Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 4, 2018
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Unfortunately, it appears that is not quite accurate. In fact, a new paper by Wharton professors, Maurice Schweitzer and Katherine Milkman, suggests that “top performers often quit when the going gets tough.”
The nuance in the piece revolves around the difference between “being the favorite and being the underdog.” The study they did was on tennis players, and they found that when the prohibitive favorite (ranked 20th playing someone 200th) struggled in the match, they were more inclined to quit, to have an “injury” and retire. In other words, they desperately wanted to avoid the public embarrassment of not meeting expectations. But if the two players were ranked 100 and 102, then the quitting impulse is reduced to nearly zero. They each battle on. There is no potential shame in losing.
Now in the startup entrepreneurial game, we talk about passion, focus, relentless pursuit, etc., but if the C suite employee is a been-there-done-that rock star with a stellar resume of past successes and he stumbles, what is the behavior tendency? Unfortunately, it is to cast blame and bail out.
The implications are interesting. How does a leader manage that employee’s bruised self-image and encourage persistence toward the goal? How do you keep his sense of personal disappointment from derailing him? The key to the puzzle is embarrassment – and in particular public embarrassment. The tennis player has no place to run, no place to hide. Your employee, however, can be protected and shielded and given space to recover and keep pushing. Milkman says, “People who expect great things are going to have more trouble with adversity.” It is not easy being the favorite.
We all have our demons and our mothers. If I came home from school with an A, my mother would ask why it was not an A+. It is the problem of expectations unrealized. (And you wonder why I have done 40 years of therapy!) I see this in my executive coaching, particularly of millennials. They compare themselves with their peers mercilessly. Why is Jones driving a Lambo, how did he get VC funding? He must be killing it.
As many of you know, I race sailboats. And it is interesting that our team is happier being slightly behind, of being seen as the underdog, than we are when we are (very seldom, but it does happen) in front. When in front, the only thing we can do is make a mistake, get passed and lose. From behind, we might catch a zephyr and win. More likely, we will lose which is what is supposed to happen. And so at the bar, I get to make a few excuses, but I am not embarrassed.
As the CEO you need to understand that when everyone is looking at you to pull the rabbit out of the hat, to create the unicorn (mixed animal metaphors, forgive me), there is a powerful pressure that is not fully appreciated. It is the mixture of the desire for greatness, fueled by tenacity, tinged with the possibility of failure and the perception that the whole world is watching – which, by the way, it is not. When the entrepreneurial tree falls in the forest, it often just falls in the forest silently. The only fallout is more bruised self-esteem than public shaming.
Now, to the next piece of the puzzle: the decision to persist. Again, this is nuanced. When a project is going badly, you need to decide whether to press on or drop it. And sometimes pressing on is the easier route. It is hard to learn the lesson of sunk costs. It is hard to tell the board of directors that the project is a failure and the money spent is gone. You have to balance personal shame and disappointment with the kind of leadership that knows when to cut the losses and move on.
In my own little world, I recently “changed my mind” on a financing problem during a board/management call. As chairman, I was challenged by a board member and presented with new facts. I publicly conceded that I had been wrong and that we should go in the other direction. My quick willingness to change sent a signal to the entire team that it was OK to “get it wrong” without recrimination or humiliation.
Rule No. 562: Feder beat me 6-0, 6-0. What did you expect?