What I Learned About Engagement From Watching Wheelchair Basketball

Last month I had the opportunity to watch the women’s wheelchair basketball finals at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto. To say the athletes were impressive for their skill, drive and determination would be an understatement. But they also got me thinking about how, as leaders, we can manage the emotional energy of our teams.

Having never watched a wheelchair basketball game before, I didn’t know what to expect. The first surprise occurred when the first player fell over. Because the players are strapped into their chairs, when the chair gets knocked over, the player goes with it. There was a collective intake of breath as we wondered how she would get back up without the use of her legs. And then she simply pivoted off her feet and flipped the chair upright with a powerful push against the floor with her arms. It was a very quick and effective way to right her wheelchair, and one that I would never have thought of with my limiting paradigm of using my legs to get up.

So that got me wondering about how our work paradigms lead us to make assumptions about what people can and can’t do. Do we ever assume that people who think like us or act the way we do are more “talented”? Or maybe that people who approach tasks in a different way are wrong? Or do we shut down a new way of doing something because it doesn’t fit our preconceptions? And when we view people through our limiting paradigms, how valued do they feel? What impact might that have on their emotional engagement?

Humans are creative animals, and one sure way to increase our emotional energy – and our productivity along with it – is to be appreciated for our unique contribution. Everyone needs a clear objective, but people with different skills will get there in different ways. So here are a couple suggestions for increasing your team’s emotional energy while recognizing that they have different strengths and abilities:

• At your one-on-one’s, have your team members come prepared to discuss the accomplishment they are proudest of. These may be small steps toward a larger goal, but hearing about what went well over a couple of weeks will give you insight into what unique abilities your team members have.
Connect their accomplishments to the larger goals of your department or company. People want to know that their work is greater than themselves.

Because paradigms are usually unconscious, they can be hard to spot. Opening our eyes to the strengths of those around us is one good way to increase their energy and sense of contribution while also giving ourselves a new perspective.