I don’t cheat to win, I would rather lose.” Serena Williams

Whether or not they are tennis fans, managers have lessons to learn from Serena Williams’ altercation at the U.S. Tennis Open on Saturday.

Serena’s quote about cheating was a statement she said to the umpire after she received a warning about receiving coaching during a match, which is not allowed in grand slam tournaments. One T.V. image shows the coach making a gesture, another shows Serena Williams, on court, seeming to notice. We do not see the actions of the coach and Serena from the vantage point of the umpire, nor from an objective perspective outside of the court dynamic, so have limited information about what actually happened.

Serena perceived the warning of being coached as an accusation of cheating, which she stated as being unfair and an affront to her integrity. This was very upsetting to her and led to further actions characterized as being unsportsmanlike but which are common in tennis, such as smashing her racket after losing a game (for which she was further penalized – losing a point), and accusing the umpire of stealing the game from her (for which she was again penalized – losing a game in the second set). It became an escalating back and forth exchange which ultimately contributed to her losing the match, and a very upset crowd of spectators. It was only after Serena’s redirection of the crowd to recognize the achievement of her opponent, Naomi Osaka, that her opponent received the admiration she deserved.

So, how does a manager best deal with instances when staff’s behaviour is out of line with the values of the organization. With cheating as an example, we want people to be honest: to work all the hours they claim (not to have someone else  clock them in or out); to use their ‘sick days’ if they are sick (not to take a long weekend). Another type of value is being supportive of diversity: to treat other team members respectfully and equally (not based on gender or colour of skin).

It is the manager’s responsibility to hold people accountable when organization values are not observed. We do need to act If someone has behaved in a way that is inconsistent with the organization’s most important values. The tip from The Manager’s Boot Camp is to treat people respectfully, and to communicate clearly.

In the case of the U.S. Open, the umpire interpreted the rules rigidly, and took no time to clarify their application; if the umpire had said respectfully and clearly to Serena, ‘your coach has made a motion directed at you that is consistent with what I interpret to be coaching, whether or not you saw it, and is not allowed. You are receiving a warning”, it would have stated the facts and not have implied to Serena, ‘you are cheating’. Though hypothetical to surmise whether this would have resulted in more sportsmanlike behaviour from Serena, it would have put more onus on her, and less charge on the umpire that he impacted the course and outcome of the match.

None of this excuses Serena’s unsportsmanlike behaviour such as smashing her tennis racket into smithereens when she lost a game, or accusing the umpire of stealing a game from her. I wish she had chosen other ways to protest perceived unfair treatment. However, as managers, we want our actions to positively affect an outcome, not cause further dysfunction. The umpire could use some coaching on how to apply the rules and communicate with players in order to preserve fairness and entertainment in the game.

Fortunately, as managers, our actions don’t fall under public scrutiny of millions of people around the world watching our every move. However, it would be of value to think our actions are always under scrutiny; to consider, ‘would my decision, and how I communicate it, appear to be fair to all staff? There is much that is confidential that goes into whether a decision is fair that we cannot share with all staff, but we can imagine their response to the question, ‘would this action be understood to be fair?’

Interestingly, Serena’s quote about cheating is consistent with the way we discuss values at The Manager’s Boot Camp: We suggest managers ask themselves, ‘would I want my organization to continue to hold these values even if they made a situation significantly harder to deal with? For example, I know that high quality is a value, but training costs put stress on my budget.

There were actions of both the umpire and Serena which were unfortunate and could be improved. Serena’s quote says to me she is willing to give up her main goal of winning (and the money reward that comes with it) if it would cost her integrity. I hope she finds better ways to protest unfairness. I also hope the Tennis ‘powers that be’ will review this interaction to strengthen fairness in the game.  And, I hope you’ll think about applying respect and clarity to some of the challenges you face in your workplace where staff behaviour is inconsistent with values. As a manager the ball is always in your court to take a stand on values.

Tell me what you are thinking…