On my personal Twitter feed, I have noticed that those relating to the World Cup have really resonated – especially one on Costa Rica’s performance. As I started writing, Costa Rica are locked in a penalty shoot-out with the Netherlands to see who will go into the semi-finals. Plucky Chile faced a similar situation - going out to Brazil in the previous round.
Penalty shoot-outs are a horrible way to go out of a competition. But they certainly make for compelling human stories. The Economist clearly shares my fascination with this agonising gladiatorial contest as they published an analysis of penalty shoots outs (including some fun infographics).
I was intrigued by their insight that a penalty shoot-out is different from everything else a footballer does – a moment of individual focus in a team game and one that is ‘less a test of athleticism or skill than of nerve’. As such, lessons from penalty shoot-outs provide useful lessons for other high pressure situations where the normal rules don’t apply. The article also demonstrates a lot of the issues that influence performance. Not all teams are equal on penalty shoot-outs - a fact not lost on anyone who follows England-Germany encounters at major cup competitions.
That got me thinking...
What are the lessons we can learn that would help the tourism industry perform better in unusual, high pressure situations?
At first glance, some of the issues seem hard to influence. Countries with a collectivist culture do better in penalty shoot-outs than those with an individualistic culture. Surely culture is innate? But in business, the culture we create is up to us. Many organisations talk about the value of teams or inspiring people. But if you mean it, you have to embody it consistently within your organisation. In situations of high pressure, people make decisions using emotive or intuitive thinking – their beliefs about consequences and culture will be part of that. For penalty shoot-outs, the collectivist culture means that players who focus on the team outcome rather than on themselves do better. So a clear task for how can we help staff have that focus on the wider team?
Indeed a lot of the success or failure in penalty shoot outs comes down to the framing or context of the task. Once you understand that you can work to influence the context or framing in ways that will influence things. One element of this is past performance. England’s poor performance on penalties strongly influences their current performance in very damaging ways. Leaders who want to transform situations tackle this head on by giving people a different and more positive context. For example, they reinforce (or create) the reasons why this time is different.
In summary, leaders give people permission to succeed. This is also important - individuals that focus on the consequences of success in penalty shoot-outs do better.
Many years ago when working at a big company, I had a ‘business planning session’ thrust on me at short notice (2 days) at a peak work period. The session was mandatory, would involve everyone in the office and take the afternoon of an already busy day.
As a team leader for one workstream, I knew I faced a tough task. Everyone was resentful of being there (including me). So at the start of the session I set the context. I ‘acknowledged their pain’ by showing that I understood the pressures the day had created. I gave them some control by consulting them on the format of the session. But most importantly, I pointed out that whatever happened we couldn’t give them that afternoon back. They could lose it to no purpose by staying negative or they could enter it in a positive spirit and try to obtain some benefit. The session was a great success - generating ideas that not only informed the business decision, but had great application to our day to day work. Everyone walked out on a high – and had a more productive day as a result.
That body language in my personal example brings out a key point: how we handle failure sets us up better for success in future. Trudging away from a missed penalty head down, makes the next person’s job harder. Interestingly most teams entering a cup competition practice taking penalties, but they don’t all practice context setting and how to manage that failure. Again all lessons we can take into our own businesses.
The final insight that still has me thinking is this one: players who focused on what they needed to do, rather than how the goalkeeper might respond tended to do better. In many situations, we need to understand competitive response but these out of the normal situations might be the very ones that need to ‘just be ourselves’. I’d really welcome other thoughts on when that might apply.
So in summary:
• Work out what your penalty shoot-out situations are? That is, when do you face situations that are a potential part of business life (as penalty shoot-outs are for cup competitions) but require a different skill set?
• Reflect on how your organisational culture support peoples in that situation. What beliefs about the result do they have that might make a positive result more likely? If they aren’t the right beliefs plan build that into your planning and development.
• How do you prepare people who haven’t succeeded in the past to turn that around? Change the context, put belief into the situation?
• How do you prevent one failure contaminating others in the team? Often it’s about acknowledging effort as well as result and about pulling out the team?
If you doubt it’s worth the effort, look at the outcome of the penalty shoot out from the Costa Rica game. Whilst the Netherlands was expected to do well in the game, they have a poor record in penalty shoot-outs. Also the evidence is that the team who shoots first typically wins and that having big stars in your team is often detrimental. So Costa Rica had a good chance of coming out on top. But they didn’t. The Netherlands overcame that past poor performance to win through - partly by an inspired substitution. They’d clearly planned to manage this situation – we can all do the same.
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