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What the Attitudes of Elite Athletes Teach Us About Joy at Work

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Like millions of others around the world, this past summer I found myself glued to the television as the U.S. National Team won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The final match against the Netherlands was a nail-biter until American star Megan Rapinoe scored Team USA’s first goal on a penalty kick. After that, anticipation filled the air as another championship now seemed to be only a matter of time. 

When the final whistle blew and the celebration began, I was on my feet, with an ear-to-ear smile, ready to join the party. It was a proud moment for the victorious players, fans around the world, and oddly, me—a guy who knows little about soccer, watches only during the World Cup and the Olympics, and who, on that day, had higher-priority work to do. Yet I was all in. Why? 

High-profile games are the culmination of so many years of work and dedication by so many people, and part of the draw for all sports fans—even occasional ones—is the ability to participate in the enormous payoff of all that work. Even as mere spectators, we get to vicariously experience the team’s joy as the trophy is presented and the cork pops and everyone gets soaked in Champagne.

The joy I experienced watching them win got me wondering. Why doesn’t that kind of joy appear more often in the workplace? Sure, we are not elite athletes playing before thousands of fans, but we are teams of people applying our skills and talents every day, putting in our valuable time and effort to help each other achieve our personal and collective best. We are learning to work together, overcoming individual and group challenges, and surely, at some point, we reach our goals and celebrate. But how much joy is there? And why is it missing?

An A.T. Kearney Survey of 500 employees from large companies around the world revealed that most people certainly want it. In fact, according to their research, 90% of people expect to feel joy at work, while only 37% of people actually do. This creates a gap in expectations of 53%—which, roughly translated, means that more than half of people at work feel dissatisfied, which is all it takes to become disengaged.

Part of this joy gap comes, I think, from our personal relationship with what we do and our relationships with the members of our team. A soccer team has it a little easier in both ways. Players are pursuing their passion and they share their work with others privileged enough to do the same. But, ask any professional athlete, or read a biography of one, and you’ll learn that there are many difficulties and problems and interpersonal dramas. What maintains the joy is how much they care about their contribution, how much they care about their teammates, and how completely they share the responsibility for the outcomes among everyone on the team.

It makes sense then that we might all experience more joy at work—and in our team accomplishments—if we take a page from what drives joy in some of the world’s most outstanding teams:

Cultivate how much you care about your personal contribution by connecting your values to your work. In his book, Joy at Work, author and former CEO of a Fortune 200 power company, Dennis Bakke, describes the first official act of the company’s leadership team was to define its values—integrity, fairness, social responsibility, and fun. Over the next several years,  they then proceeded to build a company and culture where those values could thrive. When your work is tied to something that matters to you, it’s meaningful and the work itself becomes the reward. Alternatively, it’s difficult to be joyful when what you’re doing seems misaligned with your values. 

Cultivate how much you care about your teammates by building authentic connections with your colleagues and clients. On winning teams, players know their roles, work to bring out the best in the best in their teammates, and celebrate success together. Megan Rapinoe was a great scorer for the U.S. National Team, but every player and coach on the team contributed to the team’s victory, all sharing in the celebration. Joy at work is possible when relationships feel right. Interpersonal conflict or feeling that you have to be somebody you’re not can steal it. 

Share the responsibility for achievement by being remembering to be grateful and by acknowledging others. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with your situation or co-workers, but it’s nearly impossible to experience joy when you’re focused on the negative. When you see others through a positive lens and recognize how much good you have in life, gratitude becomes a catalyst for joy.  Alex Liu writing in Harvard Business Review reminds us that great coaches instruct players who score goals to immediately point out the player who made the scoring opportunity possible. No one succeeds alone, so why not acknowledge everyone who played a part in the effort?

We all have bad days, but these three practices can help you find more joy in your daily work. And when you’re in the middle of a good, joy filled day or you achieve something special, feel free to take 30 seconds to scream an extended “GOAL!” Sure, it may be a bit distracting to your co-workers, but at least everyone will know how you feel.

Dr. Mike Patterson
Dr. Mike Patterson

Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths in Carlsbad, Calif. and teaches in the doctoral program at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places (Jossey-Bass). Contact him at mike@corestrengths.com.