Olympic Upsets & Outlook: What USA Gymnasts Can Teach Law Firm Managers About Employee Competition

The biggest Olympic upset for the USA thus far may be the fact that female athlete Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for the Gymnastics All-Around.

Wieber fell just short of qualifying for the individual all-around title on Sunday, despite being favored to win the individual gold medal as the current reigning world champion.

This may be a hard lesson for the 17-year-old gymnast from DeWitt, Michigan, to bear, as a few uncharacteristic mistakes on vault and uneven bars, combined with a slight step out-of-bounds on her floor routine, were enough to place her in third place behind two other teamates, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.

Some claim this goes to show that no Olympian’s future is certain.

Others claim that Wieber’s misfortune concerns less her athletic prowess and more Olympic providence. Only four reigning world champions have actually gone on to win Olympic gold in the course of the Games’ 120-year history.

Nevertheless, whatever your opinion on the preliminary round, Wieber still has the opportunity to shine during the team competition. And, as one of USA’s strongest members of the “Fabulous Five,” Wieber can certainly go home with gold.

At a young age, Wieber is learning a valuable lesson about competition and teamwork. In the professional environment—much like its athletic counterpart—individual advancement often comes at the cost of another’s.

On the other hand, individual loss in competition can often lead to other opportunities and the possibility for gain as a team.

As a law firm manager, encourage friendly competition among your associates (with the potential for Olympic-sized results) via the following:

1. Explain the stakes

Every athlete in the Olympic Games suffers through preliminaries. This is the equivalent to the hiring process, gaining experience, and promotion in the professional world.

In the preliminary environment, associate skill is tried and tested through interviews, training, and assignments. Then, for those who have proved themselves, a manager delegates individual responsibility.

This is where employees begin the competition.

Associates hope to win favor of law firm partners, receive glowing reviews on work product, and get assigned more important tasks at the firm. As a manager, it’s important to explain the stakes of this game.

For example, explain your expectations for each assignment.

Where relevant, point out in what areas associates have exceeded your expectations.

Ensure that associates understand the path toward partnership and the rewards that come with certain standards of work and investments of time.

2. Give equal opportunity

Give each of your associates equal opportunities to prove themselves.

In the gymnastics Olympic trials, there are four events: floor exercise, beam, uneven bars, and vault. Along those same lines, don’t let a single failed (or successful) event drive your overall opinion of an associate. Make sure you have an adequate data set from which to derive a judgment.

In addition, not all casework is created equal. Make sure that your associates are being evaluated on an even plane.

The time involved, the complexity of the case, and the difficulty of the partner with whom your associate works will vary. So, keep rotating your associates among different teams.

Make notes where associates excel and where they struggle. Certain individuals will start to show a niche expertise. Like USA vaultist McKayla Maroney, some people will serve a very specific function for your team. And, that’s ok.

3. Reward hard work… as well as teamwork.

Finally, reward the winner who has proven consistency in producing high-quality work and superior billable hours (both in number and efficient use).

But, also reward positive attitudes. Associates who are willing to support their team—as opposed to lead it—are equally valuable as assets. Although each attorney secretly hopes to advance in terms of seniority and pay, it’s also important, at times, to accept a sideline role.

Wieber may have failed to qualify for the individual all-around competition, but as a Team USA gymnast, she’s crucial in helping encourage her other two fellow teammates to take home a medal.

Meanwhile, the show must go on. And, it’s undeniable that Wieber’s optimistic outlook can make or break the entire team’s chance at gold.

After a tearful interview, Wieber tweeted with enthusiasm last night, “Thank you all for your love and support. I am so proud of our team today and I can’t wait for team finals!!”

In London, it seems these girls hold a strong chance to win.

In law, as a manger and team leader, realize that success often depends as much on attitude as aptitude. And, in the workplace, both deserve formal recognition.

-WB

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