The workplace can feel exactly like high school. You have the class brain that has the right answer in every meeting. The bored employee who likes to sit in the back, play with their phone and hope they don’t get called on. The social butterflies who are on every committee, organizing baby showers and charity events. And of course, you also have the jocks.
Ah yes, the jocks. Let’s think about their role in high school. Usually they’re the most visible of all the students, eclipsing even the valedictorian and the troublemakers. They attract a lot of attention from fellow students, teachers and even people around town who come to their games. As such, they usually have the confidence to express themselves openly and they tend to launch trends or set cultural norms, like how to dress, act, or even how to greet each other. (e.g. “Hey man, how’d it go last night?”) While some students resent the jock’s popularity, others admire and emulate their behavior.
And of course, many jocks – accidentally or on purpose — intimidate or exclude those who don’t conform. The outsiders who don’t comply with the code of popularity often feel marginalized or even bullied.
That about sums up the jock archetype, right? I think we can admit that we’ve all seen these dynamics play out in the workplace as well.
Here’s the thing, though. In some ways, those high school jocks are as invisible as the class wallflowers. No, really. The jock archetype is so defined and well known, the spotlight so intense, that all the other traits are often lost in the shadows. This doesn’t always become visible until after graduation. I realized this when I thought about the athletes I knew in school; one went on to be a famous animation designer, while another followed a spiritual calling and became a pastor. And another jock started a hair salon.
These classmates went off the prescribed jock trajectory – and it makes me wonder if they too felt limited or silenced in high school by the one-dimensional stereotypes assigned to them. It’s quite possible they didn’t feel able to express their true interests. Which makes me wonder if the workplace is just as limiting. Would our “jock-like” colleagues (or any colleagues for that matter) appreciate the ability to expand and exhibit other qualities? Are we too quick to assign roles to our coworkers and exclude or interpret accordingly?
For instance, if we view our project manager as the humorless “class brain” who never stops working, we may exclude that person from team-building happy hours. Or if we think of the sales team as a bunch of gregarious socializers, we might dismiss a complex product idea that comes out of that corner. It’s all too easy to quickly label an employee’s strengths and cast them into an eternal role, instead of encouraging growth and allowing for multi-dimensional interests. Let’s take the case for gender in the workplace, women may not always fit into the male-dominated jock culture (even if they were jocks themselves) and that can foster misperception, create a culture that makes women feel excluded, and ultimately lead to a lack of diverse leadership within an organization.
And it doesn’t only apply to gender. When one strong culture prevails in a workplace, everyone may feel obligated to play the same role, instead of exhibiting his or her own unique gifts and contributions. This article by Jim Dougherty explores how one office came to be dominated by “jock culture” and performed poorly. It wasn’t because workplace jocks are inherently bad; it was because the one-note focus on a certain interest (in this case, sports) created a damaging insularity that drove outsiders to disengage or leave the company. Eventually, the team performance withered without diverse points of view.
Groupthink is the opposite of innovation. Don’t get me wrong, cliques spring up in every big workplace. But when a good portion of your team feels disregarded because they don’t fit in with the prevailing vibe – or when they feel they must stifle parts of themselves to be accepted — productivity suffers. That wonderful synergy that comes from professionals of different backgrounds and interests blending their efforts never gets the chance to happen.
Take a look at your workplace and the roles your colleagues are playing. Maybe some of them would like to expand those roles, make surprising contributions or explore new development areas. So often when we think about talent, we think about finding the right people – but all too often there’s an untapped goldmine waiting right in our own office.