25/01/2012 - 10:44

It’s good to turn a few points behind

25/01/2012 - 10:44


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Next time your favourite sports team is just losing at halftime, feel relieved.

NEXT time your favourite sports team is just losing at halftime, feel relieved. Intuitively, we’d think being ahead at halftime would be a better position than being behind; not so. 

A team just behind at halftime wins more often than a team just ahead. This is due to a quirk of human nature described as ‘loss aversion’ – that we are more driven by the avoidance of loss than opportunities associated with gain. The instinct is vital for leaders and HR practitioners interested in improving performance. 

At halftime in last year’s AFL grand final, Geelong trailed Collingwood by three points. If Geelong fans knew about loss aversion they would have been happy knowing that a team just losing at halftime is more likely to win. Indeed, research shows that we will exert more effort to achieve our goals if we are just behind at a point of rest and reflection. Geelong won the game convincingly.

• Researchers in the US conducted two fascinating studies into the phenomenon of losing in basketball. They studied 63,000 professional and college basketball games and their analysis showed that teams that are behind by a point at halftime win more often than teams ahead by one. They also found that the team just behind at halftime not only scored more in the second half, they did so most strongly just after the break – supporting the idea that a break provides an opportunity for team members to know their position relative to their opponent, reflect on it, discuss it and become motivated.

 • A third study showed that, just like professional athletes, ordinary people exert more effort when just behind. Participants informed that they are slightly behind exerted more effort than participants in any other situation. First, merely telling people they were slightly behind an opponent led them to exert more effort. Second, being behind only boosted effort when participants were slightly (versus far) behind. This is due to diminishing sensitivity, whereby people work harder when they are closer to, compared with farther from, their goal.

The study also showed that people only work harder if they believe they can actually achieve their goal. Individuals who had a greater belief in their ability to achieve their goals were more likely to respond to feedback that that they are behind.

Implications for leaders

Here are six ways you can apply this knowledge.
1. Don’t panic when your team is missing a target and don’t get heavy. Point out that they are just behind. Their motivation will kick in and they are likely to achieve the goal in the end. 

2. If one person is significantly short of their target, find a point of comparison that makes the gap less daunting, otherwise they might give up in futility.     
3. If your team is slipping behind their targets, schedule a review session early when the team is just behind rather than delaying the discussion to when the team is far behind. When they are just behind, the effort to strive harder to achieve goals will be greater.
4. Take time out halfway through the year (or quarter, or month depending on your measurement period) to reflect on goal achievement, and give the team an opportunity to discuss and re-energise. 

5. Help people feel they have the ability and your confidence to achieve the target. People who are floundering are more likely to give up than if they feel they are just behind and have confidence they can achieve the goal.

6. Targets and awards should be designed so that people feel they can be achieved. Sales targets should be set so that most people achieve 100 per cent (a ‘winners’ rather than a ‘losers’ culture). Recognition awards should be budgeted so that a high proportion of people receive an award. 

If you are a manager and your team is behind on its targets, increase their chance of success by holding a meeting before the gap gets too big, and let them know they have a high chance of achieving their goals if they put extra effort in from now on. If your team is just above their targets, remind them not to get complacent since research shows that they need to keep focused or else they won’t succeed. 


Ron Cacioppe is managing director of Integral Development, one of Perth’s most unique and experienced leadership and management consultancies. He is also adjunct professor at Curtin’s Australian Sustainable Development Institute.

Contact Ron on 9242 8122 | admin@integral.org.au | www.integral.org.au


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