Again at the Office, I’m a Player Without a Team

Sports jargon is reverberating through many offices this month, compliments of the World Cup.

Everybody seems to be following the World Cup. I’m not, and it’s making me feel a little left out at work. What’s all this talk about yellow cards?

Throughout the year in my office, whoops and groans erupt during assorted big games in a variety of sports — made worse by the fact that I’m on same floor as the sports department. I end up feeling the way I did when I was little and could hear my parents and siblings laughing in another room: What am I missing?

I wish I could feel that I belonged. Maybe next year, I should place a serious bet in the office March Madness pool. That way, despite my lack of interest in basketball, I might truly come to care whether Connecticut beats Kentucky.

Bonding at work over sports can heighten collegiality, and that can leave women at a disadvantage, said Raina A. Brands, an assistant professor at the London Business School who studies workplace interactions.

It’s true that many women play sports and enjoy watching them, but the sports that people watch and discuss at work — like the World Cup matches — tend to be played by all-male teams, she said. (Some Olympic sports are among the heartening exceptions.) As she sees it, the conversations men have with other men when they watch men playing sports lead to “boundary heightening” behavior that can exclude women. As a result, she said, women may be “locked out of the boisterous, informal exchanges that are essential to organizational life.”

 It’s not that the average man is thinking “I’ll use this to muscle out the women,” but it can still have that effect, she added.

The exclusion can extend to sports jargon, she said. Jargon “helps us coordinate our tasks and solve problems that we do regularly, but it also signals insiders and outsiders,” she said. Sports idioms tied to work can be vivid and powerful for men, and less so for women, she said.

One day at a previous job, I came in sick because I needed to meet an important deadline. “You’re playin’ hurt,” my jock-type boss said approvingly. He had to explain what he meant: I was like an athlete who plays through the pain of an injury.

Now, the idea that I was even in a small way similar to Jack Youngblood of the Los Angeles Rams, who played in the 1980 Super Bowl with a broken leg, was laughable. And, frankly, I think a lot of former football players would be healthier if they had stayed home more and nursed their injuries. But my point is that these sports metaphors can go over a lot of people’s — and especially women’s — heads.

For a long time, for example, I was mystified by the expression “take it to the mat,” used more than once by my male colleagues. When I finally learned that it comes from wrestling and means taking an aggressive stance in a disagreement, I thought: My way of handling conflicts doesn’t really resemble that of a wrestler facing off against an opponent.

But even I appreciate many sports idioms. I’m from Minnesota, and when the Twins were on the way to winning the World Series in 1987 and 1991, I did become desperately interested in baseball, thrilled to see Kent Hrbek and Brian Harper execute a bases-loaded double play, Dan Gladden hit a grand slam, and Kirby Puckett hit a home run in the bottom of the 11th.

Because of that, I still enjoy the occasional baseball game. And sometimes, when a reporter turns in a great story, I have been known to say that he or she “knocked it out of the park.” The sure crack of the bat, the ball sailing over the stands, the player who needs only to trot, not sprint, around the bases — these conjure perfectly the feeling I have during certain successful moments at work.

So I understand that sports metaphors can be inspiring. In school, I was the proverbial last person picked for the team, but playing on a sports team can transform some people’s lives. Business executives talk about the importance of sports all the time. Working with others toward a common goal and stretching yourself to your limits — these are compelling ideas. That’s why the idea of a sports team can have such resonance at work.

But when leaders try to motivate their teams with sports analogies, what kind of team are they really talking about? An Olympic relay team that succeeds through cooperation? Or a hockey team that likes to indulge in the occasional brawl? Sometimes sports metaphors in the workplace (when people are urged to play hardball, say, or to pull no punches) bring to mind an aggressiveness that may not sit well with some women — and men.

Yes, it’s just jargon, and it’s not meant to be taken literally. But let’s not drop the ball here: As we swing for the fences at work, let’s try to level the playing field by at least being sensitive to the hidden meanings of some of the sports metaphors we use. Maybe we can search our playbooks to find a different kind of workplace analogy, for the win.

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