The hazards of winning at all cost

A TedTalk by ex-Head Coach of the UCLA Gymnastics Team Valerie K. Field recently showed up in my feed. Miss Val is considered one of finest coaches of all times, and her TedTalk message is: When we want to win at all cost, we break human beings.  If we want to generate success as leaders (parents, coaches), we must look beyond creating “winners”, and instead focus on stimulating resilience and confidence through the use of respectful honesty. Not blame/ shame/force, since this can drive even the greatest talents to stop wanting to be great.

Success is more than winning, and blindly focusing on results, “winning at all cost”, may not only take away the joy of competing, but can cause lasting damage. A single-minded pursuit of victory can undermine long-time performance. What are then the hazards of a win-at-all cost culture? Research within sports psychology shows how aggression plays a role.

Win-at-all-cost cultures are associated with high, even intense, levels of arousal. This can in turn lead to increased anxiety levels – “what if I fail”? Anxiety can misdirect attention from the task at hand, ie from task-relevant to task-irrelevant cues, typically more concerned with social evaluation – “How do I look”? Some examples: the young consultant worried about the boss’ negative frown if the report is not completed on time, rather than just focusing on completing the report. Or the student worried about parent disappointment if an exam fails, rather than preparing for the actual exam.

Behavior seen to be increasingly task-irrelevant is associated with higher levels of aggression.  Whereas a little aggression can lead to small gains in performance, it will at a certain point be associated with so high levels of arousal that performance suffers. Ie, the pursuit of victory that often leads to aggression, can get in the way of good performance.

This is not applicable to what could be called instrumental aggression – where aggression is used as a means to an end, eg a tactical foul in basketball at the end of the game. Here, aggression is used deliberately and precisely. On the other hand, toxic or hostile aggression is emotionally generated, and is an end rather than a means, contributing nothing.

This type of aggression diverts attention from task completion. The more substantial an athlete’s deviation from optimal arousal is in competition, the higher the probability of impaired task performance and deviations from rules and normative behavior. An athlete’s performance is expected to be assertive but not inappropriately aggressive. Aggressive transgressions indicate a high probability of what is known as a performance crisis – a far-from-optimal performance.

In a business context, aggressive thoughts or behavior will rarely lead to direct physical violence, as can sometimes be seen in sports. But aggression will still impact performance. Overly aroused people can find it very hard to get back to what’s important.

Understanding what lies behind behavioral violations will help to avoid problems before they become too serious. Recognize when or why you experience aggression and try to compensate or regulate your state of mind, to get back to focusing on the task at hand. Focusing on motivation and on your task, working to fulfil your potential, constantly improving yourself and doing your best will drive better results in the long term. You will win more.

Stimulate the motivation rather than the ego, encourage learning and a preference for challenging tasks, demonstrate a positive attitude and be the living example of how effort leads to success.

For more sports psychology research, check Michael Bar-Eli’s book “Boost!”

Who’s the boss?

Work has two faces: 1: it is a means for living, enabling us to pay the bills and 2: it gives identity and a sense of purpose. As a mental model the “two faces of work” remind us that it’s more than mechanics of effort-reward. Work is also a social experience and a lifelong education process.

Traditionally, getting work assignments was largely depending on the line manager; a patriarch (M/F) assuming fatherly responsibility for everyone’s tasks and workload, as well as personal growth, promotions (or not!), quality assurance processes, annual appraisals etc etc. This is changing, middle managers are becoming feeding-and-watering stations people turn to infrequently and for formal alignment, eg for changes to employment contract.

The day-to-day work experience is happening in teams for most people. Teams are becoming the core social structure of working life; the point of delivery for many corporations; the most important “work home”. The team is where the rubber meets the road, the engine room. To thrive and grow in teamwork and to get the great assignments, you need to know what you’re good at, your values, wants and needs.

Don’t expect any of this to come from “above”, this is about your identity and purpose. Jobs are becoming roles; roles are becoming essential, with clearly articulated value-adds and accountability. The workforce (an antiquated term), especially the younger generations, are confidently embracing the new world order, looking for impact and meaning.

Building a team is to match carefully branded individuals with optimized team structures, and teams only existing for the duration of their useful life, ie as long as they deliver against defined objectives (developing a new product, winning a deal, etc). Teams are great, accelerating skills utilization, productivity and opportunity for the individual.

When the job is done, each person is evaluated and returned to the feeding-and-watering station until next project. The “Gig economy” exists as an employment arrangement, but also as an internal assignment principle: this is a highly dynamic and competitive exercise, a reflection of the speed and agility with which people and companies are aligning with market changes.

Back in the day, line managers would have laid out a plan for each person; some employers still provide their employees with some form of guidance, now typically automated as portal-based career roadmaps. Even with the supplement of internal career advisory service or counseling, this will typically lack everyday proximity to each person’s achievements, strengths and development potential. The need for a personal brand, once a thing for executive leadership profiles, is spreading to all team workers.

Reflecting on these matters is worth the effort. You’re unique, and only your own clarity will get you where you want to be. So be your own boss when it comes to your development and career. Whether you’re out to secure the next steady job, a pay raise, or to change your behavioral patterns or assignments towards better alignment with your personal values, there’s no avoiding the facts: don’t sit around waiting for direction – you own this! You also own the feedback you get along the way. It’s not the responsibility of your team leader (plus, he/she is likely very busy). Your line manager probably won’t know you very well. Team workers, take charge and lead: set goals for yourself, clarify your values and strengths, learn new skills, build your brand.

Connect with your goals

Will-power is an amazingly accurate predictor of academic success, a flourishing career, effective leadership, a long life, even a happy marriage. We’re all struggling with temptation, addiction, distraction and procrastination as a part of human life. But for some, the bias towards doing “the harder thing” appears to be more consistent and natural, they seem to be sticking to their plan in the face of every challenge.

Your willpower is supported – or not, as the case may be – by your brain, via its powers to bias you to DO certain things (“I Will” – exercise more?) and REFRAIN from other things (“I Won’t” – check emails constantly?). Both of those will-power elements flow from your long term-goals and desires: “I Want”.

However, when you are tired or distracted, your behavior tends to run on autopilot and the decision-making becomes disconnected from your goals. As an example, one study asked people how many food-related decisions they had made in one day. Average response was 14. On careful tracking, the result turned out to be 227!

It’s like we have more than one mind, each with its own point of view on what’s the best behavior. To stay true to your plan, you’ll need to mobilize the “I Want-power”: to make conscious decisions based on your goals, not fly on autopilot where you don’t even realize the consequences of your actions.  

And more: It’s not enough to identify what you want to change, you need to know how, when and why you’ll be likely to fail. If you cannot predict when you will give in, you will expose yourself to more temptation, be likely to be surprised by setbacks and give up on your goals in the face of difficulties.

This means, you will need to understand the impulse you’re giving in to, to be able to flex your “I Wan’t” brain-muscle, activate your goals and remember your original objective. This impulse may be very different from what you thought.

One email-addict wanted to cut back on checking emails but was finding it hard to reach her goal. Although she really wanted to not pick up her phone so often, she didn’t even realize what happened before she was already scrolling down the screen (the autopilot was doing the flying). She needed to stop herself sooner! On careful analysis, she discovered that the impulse to check emails felt almost like an itch, a tension that was relieved when she checked her email. Don’t think this is any different from other forms of addiction! By understanding when she was likely to fail, she was able to mobilize her will-power already on the impulse – a first important step towards “owning up” to the behavior.

Active management of your thoughts is an energy-consuming activity that shouldn’t be overdone; it makes no sense to try to exercise your willpower every minute of the day. Still, it’s real work to be pulling thoughts back to where you (really) want them, doing “the harder thing”. It just feels easier to give in to unwanted impulses (being online, losing your temper, drinking too much, yelling at the kids) or to put off work you really had an intention of completing (preparing for an important meeting, cleaning up your emails, upskilling – you name it).

Meditation specifically trains the willpower and is scientifically evidenced to increase the grey matter (I.e. brain cells) in your prefrontal cortex – your Executive Brain, home of “I Will”, “I Won’t” and “I Want”. Meditation works even without spiritual add-ons and if you’re new to this, there are loads of options available for guided practice.

For a great review of scientific research on will-power, packed with “easy-to-do on your own” exercises, read “The Willpower Instinct” by Health Psychologist, Stanford PhD Kelly McGonigal.

On thinking and training

“To the extent that people can regulate what they think, they can influence how they feel and behave”. The Albert Bandura quote nicely sums up my perspective.

We are who we are. But we’re influenced by our environment, and the ever-increasing speed of change is putting pressure on our mental coping abilities. A global working environment driving changes in technology, social support, skills requirement, culture and leadership practice, can give a feeling of being overwhelmed or losing control (familiar?).

Rather than pulling out “the plug” (wireless, obviously) here’s an alternative: To own your personal world with all its opportunities and challenges, not succumb to become collateral damage. To do that you need to really feel like the owner.

And to change how we feel, we need to regulate what we think. This thinking skill, like any skill, can be trained.  Develop your own training program (resources are everywhere, go google!) or work with someone you trust.