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Considering The Whole Human: Simone Biles


What if your inability to let your employees take a step back when they are experiencing the messiness of life is damaging the whole team? Given that everyone goes through life events and challenges that impact their performance, it’s likely that the issue isn’t their inability to be a superhero in that moment, but rather, the organization’s inability to respond effectively.

The goal of professional sports is performance and achievement. Most businesses would echo those goals. In the wake of Simone Biles choosing to step back from her team in the midst of the Olympics, many people have strong feelings. At WELCOA, we once again have an opportunity to consider the dynamics of the health of the individual, the impact on success, and what it looks like to create a world that values the whole person. A few weeks ago we discussed the connection of pro-tennis and its connection to workplace wellness in the wake of Naomi Osaka’s choice to set boundaries for her mental health. This week, we have yet another opportunity to break out these dynamics.

Here is the back story: Simone Biles is one of, if not, the greatest female gymnasts of all time for her ability to break records for winning the most medals, and also for breaking barriers with her sheer physical ability. She has performed combination routines only previously mastered by men. She had considered retirement prior to this current Olympics, but having also been a victim of abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, she decided to join the team one last time to remind the world that his abuse would not be the end of the success of so many women he harmed. As she took her place on the team and entered into her performance in the 2021 Olympics, we saw her struggle in routine after routine. The next day, she announced she would be stepping back to take care of herself and protect the team.

As it goes, many people who have never performed at her level or achieved what she has delivered utterly disrespectful commentary. This isn’t surprising. As we said in our article on Naomi Osaka, we love to tell a story of individual resilience. When someone disrupts that narrative, it is a threat to many stories we tell ourselves.

Let’s break down these dynamics with our expert lens.

  1. Simone Biles is historically the strongest player on the team.
  2. Her performance affects the success of the whole.
  3. She is human, which means she has bad days, even months.
  4. She has been a victim of systemic abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar.
  5. This week she set a boundary to protect herself AND her team.
Now, let’s consider the workplace. There are people on a team whose performance impacts many others. These people go through things that they probably can’t mention at work. For a moment, consider some of the things you have been through that you really didn’t want to discuss at the water cooler. We all have these things. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. Right now, the workplace wellness industry along with the HR, Employee Engagement, and Management Development industries love to talk about caring for the WHOLE HUMAN at the workplace. We have a lot of warm and fuzzy language to talk about that. The truth is, if we bring the whole human to work, it’s messy, awkward, and uncomfortable. We have to create space for an employee to privately and safely say, “I am struggling. I am going through some things. My performance at this time is impacting the team. I need to take a step back.”

We all understand that performance and achievement are key to business success. We have talked about it ad nauseam. When someone begins to struggle, rarely do businesses discuss how to come together as a team to support that employee while also ensuring the success of the whole. Just like in the case of Simone Biles, it’s easier to talk about the failure of one, to make it about the individual’s lack of resilience, than to solve for the messiness of the situation.

What’s universally true about Simone’s decision to take a step back is that her vulnerability protected the whole. While many are stating her decision exposes a lack of resilience and a display of weakness, the truth is that her willingness to name her struggle and set a boundary exposes her to the cruelty of many, removes her from the glory and prestige that comes with an Olympic team, and most importantly, protects her team. In other words, her choice made her life harder, while protecting the success of the whole. If you ask us, Biles is once again breaking barriers. She is more resilient than anyone who would silently suffer, hoping to hide the mess long enough to make it through, and negatively impact everyone else along the way.

Just like management in a business, there were coaches who had to decide how to handle this. Behind closed doors, they had to balance the health and well-being of Biles, alongside the ongoing delivery of the goal and the needs of every other member of that team. Sound familiar? There is no plan for this. There is no algorithm WELCOA can provide managers to say, “Here is the playbook for these situations.” Over the past decade, too many workplace wellness solutions tried to do just that. They tried to solve algorithmically for individual health and well-being, in an effort to serve the business performance and achievement. Despite the well-intentioned design, it did not deliver. It didn’t deliver, because human performance is impacted by a multitude of factors far beyond fruit and vegetable intake, 10,000 steps, and preventative screenings. While those things are important, they are not the whole. When we limit the workplace wellness conversation to an algorithm, we fail to create companies that are resilient within the multitude of challenges our employees face.

What we can deliver is an invitation to walk toward the challenge. Business leaders have to enter into the vulnerability and the mess alongside the team to lead the next steps and maintain performance and achievement. We can deliver a process that allows you to create a workplace that develops leaders, engages all teams in the wellness conversation, provides ample opportunity for employees to state their needs, and provides meaningful support. We call this the Well Workplace Process. This is a process that allows an organization to consider key benchmarks of well-formed businesses that value the people alongside the success of the profit. The invitation and the guidance exist. The question is, what are you waiting for?