The last couple of weeks have been busy, to say the least. Feelings of overwhelm at work , while trying to move on in other areas of my life while remaining as positive as possible and looking to the areas in my life that are easier, has been a bit more difficult than I would prefer. I did not even write last week. Saturday was so beautiful that I headed out early in the morning and played tourist in my city. I suppose I could have written about that, and perhaps I will soon. I just could not bring myself to open my computer last weekend. It reminded me of work and I really did not want to think about that for the weekend. I know these times pass and this is life. This week, I was given a little nugget to reflect upon.

I was sitting with a senior manager in our team. He is new and we were reviewing a client scoping document to present to the partner. He noted a few semi-colons missing and I would say “Sorry, that is my attention to detail, I am working on that.” Then we discussed wording. He had some very valid points and I learned from the review. Once we were finished, he told me that I apologize far too much for little things. He perceived that there is a sense of not wanting to get things wrong and apologizing when they do. I just started at him. You see, this “new guy” is different from the other senior managers I have worked with in the recent past. He is positive, easy going while respecting the quality that we have as our mission.

He told me about this article he had read Playing to win versus playing NOT to lose. In this article about athletes, it stated that they perform better when they are playing towards achieving a wanted goal. When athletes were coached to perform in order to prevent something unwanted, they did not perform as well. He had experienced with both mind sets and he knew what it felt like to play not to lose. His advice was that I play to win.

So I did some research.

How this applied to Athletes

The article Don’t Choke: The Difference Between Playing to Win, and Playing Not to Lose, by John O’Sullivan, investigates the two mind sets. The article studied the research performed over penalty kick shootouts in professional soccer, which are used to determine a winner in knockout competitions such as the World Cup. “Researches Gier Jordet and Esther Hartman studied the conversion rate of penalty takers who were kicking the final shot of a penalty shootout. They compared the following scenarios:

  • The shooter’s team was down by a goal and he had to make the kick to tie; if he missed, the team would lose
  • The shooter’s team was tied, and he did not have to make the shot, but if he did, the team would win the game

Jordet and Hartman found that in the first scenario, when missing the kick would cause the team to lose, professional players only converted 62% of those shots. However, when conversion would result in a win, kickers were successful 92% of the time! Same kick, same distance, same target, but a 30% improvement when the player was shooting to win, and not shooting NOT to lose.”

The article leaves the reader with the question: “Have I framed today’s competition as a challenge to be aspired to, or a threatening test where the consequences of failure are grave.”

Application for the “business world”

I felt like I was getting some clarity over my feelings of dissatisfaction at work. So I did more research. I am not an athlete and lucky me, I found another article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Do You Play to Win—or to Not Lose?” by Heidi Grant and E. Tory Higgins. This article examines in what kinds of situations are people most effective and what factors strengthen—or undermine—their motivation. The two types they present are as follows: promotion focused or prevention focused individuals.

Promotion-focused people

Prevention-focused people

work quickly work slowly and deliberately
consider lots of alternatives and are great brainstormers tend to be accurate
are open to new opportunities are prepared for the worst
are optimists are stressed by short deadlines
plan only for best-case scenarios stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things
seek positive feedback and lose steam without it are uncomfortable with praise or optimism
feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong feel worried or anxious when things go wrong

I feel I fit in the promotion focused side of the table. According to the article, prevention focused people tend to work in administration, bookkeepers, accountants, technicians, and manufacturing workers. Work where knowledge of rules and regulations, careful execution, and a propensity for thoroughness and jobs in which attention to detail is what really pays off.

On the other hand, promotion-focused people are likely to seek work in areas such as musicians, copywriters, inventors, and consultants, where thinking outside the box jobs being creative and innovative is the key and being practical is not emphasized.

Ironically, I am a Chartered Accountant, however I work in the Advisory department of my accounting firm, as a Management consultant. No wonder I sometimes feel uninspired and confused  about my work.

How to provide instructions

Then, the kicker is the article goes on to discuss an experiment given to people to write a report. One set of instructions was to fit a promotion focused individual. They were told to imagine a convenient time, and a comfortable, quiet place to write the report where the individual visualized themselves capturing as many details and making the report interesting. That sounds like a really good idea to me. I love it.

The other set of instructions was to fit prevention focused individuals. They were told to imagine a time that would be inconvenient, uncomfortable and include lots of distractions for writing to avoid them and to visualize not forgetting any details and being careful not to make the report bland or boring. This is my work environement in a nutshell when it comes to reports. In my case, I am told to make sure my report is not unstructured and I am always told not to forget details. At my work, I am constantly told to improve my French report writing skills and to pay attention to detail. The new senior manager is of the opinion that I have been repeated this far too much. I would tend to agree.

I work with prevention focused people and I am getting the sense that I am a promotion focused person. The results? “Students who received instructions suited to their dominant motivational focus were about 50% more likely than others to turn in their reports.”

Giving feedback and incentives

As a manager, the following quote gave me something I can use for my team when giving feedback:

“Don’t be overly effusive with the prevention-focused or overly critical with the promotion-focused.”

This made me laugh. I really do not enjoy overly critical people, especially when their criticism is directed at me. I am thankful for this senior manager. I think he will bring some necessary positivity to our team. After all, perception is everything, but it is difficult to perceive over 60% of a department leaving as anything other than a sign that things need to improve in our department, especially in the way the “upper management” manage people. I, in the middle of this hierarchy, have a great team. They are really intelligent and talented people. I would like to keep them and not have them leave, as so many others in my posiiton have, recently.

Going forward

This new senior manager, appears to be a promotion focused individual. I really appreciate the talk I had with him this week. He gave me a nugget of information and upon investigation and reflection, I now have new information to help me manage my team as well. In addition, I have a new found understanding of the root cause of the conflict I feel at work. Now it is up to me to adjust how I will manage that and try to bring out the best in myself, regardless of prevention focused individual I answer to and to keep bringing in out from my team – who already are amazing talented individuals.

That is enough time spent on work today, I suppose that is another irony. I wrote about work on a weekend. I have a bit of clarity but not all the answers, and that is fine. I will continue to focus on playing to win. That fits who I am and feels right to me.

Today I think I will go for a run even if it is raining here in Montreal. My friend and trainer told me it will help clear my mind. She is right about that. Not only that but she told me “Don’t let it get to you, you are a soldier.” Just that little note meant the world to me. Something else to keep in mind. We make far too much out of all this. Days like today remind me of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. It is a beautiful park, right in the middle of Dublin, except when you enter it, you feel secluded in a peaceful green space, calm and serene. Now that is a nice place to visualize.


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