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Employee Experience

How Pickleball – Yes, Pickleball! – Can Improve Employee Experience

Two women playing pickleball with the caption, "Pickleball: The unexpected cure for workplace disengagement."

I’m sure you’ve already heard…but there is a wonderful game called pickleball that is taking over the United States. What do pickleball and employee experience have in common? Read on to find out.

“There is no blueprint for this type of growth,” says The Washington Post. It feels like every available slab of concrete is getting pickleball lines put down… from home driveways to tennis courts to highway underpasses. There are now over 35,000 courts across the country.

It’s not near as embarrassing now-a-days telling your buddies you are off to play pickleball, what with Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, Mark Cuban and Lebron James all owning Major League Pickleball teams. They join millions of other fanatics who are pouring into the sport at unprecedented velocity.

So the huge question (and I mean no disrespect to the sport) is WHY!?

Pickleball is not new. It originated in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, WA, when congressman Joel Pritchard could not find a full set of badminton rackets. What he did find were ping-pong paddles, a plastic ball, and some type of inexplicable magic.

But the magic did not spread. Fast-forward all the way to the year 2003. According to USA Pickleball, there were only 39 places to play in North America. Many of us were required to play in gym class, but it just was not catching on. It had a reputation as a rec game one would never play unless being forced by an overbearing PE teacher or as a Tuesday morning activity in a retirement community.

Then something happened. The dam broke…and modified Wiffle balls spilled forth over a surprised population. But why now? In an age when people thought the metaverse and bitcoin would be exploding, it’s actually a “mini tennis” game from the 1960’s. What on Earth is going on here?

The answer to this question lies in another macro-trend taking over the country, but sadly it’s not nearly as fun: Isolation.

The Tribal Mentality In The Workplace

We can feel the shift all around us. It’s been happening for decades, but “the epidemic of loneliness” was certainly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Community associations, schools, religious organizations, even family units to some degree are diminishing in their ability to connect people in meaningful ways. People are desperate for relationships…and are willing to try new things to find them.

We, as humans, are hard-coded with the need to belong to a meaningful tribe. To know and to be known. To serve and to be served. “It’s a fact of life: birds flock, fish school, people ‘tribe,’” says David Logan, author of Tribal Leadership.

Our workplace has a tremendous opportunity to be this very tribe! After all, work is simply an organization of people who are brought together under the banner of a worthy cause…and given resources to solve problems together.

But wow are we missing the boat. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Americans Are Breaking Up With Their Work Friends” in record-breaking numbers. Gallup’s recent survey has terrifying new data on the state of workplace relationships…indicating that 60% of workers feel emotionally detached at work with 19% being outright miserable.

What’s Wrong With The Employee Experience

I was recently teaching a Customer Experience workshop for the International Customer Management Institute in Orlando, Florida. As per the usual, I asked the room of over 60 leaders what their top challenges were.

“How can I make my team care about work again?” one woman said immediately. Almost every head started nodding. It’s like she had read the mind of the entire room.

One gentleman followed up by stating “It’s like the ‘give a darn’ is broken.” This is not uncommon. I’ve been to six Customer Experience conferences this year, and employee (dis)engagement has been the hot topic at every single one.

“Office friendships that typically develop from shared vision and passion, working long hours together, or even coming together because of a common enemy (a competitor, a boss or rules/procedures) create belongingness, which is essential to cultivating community – and loyalty to a company,” says Anne Bahr Thompson, author of DO GOOD.

She’s dead right. If people are giving up on work relationships, they are removing themselves from the organizational tribe. This has tremendous negative effects far beyond just themselves. This battle for the hearts and minds of our workers is too important to lose. If loyalty matters to us…both for our employees and our customers…we must fight. But how? What weapons do we possess?

Related: It’s The Little Things That Improve Employee Experience

The Tribal Mentality In Pickleball

Back to pickleball.

With the context above, it’s easy to explain why this sport has exploded in popularity! Let’s look at the core elements that make it unique:

  • A dynamic shared social experience: The game, and the culture around the game, is incredibly inclusive. It’s not unusual to have twenty new friends after your first time playing. You will regularly find teenagers playing right alongside retirees.
  • Essentially no barriers to entry: It’s extremely cheap to get the basic equipment and so simple to understand the rules. You don’t need to be a world-class athlete to have the time of your life.
  • The friendliest cult you’ll ever meet: The Holderness Family captures the stages of pickleball addiction perfectly right here. It takes no time at all to become hooked…and suddenly your identity is fundamentally altered. You have a secret language that only pickleballers understand. As Michael McGlone hilariously warns…”Pickleball is not just a game to those who play. It’s a way of life. It IS life.”
  • A lifetime to master: As simple as the game is at first, there is enough complexity to keep you learning for decades. It’s amazing how the sport becomes even more exciting the better you become.
  • Above all, it’s just fun: You leave the court laughing and smiling. What a tremendous gift for people carrying enormous burdens from these past few years.

Pretty darn incredible. This fantastic little sport was ready and waiting for a population who desperately needed it.

Nate Brown and his pickleball partner, dubbed "The Pickleball Pirates," stand atop the 1st place platform after a big win.

Nate Brown and his pickleball partner, dubbed “The Pickleball Pirates,” stand atop the 1st place platform after a big win.

Pickleball and Employee Experience

Allow me to put the attributes of pickleball in slightly different terms…with more of a workplace lens:

  • Becoming part of a tribe of like-minded people who know you and appreciate you.
  • Removing barriers to meaningful outcomes, making it easy to jump in and add value.
  • It becomes a major part of your identity, fostering a sense of pride and belonging.
  • You are learning and growing…improving both your physical and mental health along the way.
  • Your curiosity is ignited, making you happy and excited for the next challenge.

Folks, the formula is right here. These are the keys to workplace engagement…modeled perfectly for us in the package of pickleball. There is nothing holding us back from taking these same principles and leveraging them as part of a cultural transformation.

Related: Why Don’t More CEOs Engage With Front-Line Employees?

I jumped in and started playing pickleball seriously at about the same time as my friend Jenny Hickman, who is a Sr. IT director inside of a major healthcare enterprise. Both of us were working through major challenges professionally. Somehow whacking that plastic ball around and getting to know the amazing community of players at Patterson Park in Murfreesboro, Tennessee provided a tremendous source of energy.

Jenny had this to say:

“Socialization, inclusion, validation, growth, purpose, friendships, fresh air, fun in the sun with music…these are just a few words that describe the smile I get on my face every time I hear the word ‘pickleball.’  I started playing regularly a little over two years ago during the pandemic and during a time of transformation at work to be global and more efficient.  While I adjust to finding new ways to be resilient, to inspire myself and my team, and to find work rewarding/fun again, I am eternally grateful to the sport and community for being my gateway to a new way of living, learning, and leading.”

The bottom line is we do need more play in our work… But before you install a literal pickleball court in the parking lot, let’s consult the brilliant resource Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor:

“Play at work should not be confused with your people playing Ping-Pong or foosball in the break room. For your people to feel play at work, the motive must be fueled by the work itself, not by the distraction. Because the play motive is created by the work itself, play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.”

What Can We Do To Incorporate Pickleball and Employee Experience?

We, as leaders, have the ability (I’d even go so far as responsibility) to suffuse people with a sense of excitement and curiosity relevant to our work!

Let me provide you with an example. A group of leaders I worked with inside of a major safety science company created a mini innovation incubator we called “G.I.G” or “Global Innovation Group.”

This cohort brought people together virtually from around the world for some unique equipping in the area of creative problem solving. We then divided them into small teams made up of people from different parts of the world and different organizational functions. Next, we provided these teams with a dynamic data set representing the Voice of the Customer and the Voice of the Employee.

There were many long-standing challenges here that required a creative solution.

We gave the teams autonomy to pick the friction point they wanted to attack and leverage their newly-minted problem solving capabilities. A “shark tank” panel of three executives was formed, and these teams were granted the opportunity to pitch their solutions and try to earn executive sponsorship. Several of the ideas were adopted… but even more importantly the participants had a blast, gained a bunch of friendships, and even learned something new.

Talk about a win-win-win!

These are the types of things we can do, even in a remote environment, to foster exciting work.

Each company has a unique mission…an opportunity to serve the world like no one else can. Make this your pickleball. Create a tribe around it. Make it meaningful and fun. Do this, and your business may find itself growing at the same explosive rate as the recreational activity we’ve come to love.

The (Wiffle) ball is in your court, leaders. Zero-zero-two!

Nate Brown is a certified Pickleball instructor and Customer Experience (CX) enthusiast. After authoring The CX Primer, Brown was dubbed the “CX Influencer of the Year” by CloudCherry and a top global CX thought leader by several organizations. As a passion project, Nate created CX Accelerator, a first-class virtual community for Customer Experience professionals. Nate serves as the Senior Director of Customer Experience for Arise and, when not playing pickleball, he can be found at a variety of conferences speaking on the CX topics he loves. Photos by Nate Brown.

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