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Steve Swanson

Institute for Sport Business, Loughborough University in London

Director of Sport Leadership

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Bringing sporting mindsets into the workplace


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The role of context in organisational behaviour research has been considered by academics for several decades.

While merely changing context is not generally viewed as sufficient grounds for additional research, testing theory across a variety of settings does often yield new insight and strengthen our understanding of theoretical perspectives. Beyond simply testing theory in alternate settings, however, specific contexts may also provide the opportunity to develop new theory which can in turn be applicable elsewhere (see Chalip, 2006).

For example, the following discussion will highlight two recent studies which utilised the context of sport as the facilitator of theoretical viewpoints.

While sport management has a well-established research stream in the areas of marketing and consumer behaviour, there is a relative lack of such research within the discipline of organisational behaviour. As distinctions have been noted in the literature in relation to sports consumers (e.g. elevated emotional responses and perceived expertise), a parallel line of research is warranted for individuals working within the sporting environment (see Todd & Kent, 2009).

In the interest of providing empirical support for the notion of distinct psychological processes in the sport workplace, the following information provides some initial insight on the mindsets of individuals working in this setting.

The first study considered the way in which sport employees perceive their managers in relation to credibility and leadership. The mainstream management literature provides strong support for both of these constructs playing significant roles in relation to leadership effectiveness and employee attitudes. In particular, the concept of prototypical leadership was explored here, which refers to cognitive structures which outline the optimal characteristics of a leader (i.e. prototype).

An area of considerable overlap between the dimensions of these constructs relates to knowledge or expertise, and deeper consideration revealed that the conceptualisation of knowledge in both the credibility and prototypical leadership literatures has generally been used as a global construct. As a means of ‘unpacking’ this concept, we referred to the education literature which indeed accounted for a variety of different ‘types’ of knowledge. These included categories such as general factual information, as well as knowledge about a particular subject or academic discipline.

Noting the latter in particular, and that many people outside of the industry possess sport-related knowledge, we proposed that managers working in sport may also be held accountable for possessing a significant degree of sport knowledge. After a series of preliminary analyses, we ultimately found support for the idea that sport-specific knowledge, experience, and skill were important factors when assessing the credibility and leadership qualities of managers. More specifically, beyond functional area knowledge and experience (e.g. accounting, marketing, etc), the findings suggest the presence of dual accountability, where sport employees also expect their managers and leaders to possess sport-specific expertise.

The next study addressed the concept of fandom in the workplace, and sought to shed some light on the appropriateness of being a fan of the team whilst working in professional sport.

After conversations with multiple executives in professional sport organisations, there’s been a mixed review on the importance of having employees who are also fans of (identify with) the affiliated sports team. Some top administrators feel that there is a benefit for their employees to be a supporter of the team, while others simply want individuals who are good at the respective job description. Referring to both the organisational and team identification (sports fan) literatures, this study found that business employees working for professional sports teams could indeed cognitively distinguish between the actual team (on the pitch, court, etc) and their overall employing organisation.

In addition, the research project found that team identification independently contributed to increased levels of employee commitment, satisfaction, motivation, and cognitive involvement. That is, in addition to the known benefits of having employees who identify (feel a sense of belonging) with their organisation, these findings indicate that there is also a benefit for having employees who are fans of the team as well. As one of the fundamental aspects of fandom is desiring that the team be successful, it therefore appears that employees who are also fans can feel more instrumental in contributing to this core objective of the organisation.

Whilst it is likely that sport employees will identify with many parts of their organisational environment, dual identification with these prominent entities in this particular setting appears to play a major role in producing positive employee outcomes.

Collectively, the two studies provide insight for both the sport and non-sport sectors in relation to key contributors for positive organisational environments. Implications from the first study include that managers in various industries may also be held dually responsible by employees to possess departmental knowledge (e.g. public relations) and well as knowledge about their specific product area (e.g. cars, food, real estate, medicine, etc).

Demonstrating expertise in the context area would then signal credibility and prototypicality as a leader, which in turn should strengthen managerial influence. From the second study, there may also be other industries where employee identification with a key department or work group (e.g. research and design at Apple or Microsoft) could also top-up employee commitment and satisfaction with their work experience. With findings such as these stemming from this approach to research projects, future studies may also wish to focus on context-specific phenomena as a means for uncovering additional insight for practitioners.

This article was based on the following research:

Swanson, S., & Kent, A. (2014). The Complexity of Leading in Sport: Examining the Role of Domain Expertise in Assessing Leader Credibility and Prototypicality. Journal of Sport Management, 28(1), 81-93.

Swanson, S., & Kent, A. (2015). Fandom in the Workplace: Multi-target Identification in Professional Team Sports. Journal of Sport Management. 29(4), 461-477.

Other references:

Chalip, L. (2006). Toward a distinctive sport management discipline. Journal of Sport Management, 20(1), 1-21.

Todd, S., & Kent, A. (2009). A social identity perspective on the job attitudes of employees in sport. Management Decision, 47(1), 173-190.

Author Profile Picture
Steve Swanson

Director of Sport Leadership

Read more from Steve Swanson

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