Posted tagged ‘psychology’

Need to succeed/need to avoid failure

September 9, 2009

I’ve not blogged for some time for the usual reasons: Work, lack of time, too much sailing, etc, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been active within social media, so I don’t feel too bad for my absence.¬† I was inspired to write some thoughts on today’s newsletter from Chris Brogan. Well, when I say newsletter, I really mean “letter from an old friend”, because that is exactly how you feel every time¬† Chris writes. It’s not one of those lame and spammy emails sent out by PR companies, but an incredibly informative, information rich discussion with someone you feel you know well. So, just a quick note, if you’re thinking of writing newsletters thentake a look at how Chris does it. I promise you’ll learn something..

Anyway, on to the conversation. Chris discusses our fear of failure, the ways this affects our work and how we can utilise a few techniques to use it to our advantage. The primary point, however, is that we should all accept a bit of failure, knowing that we learn our most important lessons from making a mistake. It’s a great read, so I urge you all to sign up to Chris’ newsletter to have a look.

This fear of failure is closely linked to a Sports psychology issue that I’ve learnt over my years of dinghy racing. I’ve spent many years at the top level of the UK dinghy racing scene (we just finished 4th at the RS800 nationals. Thanks..) so I’ve learnt my fair share from my various coaches. Most of the psychological babble that I discuss on this site has been directly linked from past mentors or fellow sailors, and I find that they have always transferred extremely well into business. Attribution is a key example.

There are two different types of people. Those who have a “need to succeed” (NTS), and those who have “a need to avoid failure” (NAF). The NTS people will always strive to go above and beyond targets, because they have a strong need to impress, the need to do a great job, and the need to be noticed. In Football they’ll always look to score or catch a touchdown pass, in Golf they’ll look for the big drives and the whole-in-ones, and have little interest in making mistakes. Besides, when you’re this confident, mistakes are rare anyway.. This sounds selfish or arrogant, but we’re all a bit selfish, and it stands to reason that we would all want to be the best at what we do. After all, you need to go for the big swings to learn your boundaries and to taste that success, right?


The NAF crowd will work to simply avoid failing, to stay hidden in the crowd (a bit of social loafing is always good for them) and to try to stay away from any criticism. In a game of Rugby, they try to avoid the ball as they don’t want to drop it. In Tennis they’ll always serve the safe option rather than the killer serve, and in business they will aim to simply avoid any mistakes, stay out of sight of the managers or owners and quite simply keep their heads down.

Different people will suffer from one of these characteristics, so it’s important to be able to pick out each individual trait to make adjustments to their mental state. Sure, it’s great to have a player brimming with confidence and going for the killer blow every time, but do you want him always doing this? Will they make too many mistakes that affect the team or the business? How about the NAFs? Do you want a team who try to avoid messing up? Sure, it’s nice to have fewer mistakes, but you also want a few more victories, right?

So, how do we control these personality types? One way is to lesson the ease people have to indulge in social loafing, and make people accountable for their actions, both good and bad. furthermore, tell your staff that mistakes are fine, so long as they learn from them. Tell your staff to try new ideas, and work out why they succeed or fail. If you break down the whole theory of the need to succeed/avoid failure, you’ll notice that it comes down to one simple rule: the amount of pressure people are receiving regarding failure. If they are scared of failing (through your own actions), then you’ll have a larger number of NAFs in your business. If they are rewarded every time they succeed, yet also rewarded every time they try something new, then you’ll have an environment that breeds success, and a much happier team.

The key to business success, Part 1: Attribution

August 5, 2008

To give this blog a proper kick start, I thought I’d begin with some ideas I’ve had (both through my experience in business and from theories that I have developed whilst at University) regarding attribution. Attribution is the reasons you give, externally to your staff and your clients and intrinsically to yourself, for success and failure in business, sport and life in general. I feel attribution is the keystone to successfully learning from each experience and to building strong relationships with staff and clients. I understand that psychological theories are about as much fun as finding a severed finger at the bottom of your pint of beer, but bear with me. You might just learn something…

Ok, just for a second imagine you’re a top sports star (easy for most from my experience at the 5-aside football pitch…). To get to the top, you have to keep learning. The facts show that professional sports star become skilled “experts” at their sport after a minimum of ten years of competition. Through every situation, they are learning. Ten years is a long time to maintain your thirst for knowledge, but they do. Every strategy, every play, every dropped pass, every kick in the teeth or black eye, the sportsman are learning. However, it’s not just about remembering that it’s a bad idea to wink at second row forwards (or linebackers for our American readers) after you stood on their crown jewels in a ruck (hence the kick in the teeth. Rugby’s a tough sport, and has always dealt heavy doses of karma to guys like me..), it’s about giving yourself psychologically correct reasons for your actions and the success and failure of the outcome. For example, if a footballer loses in a one on one sprint, he doesn’t say to himself “damn, I’m so slow”. That is negative reinforcement, and next time he’ll end up pulling out of the foot race early as he already knows he’ll lose. What he should say is “right, I need to put a bit more time in on the running track. I can beat this guy, lets just figure out how.” It’s all about giving yourself a reason to do better next time, rather than a reason for failing.

Lets translate this into a business sense. When talking to your staff, do you ever tell them “you’re not very good at this…” or “that campaign failed because we haven’t got the web knowledge” etc? Do you ever think “no way can I get that client, I haven’t got the confidence” or “they are just plain better than us!”. The problem here, is you are admitting there’s is a problem (which is essential to do, better than covering things up) but you aren’t giving yourself room to improve. If the reasons for failure are out of your control, your staff’s heads will drop and they won’t try to improve. After all, there’s nothing they can do! You’ve already said that things are unchangeable, and you’re the boss. If you say we can’t get better, then why try? However, if you say “we missed out here because we didn’t react quickly enough” or “Ok we are a little small, so lets be more flexible next time” you are providing positive reactions to negative situations. If your staff think that there is a way forward, they will follow that path. Like sheep. Only with more urgency. And less wool…

So, in summary, always attribute success and failures to reasons that are in your control. If you can control them, you can improve them for next time.