The Role of Values in the Performance of National Sport Organizations

There are countless articles, research, and management books that suggest the positive impact of having a set of enduring values is well understood and documented by some of the world’s best organizations. In sport, this proved not to be the case. Last year I completed my Masters thesis on the intentional use of values within National Sport Organizations (NSOs). While intuitively, sport leaders agreed that values could and should play a role within the management of their organization, all agreed that more needs to be done to leverage this untapped asset. For instance, when asked whether or not they were  intentionally using their organization’s values to make decisions or inform their behaviour, sport leaders were clear. They were not.

Recent research conducted by Brock University, the University of Florida and  the Sport Law & Strategy Group [1] investigated the role of values in National Sport Organizations (NSOs). In the fall of 2010, 23 out of 43 NSOs agreed to participate in an on-line survey, which was subsequently completed by 99 staff members of the participating NSOs. This research was based on my Masters study and what we found is not earth-shattering. Nor is it surprising. What intrigues me is what might come of it.

Here is what we know: when used intentionally, values can help to clarify what matters most to an organization by stimulating authentic dialogue and by providing a means to engage a diversity of perspectives. We have written here before about a more human-centric management philosophy that pays equal weight to the achievement of objectives (Management by Objectives, or MBO) and how these objectives are achieved (Management by Values, or MBV). Stated simply, MBO describes what we do while MBV fulfills our ability to clearly express who we are. MBO is about functionality, processes and results. MBV is about character, contribution, and culture. The case we are making is that there is a need for both approaches if sport leaders are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Recently, researchers have identified three lenses – emotional, social, economic – by which the definition of values has developed. Each of these lenses provides a unique and specific focus for a particular organization. Investigating how managers think about and use their organization’s values can further our understanding of management approaches used to achieve success and optimize organizational effectiveness.

Here are the top line results from our research (click on NSO Values Report_2011 to read the full brief):

1. The majority of participants rated their NSO at the Intrinsic Stage of MBV. That is, individuals perceived organizational values to be embedded in policies, practices, and procedures of their NSO.

2. The intentional use of organizational values played a significant role in maintaining/increasing performance, and controlling dysfunctional conflict. What this means is that when NSOs are intentional about managing by values, their performance increases. This was demonstrated in three important ways:

  • It appears that defining social values within an NSO increases performance to a greater degree than defining/using economic-based values. For instance, if an NSO adopts a core set of values that focus on social beliefs such as honesty, respect, and loyalty, this emphasis will have a larger positive impact on performance compared to NSO’s that concentrate on economic values (i.e., values based on high return on investment or focused exclusively on meeting objectives). This should not surprise anyone working in sport as often what brings us to the table has far more to do with the 'good' that sport can bring than with the rewards and recognition that come from the experience.
  • Intentionally managing by values decreases the level of conflict in NSOs at multiple levels. For example, when NSOs indicated that they were intentional about managing by values, disagreements about the tasks, arguments over how tasks were to be completed, and personality clashes were reduced.
  • And perhaps most intriguing of all, when values are NOT intentionally managed by the NSO, there is a decrease in performance and and an increase in conflict. What this tells us is that NSOs who have not yet identified and defined a core set of values, and determined ways to embed these values within the culture of their NSO, are likely not performing to their full potential. Moreover, there is a greater likelihood that they are busier putting out fires and dealing with conflict than their NSO counterparts who are more intentional about managing by values.

This is early research and is by no means generalizable to NSOs outside those that participated in the research. This being said, if NSOs have items in common with some of the world’s best organizations, then management science is suggesting that values are worth investing in and can be the secret ingredient that can help organizations move from bad to good to great. We look forward to sharing more results with you on this exciting research in future articles on this web site.


[1] This research was conducted by Professor Shannon Kerwin from the University of Florida, Professor Joanne Maclean from Brock University, and Dina Bell-Laroche from the Sport Law & Strategy Group.

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