Power dynamics exist in elite sport just like in any other high-performing environment. From the top down you have team leaders and team members. We nearly always participate as both, team leaders within our department and concurrently as team members within the whole organization. We are spinning our web, creating the boundaries for the departments we lead while navigating the boundaries of a web that has already been spun.

It is an interwoven environment that requires us to understand where we are at any given moment and take ownership of what is needed from us in those moments to contribute to healthy relationships. We must always be aware of our environment’s critical characteristics to manage these power dynamics well. Looking at elite sport specifically, there are several of these critical characteristics. The one that becomes most critical is our ability to create a sense of true belonging while navigating a highly pressurized environment.

Manage the Response to Pressure

Elite sport is a pressure cooker with big rewards and merciless consequences. The pressure doesn’t build quarterly in the corporate sense, it builds weekly, game to game over 300 days—leaving very little time (if any) to open a release valve and relieve the constant and intense pressure. A level of underlying tension is constantly running through these environments and occasional explosions can detonate with even just the smallest spark. We must understand the existence of pressure and the way it affects the dynamics of our relationships.

We must take radical responsibility for our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. No matter what our role is, we can change our relationships. How we act and how we respond in any situation is under our control. There is always a pause between stimulus and response—this is our window for change.

Foster Sustainable Relationships

Working within elite sport we will face both harmonious and dysfunctional power dynamics. These moments will be driven by our relationships up and down the chain. Anytime an individual within a relationship needs to use the power that comes with their title in an authoritative way to accomplish a goal or task, something has probably gone wrong. It is clear in this modern age that “do as I say because I say,” is no longer a sustainable form of leadership.

The quick answer to why this is no longer sustainable is rooted in our search for belonging. This need for belonging has magnified following the global events of the past few years. The organizations and leaders who can fill this void will build the most adaptive and successful cultures of the future.

Promote a True Sense of Belonging

Our sense of belonging impacts every way we interact with the organization. A true sense of belonging leads to sacrificing our individual needs to a cause bigger than ourselves. This is the beauty of working in a team.

As team leaders, our responsibility is to make our team feel like they are exactly where they should be at this moment. It requires inclusion, collaboration, delegation, and high levels of communication. It requires true caring. As a leader, if we care deeply for the welfare of our team, this will create a deep connection. People crave connection and care must come above any conflict. Not because we are trying to create a perfectly harmonious world where no one disagrees, but because we know that there is going to be conflict and times of disagreement.

Provide a Safe Environment for Connection

As we create the team, we must create the connection. This must be done collaboratively with the intent to form psychological safety and a sense of belonging. People must feel safe and willing to express their opinions and feelings without fear of attack. When we remove that fear, we open the door for authenticity and empathy.

As team leaders, we are responsible for creating safety and connection by guiding the group through a process of defining the team’s identity—we need to get comfortable with letting go, and allowing the group to lead while we move into a position of support. We all form deeper roots collectively when we know we were involved in the process of creating the values that the group stands for. When the team feels connected to the group’s identity, the mission we have set out for ourselves, and the values that the group stands for, we all feel that we are right where we should be.

Mitigate the “Fight or Flight” Response

While it’s nice to feel like we’re all marching in the same direction, we can at times feel powerless in a culture where there is a confrontational power dynamic. Instead of banding together, the oppressive dynamic drives us to feel disparate and scattered. Each confrontation can recycle feelings of frustration, creating a messy loop—where it feels like an impossible feat to get everyone back into formation.

We’ve all been there. And we’ve probably all contributed to that messy dynamic (hindsight sure is 20/20). This common mistake is simple to explain. We get caught up in the “fight or flight” of it all and forget that we need to understand the other person’s position. Then we begin to loathe what we use to love. This is the point where we must decide: 1) Step outside of the messy loop and become fully aware or 2) stay and fester.

I can say from experience that most people pick option one and truly want to stay and grow together toward success. So what do we do? We initiate dialogue.

Ask Questions and Seek Understanding

In order to foster the growth and success of our relationship, we need to begin asking questions rather than hurling statements. In my professional experiences, I have extracted immense value in asking the following question: What do you need from me so that I can help our team win? What I have found is that my team leaders aren’t able to give me an immediate answer … only clarity about the next question I should ask.

The ensuing question-answer dialogue will typically continue for weeks. Eventually, everyone’s motivations are revealed and understood, and you can own your role on the team. Instead of operating on biases and assumptions, you’re now fully ingrained and operating on total awareness and empathy.

Become More Conscious of Your Role

Power dynamics exist in every human relationship and group—only intensified by the presence of pressure to achieve. The health of relationships depends upon the willingness of everyone to be accountable for their contribution.

As team leaders, we need to create a sense of empowered belonging that creates psychological safety. It’s not easy and it takes openness, awareness, empathy, and commitment.

As team members, our role is to embody the values of the team while always maintaining an openness to understand the “why.” When these elements exist together, the group becomes more “anti-fragile” as Taleb would say, allowing them to swiftly deal with challenges and then grow from them.

Approach your difficult relationships with curiosity. Seek to understand your role and become more actively conscious. The ability to feel connected to something that resonates with our values is innately powerful. It lets us know in our soul that we are right where we should be.