“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. Thats the essence of it.”
― Vince Lombardi Jr.
“You guys were just great! Well done. You all played really well.”
No one said anything. Our ten-year old soccer team had just lost. We got crushed. Badly. I was the coach and trying to cheer up the boys.
Later while walking to car, my son Will said, “Dad, why did you say all that stuff about us after the game? We sucked!”
Praise and recognition is a tricky motivator. And when we have setbacks, praise rings hollow. It doesn’t sound believable and we often don’t feel like we deserve it. Specific feedback is better. Praising specific plays, moves, passes, shots, and attitudes is both more believable and memorable. And it’s even better when the praise is specific to the individual.
There are varieties of incentives we can use to motivate and encourage others, but as we know from research, it’s a sense of progress in meaningful work that is the strongest motivating factor around. And when things go well, things tend to go well. That is, wins beget wins. Naturally, when the team has a winning game in which they play well together against a fairly matched opponent, the team feels positive, acts more cooperatively, enjoys the game more, and plays with more assertive confidence and control.
But something interesting happens during setback events. Not only does the team act less supportive with one another, but they respond less to praise and recognition. They will also feel more restricted in their actions. Team members begin to develop a perception that they can’t (or aren’t permitted) to take risks, be assertive. Sure, sometimes we throw a hail mary pass or take desperate chances, but they aren’t often elegant and inspired chances. More often we retreat.
You’ve seen this before in sports. When one team starts losing, they play more defensively, more conservatively, and take fewer chances. And because of it, often start losing even more. The same is true in our work. In fact, we’ve learned that negative events and setbacks have a far bigger impact on our emotions, our perceptions, and then our actions in our work. As researcher Teresa Amabile found:
The effect of a setback event on happiness was over three times as strong as the effect of a progress event on happiness, and the effect of a setback event on frustration was almost twice as strong as that of a progress event on frustration.
Understand a setback for what it is. It’s just an event, a moment, an opportunity to learn. It doesn’t define you. What defines you is what you do next. Remember to celebrate endings, because they represent new beginnings.