier path we will find it. Most important here is what were your guiding principles in establishing a system and then how will you respond when a short cut is identified!