In a world of accelerating change, where organisations strive to build high-performing teams to deliver that winning edge, at what point does the desire for success give way to a toxic win-at-all-costs culture? One that treats staff as little more than expendable business inputs, as opposed to the genuine core of competitive advantage. (Anyone who worked for Uber circa 2017 can help you understand.)
To interrogate this question further, Which-50 took a deep dive into an industry where competition is quite literally the product.
Annie Flamsteed is a former competitive gymnast at the national level, and she knows first-hand what it takes to succeed as an athlete.
However, she also understands the damage that can be done within a culture that prioritises winning over wellbeing. “I thought it was right to have my feet in a bucket of ice in the middle of a four-hour training session and continue to train on my ankles — just like numbing them, taking Nurofen, strapping them, just to get through a four-hour session.”
“I just thought, you know, this is hard work and the whole ‘win at all costs’, like this is what it takes. And I’ll train through bleeding hands and I’ll do that because that’s what it takes. And that culture is embedded in the sport.”
These days Flamsteed is the founder and CEO of sports tech startup InspireTek, and her experience gives her an insight few technology entrepreneurs can match, but from which many would benefit. The balance between building high-performing successful teams, and fostering environments where the pressure to perform puts employee wellbeing at risk is, according to Annie Flamsteed, “a very, very fine line.”
After the documentary Athlete A showcased gymnasts’ and their families’ stories of abuse and misconduct in the sport, Gymnastics Australia engaged the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to conduct an independent review into the culture of gymnastics in Australia. The report identified a “win-at-all-costs”, “toxic” culture that ultimately compromised the safety of its athletes — many of whom were young girls.
Flamsteed notes that, despite her “fortunate” experience in a sport that she calls “a great landing pad for mental and physical development”, she retired from gymnastics with “severe performance anxiety”, anxieties surrounding “body weight, shape and size”, and an eating disorder, with which she still struggles to this day.
Corporate Australia, and particularly organisations working with vulnerable communities — such as child care, aged care and disability care — can learn from the HRC’s clear recommendations for dramatic cultural transformation, ensuring that workplaces are safe for all Australians.
At the launch of the report, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins discussed the “systemic risk factors” identified during the review, that “create an environment where athlete safety and wellbeing are not prioritised, and consequently where abuse and mistreatment can thrive.
“The Commission does not accept that breaching fundamental human rights is necessary for success in sport. On the contrary, success is only possible where the human rights of athletes are respected and protected,” said Jenkins.
These risk factors, she said, are not unique to gymnastics, and are relevant to all sports whether at a national or local level.
Simply the Best?
One sport that is infamous for making headlines for all the wrong reasons is the National Rugby League.
Professor Catharine Lumby worked pro bono with the NRL as its Gender Advisor after the 2004 Coffs Harbour gang rape allegation against a number of Sydney Bulldogs players. She told Which-50, “I think one of the problems we’ve had as a society, to be honest, is that it’s a very Australian thing to say ‘let’s separate sport and politics’. And some people are uncomfortable with women (and some men) raising sexual assault or abuse or harassment.”
Lumby herself was pushed into the spotlight recently by the Chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, Peter V’Landys. He labelled Lumby an “attention seeker” after she criticised the NRL for its lack of leadership on the issue of sexual assault and harassment of women.
“I do seek attention for the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence,” retorted Lumby.
“[V’Landys] was quoted as saying, ‘I don’t share her values’. Now, he doesn’t have to share my values, the point is that they desperately need a gender adviser.”
Despite these criticisms, V’Landys is widely recognised for his leadership in transforming the culture of the sport.
Which-50 spoke to another transformational Australian sports executive. David Hill is a former managing director of the ABC, who was also President of the North Sydney Bears, and the Chairman of Soccer Australia, where he is viewed as having reformed and modernised the game.
Hill said that the changes V’Landys has made in the last two years outshine the changes anyone else has made to rugby in the last 20 years.
“He has dramatically changed the culture of rugby,” said Hill.
Some of the rule changes include getting rid of the second referee, and reducing the number of scrums. All of these changes, according to Hill, have made the game “faster” and “more entertaining,” and have enhanced the focus on tactics and strategy rather than brute force.
“You change the rules of the game, you change the culture of the game.”
While Hill was Chairman of Soccer Australia in the mid ’90s, he was celebrated for his success in transforming the culture of the sport. He was brought in at a time when the sport was handicapped by teams and their fandoms harbouring ethnic conflicts that often turned violent. Hill said he was hired “to progress the culture of football in Australia and to make it more mainstream.”
He did this by removing references to the teams’ leading nationalities, such as Greek and Croatian flags on football uniforms, and replacing them with Australian flags, in an effort to reduce the angst that they ignited as a result of the Balkan wars. It was these small but significant changes that dramatically improved the image of the sport and made soccer accessible on a national scale.
While working with the NRL, Lumby was involved in research-based education programs to drive positive change in the organisation. However, when it comes to implementing cultural change, she says that there is no “silver bullet answer”.
“Cultural change in organisations is slow, and often it takes something like the Human Rights Commission report to wake people up,” says Lumby.
Promoting a Safe Workplace
The mandate of any organisation, no matter the shape, size or sector, is to keep its employees safe.
Richard Colbeck, Federal Minister for Sport, told Which-50 “Sports administrators have a responsibility to provide appropriate governance and support for all athletes and staff, ensuring they are treated appropriately.”
The same could be said for any business.
In running InspireTek, Flamsteed says, “At the end of the day, if I have a staff member who says they don’t feel safe at work, that’s on me as the CEO of my company. That is a systemic culture that I am saying I’m OK with that, or I’m not.”
According to Claire Rogers, CEO of verification platform Oho, and a former CEO of World Vision, there are two important factors to ensuring employee safety, and particularly keeping children safe.
The first, she says, is “not letting anyone into your organisation to work that shouldn’t be there.” This is the problem that Oho is looking to solve, by providing organisations with up-to-date verifications of their employee credentials — such as criminal history checks and working with children checks. As soon as these verifiable accreditations are called into question — or “red flagged” — the company will be notified.
“Organisations are really good at checking when they hire someone, but after that they do almost nothing,” says Rogers.
“If you think about sporting organisations, they’ve got coaches, a lot of them come from teaching professions, they might come from the sporting industry. They’re working with children all the time. And if a person is charged with a crime, that card gets revoked. And unless the organisation that they’re working for is told about that or is looking that up regularly, they will not be notified and the person can continue in their organisation.”
Rogers says that according to current estimates, there are 150 thousand children that are involved in organisations that have signed up to the platform. However, with 4.7 million children in Australia, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that all children and vulnerable communities are protected.
The second piece to providing a safe workplace, says Rogers, is a transparent culture.
“The ability to create a culture where people will speak up comes from the leader being very transparent and encouraging that behaviour. Speaking up when things aren’t right as a leader is really important, but also recognising and acknowledging and supporting people who do speak up and give them the space for that to be heard.”
According to Lumby, the reason that children often don’t speak up is because they don’t feel safe to do so. “I think a very important piece of this puzzle is to start very young in primary school and high school, giving young people permission to speak and supporting them to do that.”
Flamsteed’s platform, InspireTek, is designed to provide a solution to the mental and physical pressures that young athletes endure in the sporting arena, through its flagship product InspireSport. The product uses software driven by data analytics to help athletes manage and measure their wellbeing and “drive positive human behaviour change.
“Historically, software platforms like ours are only made available to elite professional athletes. And as we’ve seen, a lot of wellbeing issues can arise at any point in development,” says Flamsteed.
“Our whole vision behind InspireTek is we should take the ideation of sports tech and innovation, but make it affordable and accessible and gamified for young kids so that we can prevent these things from happening rather than dealing with the problems when they arise at a later stage.”
“We can’t all be on the national team. But you shouldn’t have to be on the national team to have access to resources and wellness monitoring systems and apps that can track mood and sleep and education and provide interventions.
When it comes to high performance, Flamsteed says that there’s no substitute for hard work, “but you need to be able to work hard in a sustainable and safe way.”
Rogers meanwhile defines a high-performing team as one that “acknowledges all stakeholders”. But when the focus on outcomes compromises the needs of any member of the stakeholder community, “you can’t expect that to be sustainable.”
“It requires this honest and regular conversation, trading off and exploring what are the implications of meeting the needs of all of those stakeholders to sustain our social licence to deliver services in our community.”