Boost Momentum for High Stakes Business Performance − Lessons From Sports Psychology
Listen to Episode 82:
Episode 82 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. Right across from me is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Good morning, Pam. Once again, it’s a pleasure to be joining you for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper®. For those of you who are listening for the first time, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of growth and success. Pam, today we’re talking about boosting momentum for high stakes performance?
Pam Harper: Yes. Aggressive growth is only as strong as the momentum behind it. As we’ve been speaking with CEOs of successful fast-growth companies, the one thing that we hear especially often is that even when there are clear priorities and goals and the organization’s culture is being nurtured, there are still times when stakes are particularly high, and extra effort − even heroic performance − is required to ignite and sustain the momentum they need.
Scott Harper: Absolutely. Examples of situations like this include doing what it takes to get a major client, responding to a crisis, getting into new markets when competition is really strong, and so on. All of these require go big or go home decisions, especially in rapidly growing companies where we have to constantly navigate in an environment that’s often filled with paradox and conflicting priorities.
Pam Harper: Yes. It’s understandable that boosting momentum under these circumstances is a special challenge. You’re dealing with emotions ranging from passion, drive to win, leaving the comfort zone of success, exhaustion in some cases, and more. This is where self-talk comes in.
Of course, it’s no secret that self-talk can influence how we perform at work. However, much more controversial is what kinds of messages work best. This is where looking to sport psychology comes in, since athletes are also dealing with many of the same emotions.
Scott Harper: Sure. We’ve seen examples of this at the recent Olympics, where athletes from every country really stepped it up, often beating world records that were once thought unbeatable.
Pam Harper: Literally heroic performances
Now, you found an article in the Wall Street Journal’s Mind and Matter column pretty recently, talking about a study on self-talk for athletes. Tell us about that.
Scott Harper: Sure. The column was by Susan Pinker, and it described a really large study by Dr. Andy Lane, who’s a Sport Psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. It involved a really large sample, 45,000 people, who participated in an online study. The study was designed to get at whether self-talk − and what kind of self-talk − can actually help increase effort and performance in a particular task. In this case, it was a word-matching problem. They had a control group, which was encouraged to think about performance and doing well. They had a group that was coached to do self-talk about “I’m going to get a particular result. I’m going to achieve 100. I’m going to get a 90” − really thinking about the outcome.
There was a third group that was coached on self-talk that was more general. “I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to do better than ever.” Their findings were interesting; they concluded that for this purpose, general self-talk, “I’m going to do the best,” really did give a significant bump in performance against the control group. They also beat the other group of self-talkers that focused on the particular outcome.
Pam Harper: It turns out then that saying, “I’m going to break my score of 90” was not a good thing, because it was outside of issues they could control?
Scott Harper: It’s saying, “I’m going to do this thing;” if I don’t really believe I’m going to do this thing, then it’s not really effective, is it?
Pam Harper: Well, that’s partially true. On the other hand, when you believe that you’re going to hit a particular outcome, and you are out of control of that outcome, then it’s even harder to believe. You have to focus on what you directly can control. That’s where self-talk comes in.
Scott Harper: That’s right. You can control effort, but not outcomes. In fact, another researcher, Dr. Roy Baumeister who’s at Florida State University in the Department of Psychology, has researched how emotion shapes behavior. In this article, it was quoted that, “what works well for effort will not necessarily work well with skill.”
Pam Harper: That’s an interesting twist, too.
Scott Harper: Yes. You can’t talk yourself into being able to do something that you can’t do, so if I’m not sure if I can accomplish this thing which is outside my control, that self-talk is not necessarily going to be as effective at really wringing out the highest effort that I can do, especially when the stakes are particularly high. What I really have to do may be better than I ever have.
Now, another aspect with the Lane Study is that the self-talk they coached the participants on was focused on positive images, positive self-talk. “I can do it. I’ll do the best I can.” The thing is though, that so many of us, whether it’s in sports or business or anywhere − we’re so conditioned to say things like “don’t screw up.” Negative self-talk is a habit.
Pam Harper: We’re not even aware, sometimes, of what we’re telling ourselves.
Scott Harper: We’re not even aware. The worst thing that anybody can tell you if you’re ready to do something really good is, “don’t screw up.”
Pam Harper: They say, “you better be great,” which is putting the pressure on. It’s a different nuance to maybe, a positive message.
Scott Harper: Right. The last thing Pinker noted in her article was Dr. Lane saying, “well, you know you have to be careful about generalizing the results of this study. This really was looking at short-term performance for a particularly defined set of time.” You can’t talk yourself into long-term high performance.
Pam Harper: Because?
Scott Harper: Eventually, that self-talk becomes ineffective, and if you really do keep going on, and on, and on at the highest level, then actually, you may burnout.
Pam Harper: But you can say things such as, “5 more seconds. 10 more seconds.”
Scott Harper: Or in business, “okay, I’ll get through this weekend. Then, it’ll be over, and it’ll be great.” Right.
Pam Harper: But if you keep saying, “this weekend.” “Now, 2 more days. Now 2 more days.” Eventually, you burn right out.
Scott Harper: You can, right.
Pam Harper: So these are lessons that can definitely be extended to boosting business performance in these high-stakes situations. What we tell ourselves and others matters, not just cognitively, but also in terms of what we’re able to actually accomplish, both in the short-term and in the long-term. We need to make sure we’re giving ourselves messages in the most powerful way, and the most effective way. We’ll dig deeper into that in our next segment.
Now, we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about boosting business performance by applying lessons from sports psychology. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: Thanks for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We focus on enabling visionary leaders to dramatically increase momentum for game-changing results. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: Does this topic resonate with you? Well, we have more. Check out related episodes to expand your perspectives, and take away immediately useful ideas. Go to growthignitersradio.com, episode 82. Scroll down to Resources.
Scott Harper: And while you’re there, sign up for our weekly alert of upcoming episodes, so you’ll always be up-to-date.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking with each other today about boosting momentum for high-stakes business performance, and drawing on lessons from sports psychology. In the first segment, Scott told us about a study that had some very useful lessons that we can draw into business. The big one is, “not all self-talk is created equal.”
Scott Harper: That’s right. You have the self-talk to promote effort, “We can do our best.” There’s also self-talk that’s instructional. “If I’m swimming, I’m going to hold my arms in a certain way.” The important thing is applying the right kind of self-talk, especially when you’re going for effort for a particular task in a particular way, and not to use the right self-talk for the wrong purpose.
Pam Harper: Yes. I remember an example of that from my first job. I was 16 years old, and I worked in a burger place that will remain unnamed. Every morning before we would start, the manager would bring us all together − a bunch of 16-year olds − and he would go, “who’s the best? Who’s the best?” We go, “we are. We are.” We’d jump up and down, and go, “yes! We’re off, and we’re going to have a great day!” We’d go off to our stations, but nothing would really be all that different.
Scott Harper: Why?
Pam Harper: Because the self-talk was wonderful in one sense. We were all energized, but it was very general. It wasn’t applied to something specific that we could take action on.
Scott Harper: Okay.
Pam Harper: For instance, it could have been maybe customized if he had said something like, “and who’s going to make the best milk shakes?” “I am, I am,” or “how are we going to take the hamburgers, and get them out to the customers faster than we did yesterday,” which I think is an even better example. The more specific that it would have been, then we would have been focused. Then, the self-talk of, “let’s make it just a little faster. Let’s just make it a little bit smoother,” that would have taken us off on a more powerful path.
Scott Harper: Okay, so in sports, you have a very, very defined task. “I’m going to swim a race. I’m going to throw this shot put as far as I can.” In a burger shop, “I’m going to make the hamburgers as fast I can, and get them to the customer fresh.”
Pam Harper: “and get them to the customer as quickly.”
Scott Harper: “I’m going to pay attention to my fries, so that they’re crispy and fresh all the time.”
Pam Harper: That’s right.
Scott Harper: Okay, so how does that apply to business?
Pam Harper: Well, specific self talk is more likely to boost the performance we need. In the heroic situations we’re talking about here, there are a lot of things that we can do to tell ourselves “just a little bit faster. We’ll get this out for sure.”
At the same time, we can significantly boost momentum for performance if we use a process, similar to the way that a swimmer knows the process of a great stroke for endurance, or the way a golfer address a drive. Now, some of you may be out there thinking, “process, process??! That’s the thing that slows us down. We don’t want that.” The fact is, though, that process doesn’t have to be oppressive, doesn’t have to be bureaucratic. There is process that’s useful and helpful and makes us go faster, and there’s process that does slow us down. We’re talking about the former, not the latter. Some of the fastest companies, in fact, have some of the most elegant processes.
Scott Harper: Right. Process done right gives us the ability to focus on each piece of what we’re striving to accomplish. Then, we can say, “well, okay. How am I going to take this, and bring it up to its highest level? To its pinnacle?”
Pam Harper: And “how can we apply it to other things that are not exactly the same, but will get us where we need to go faster?” It’s true in every part of the company, including the C-suite where a lot of go big or go home decisions could be made even better by using a process that provides extra focus.
Let’s put this all together. For example, we’re launching a major product worth millions in the first year alone. This is a go big or go home decision to reach a market in a new way. The deadline is there. The clock is ticking. What are we going to say? What are we going to tell ourselves?
Scott Harper: Well, 2 things. One is, we’ll remind ourselves in each part of the organization, “this is what I have to do. We have to have the marketing copy. We have to have it done on deadline, and have it really persuasive, so we have to have all the testing done on time to make sure that it’s great.”
Pam Harper: We’re in a regulated environment here, right?
Scott Harper: “We have to make sure that all the regulatory process is at the highest level so that regulatory clearance is in the bag. Highest quality, every time!” Okay.
Pam Harper: Check, check, check, and so on.
Scott Harper: When we’ve got all of these things and we’re going into an unknown, we also have to have the motivational talk to help us do the deadlines and really stretch to the limit. It’s, “we can do this.”
Pam Harper: “We know. We know that we have been leaders in our field, in our industry. We know that we’ve done everything possible to make sure that this launch is going to be successful.”
Scott Harper: “We can do this, and we will do this. We’re all going to work together and push and get it out, stronger than ever.” Right.
Pam Harper: The more that you can put something specific into place that you can aim for, the elements of it can be applied to something else that you’ve never done before.
Scott Harper: Right, so you have that specificity, and you can focus on, “we’re going to do the top. We’re going to do the best we can.” Put that effort into it when it is make or break.
Pam Harper: That was what was true in other studies that we saw about star athletes. The combination of self-talk aimed at effort, plus the self-talk that was based on specific process, whether it was moving the arm a certain way or positioning for a certain golf swing, all of that worked together for the best performance of all.
We’re going to take another quick break now, and when we come back, we’ll talk more about three immediately useful ideas for boosting the momentum of high-stakes business performance, drawing on lessons from sports psychology. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: Does your company have what it takes to meet your current commitments and move fast enough to respond to new opportunities? Well, take the first step to confirm your perspective by requesting our free resource: Five questions to ask when you need to move even faster.
Scott Harper: Our questionnaire will help you find out where to begin to focus your energy and resources so that what should be happening actually is happening faster and more effectively.
Pam Harper: We developed these questions based on our work with clients in over 30 industries. We’ve helped them scale faster, make innovation happen faster and more quickly respond to new opportunities. This has generated millions of dollars in top and bottom-line growth. Now, you can have this resource on a complimentary basis just for sharing your contact information with us.
Scott Harper: Don’t miss out. Go today to growthignitersradio.com, and select episode 82. Scroll down to resources, and click the link, “Download 5 questions to ask when you need to move even faster.” And to learn more about our success stories, go to businessadvance.com client results.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking about boosting the momentum of high-stakes business performance, drawing on lessons from sports psychology.
Scott Harper: Pam, we’ve talked about the positive effect of the right kind of self-talk for the right sort of situation. Now, let’s get more specific. Let’s get down to some actionable advice that people can actually apply for creating self-talk in themselves and their teams that will really help give them the best effect in those heroic situations that call for extra effort and extra quality.
Pam Harper: Okay. Well, the first piece of advice is to tune in to yourelf. Notice what it is that you’re actually saying.
Scott Harper: Okay, so I might be talking to myself, but not really listening? Is that what you’re saying?
Pam Harper: Exactly, exactly [laughs]. In a high-stakes heroic type of situation, we don’t have to sit and mediate and listen to ourselves, but what we can do is to listen to what we’re telling other people. If it’s things like, “we can’t mess up. We’ve got to get it perfect,” is that going to be the kind of effort-building type of self-talk that we need? Chances are that whatever we’re telling other people, we’re telling ourselves in spades.
For example, I was working with the CEO of a successful middle-market company. She was very proactive in wanting to get to that next level of success. Along the way, what I found was that there were some messages that she was telling herself, self-talk that would come out especially under high-stakes situations.
Scott Harper: Right.
Pam Harper: The message that was getting in her way the most was, “I have to do it all myself.” This was an understandable message, because she was the founder of the company. She got locked into this habit of having to do everything herself. She couldn’t see what she was doing, and wasn’t really aware she was telling herself this.
When we looked at what she really was telling herself, she stood back, and looked at all the hats she was wearing. It turned out that although this was a solidly middle-market company, she was wearing about 6 different hats, because she was used to wearing them.
Scott Harper: Okay, so she crafted them as they grew, as they were starting out, and she never took them off.
Pam Harper: That’s right. When she had a chance to see how that particular self-talk was interfering with their ability to get business at an even higher level, that was when she started making adjustments. She stopped looking at her company as a pure start-up, and started saying, “I have a great team, and a team that can really work with me. Even beyond that, they have teams, and their teams can work together.” It changed the messages that were coming out, and their ability to successfully work through the high-stakes situations and boost performance.
Scott Harper: So the coaching helped her tune into the self-talk that she wasn’t necessarily really aware of, become aware of it, and craft something that was new, more positive and really directive at getting them where they wanted to go. To the business, it was also what they needed.
Pam Harper: The entire executive team started operating at an even higher level.
Scott Harper: It have to have taken a huge amount of stress off of her.
Pam Harper: It did. It was like a new lease on life.
Scott Harper: Wow, powerful story. Okay, so what’s another idea?
Pam Harper: Remember that we want the self-talk to be specific to a situation, right?
Scott Harper: Right, right.
Pam Harper: In terms of crafting messages, of course it depends on identifying what, specifically, you’re trying to accomplish, and focusing in on that. Then, thinking about what is going to be most relevant to the situation? For star athletes, it has to do with “I can lift this weight just a little bit longer.” Well, what can we do in business? “We can get that proposal out today,” or whatever it is that we’re trying to specifically accomplish.
Scott Harper: And on the effort-building side, it’s important that the message be positive and aspirational. It’s not “don’t screw up.” It’s “we can do this, and we can expend the energy” Maybe it’s this weekend, and we can work extra hard and get it out ahead of schedule.” Whatever it is, it’s positive. It’s aspirational, and it’s something you can believe. Okay, what’s a third piece of advice for generating powerful self-talk in high-stakes situations?
Pam Harper: Know when it’s useful to call in a coach.
Scott Harper: Okay. Well, as an executive, I’d think that it would be time to think about calling in a coach when I’m highly committed to high performance results for myself, as well as the company. I have a real curiosity about what can be done to raise my game, as well as the company’s.
Pam Harper: Right, and you’d want not just any coach. You’d want a coach that understands the impact of self-talk on momentum for business performance in an environment that is not straightforward.
Think about the fact that star athletes always have a coach.
Scott Harper: Well, yes.
Pam Harper: Why is that? They’re not doing things wrong.
Scott Harper: Well, they’re not doing things wrong, but they need that extra perspective to watch them and help them see what they can’t necessarily see.
Pam Harper: Yes, and they have that perspective to be able to say, “based on what I know, I can tell you that if you move this way a little bit or that way, you’ll get even better results.” In the case of business self-talk, what a coach needs to look for is the extent to which the self-talk is specific, it’s relevant, and it’s positive. All the things we’ve been talking about, and also that the process steps are in place in order for an individual and a group to be able to get to that next level.
Scott Harper: They’re focusing on things that they really can control, and directing the self-talk at that specific set of behaviors?
Pam Harper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Harper: Good. Pam, any final thoughts on the issue of self-talk and high stakes performance in business?
Pam Harper: Just as with sports, boosting momentum for business performance in the high stakes situation depends on having the right kind of self-talk. Not all self-talk is created equal. We can get the maximum benefit by working with both the effort-building self-talk and the self-talk designed to raise our skill and process levels. When we can combine those two, magic happens.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Pam. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To get show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to growthignitersradio.com, and select episode 82.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this thought to discuss with your team:
Scott Harper: What are we going to do to create the most effective kinds of self-talk for our business so we can boost performance in our highest stakes situations?