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Why the Desire to Win can Lead to Failure (shopping for turkeys and workplace risk)

In a recent news article Richard Cockerill, head coach of Edinburgh rugby club, said

"I hate losing more than I love winning. If I win, I enjoy it for an hour and go home and watch the game and start working for next week. If I lose, it sits with me until about Wednesday.”

Richard might be more like the rest of us than he realises. One study asked 32,000 people how they were feeling at any given moment, by randomly pinging an app on their mobile phones.

The researchers running the study found that when people’s football teams lost they felt twice as much pain, than the boost they felt when their team won. The fact that we don’t like losing is maybe not that much of a surprise. And as long our drive to win, isn’t a drive at all costs, then generally drive and motivation are good things to have in life.

But there are times when being driven brings about less than ideal outcomes. I have a friend who, on one Christmas Eve, witnessed two women shoppers tussling over the last turkey in the supermarket, with the result that one customer ended up with a frozen turkey bounced off her head, by the other shopper.

And thus it is, that in the heat of the moment, once committed, we keep on going, dismissing rational thought and pressing on blindly, until we have achieved our objective. But what does this aversion to loss, and insistence to carry on regardless, have to do with human factors?

Once we have a plan, we can keep going even when warning signs start to appear, that tell us that we should stop and rethink what we are doing.

In aviation pilots are taught about plan-continuation-bias, which is the urge to continue with a plan, even when the pilot should step-back and do something different. For example instead of trying to land a plane when it’s unbalanced (in other words it’s too wobbly), the pilot keeps on going to ‘get her down’.

It’s thought that plan continuation bias might play a part in up to 40% of aeroplane incidents.*

Of course the bias to keep on going is not restricted to pilots. All too often after accidents on platforms, oil rigs and elsewhere, the investigations have shown people have got ‘caught up in the job’ and kept going even when risks started to emerge.

So, what do you do about it?

  • Talk about it! Let your team know that plan continuation bias and loss aversion are real threats.

  • Simplify the language, so if a situation changes and risks do start to emerge, team members can call it out, and say “hold on, is this a case of press-on-it-is?"(press-on-it-is, is what some pilots call plan continuation bias, as it’s not such a mouthful to say).

  • But above all else, don’t go shopping for turkeys on Christmas Eve.

Dr. Jared Dempsey is the Director at Kognivate.

This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.

* (Bergman & Misdukes, 2006).

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