Against Sports Analogies at Work

Athletic metaphors may seem motivational and accessible, but they can promote some counterproductive messages about success.

Bogdan Cristel / Reuters

Sports, for better or worse, have always been a conversational standby at the office. From March Madness pools and Super Bowl parties to corporate luxury boxes, it’s difficult to imagine American work culture without sports seasons cycling on in the background.

But one less-observed infiltration of sports into the office has to do with language. It’s a number of mundane metaphors and analogies: Call an audible. Swing for the fences. Don’t drop the ball. This knowing talk of sports isn’t just something that alienates the athletically agnostic. According to some management scholars, the winners-and-losers dichotomy at the heart of sports metaphors isn’t actually that helpful and can even be detrimental to a business.

“It's appealing, sexy, and glamorous … so of course it's human nature to want to be the best and beat the competition,” says Freek Vermeulen, an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School who wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review on sports metaphors at work. “But if you really look at companies that are sustained, successful over time, their focus is really different. Their focus is building a good organization and making the pieces fit together, making sure everybody is aligned and motivated, and these type of things. A singular focus on beating the competition often does more harm than good.”

Vermeulen argues that comparing business to sports isn’t just odd—why are so many athletes motivational speakers for corporate executives?—but that sports metaphors can be counterproductive, because they promote the idea that more resources and greater effort necessarily produce better results. Along with that, the idea that hard work can push through anything to secure a victory is misguided, as it ignores the fact that sometimes an organization simply needs more time. (In most sports, there isn’t more time.) A large statistical study Vermeulen conducted found that firms that approached their growth as a race against other companies had smaller profits than those that expanded more smoothly and steadily. Winning the race to expansion led some of the companies Vermeulen studied to destruction.

The use of sports metaphors is a reflection of cultural values as well: An international study of the use of metaphors in offices around the world showed that countries with more individualistic attitudes favor sports metaphors. On the flip side, companies whose managers are more prone to supervision are more likely to use military or family metaphors. Both sets of phrases carry with them cues indicating how managers expect their employees to act.

If there’s any dynamic in which relating to sports may be helpful, it might be hiring. Sanyin Siang is the director of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She pushes back against the idea that sports metaphors can’t be effective ways to think about team building. “When you're recruiting talent, it's not just about their stats. It's about their character, team chemistry … the good teams are recruiting for that fit into culture and that character and value. It's also about the developing and fostering of that talent,” says Siang.

And that’s one reason that sports analogies are unlikely to leave work—they offer readymade inspirational elements. Josh Chetwynd, a sports journalist and the author of the book The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms, says that this tradition has been going on for more than a century in the U.S. Sports language is ingrained in business and politics, and though it may induce some eye-rolling, it’s unlikely to disappear.

“Sports metaphors really started to hit their stride at the beginning of the 20th century. We had a period where you had really literate sports writers,” says Chetwynd. “The three big sports that probably the largest number of sports metaphors come from are horse racing, boxing, and baseball, because those were the three big sports of the century and it sort of crossed over from there.”

While researching his book on the origin of sports metaphors and idioms, Chetwynd says that he found that big-name CEOs were not as likely to use them. He suspects that one reason why sports metaphors are more commonly used by managers rather than visionary CEOs is that the former has to motivate staff, while the latter is doing the kind of big holistic thinking Vermeulen thinks is better off without being influenced by sports. “I think there's some positives to it, but I don't disagree with the concern of the idea that ‘we're all about winning,’ and sports gives us that. Certainly that's one of the big problems when we use sports language in politics. We're talking about the horse race, we're talking about who's up and who's down instead of talking about policy and governance,” says Chetwynd.

Vermeulen isn’t confident that his arguments will persuade businesspeople to drop sports metaphors. But it’s worth stressing that the reality of the business world is that both a company and its competitor can both be winners (or losers)—something that seems to be lost in sports metaphors in the workplace. “I think the elements in sports that do more harm than good are the racing and competitive elements. Very often in sports, it's some sort of a race, whether it's running fast, jumping high, or throwing a disc—and that is quite a unidimensional thing, building an organization and becoming a good organization is certainly not unidimensional,” says Vermeulen. “Analogies can certainly help you, but if you have a wrong or skewed mental model, it can lead you astray.”

This article is part of a week-long series of articles about the business of sports. Joe Pinsker on the future of corporate sponsorship is here. Alana Semuels on publicly-financed sports stadiums is here. Gillian White on the struggle for equal pay in U.S. soccer is here.