Your brain responds to competition more than you know- choose your motivational tools wisely.

Do you know what drives your urge to compete? Your motivation influences your performance outcomes, whether you acknowledge it or not. 

Wanting to win‘ versus ‘wanting to avoid losing‘ are two subtle yet measurably distinct differences that drive people’s sense of competition. Murayama and Elliot’s (2012) meta-analyses found the effects of competition depend on this difference in the minds of competitors. When someone wants to outperform others by winning, they tend to benefit from competition, but when they want to avoid performing worse than others, competing reduces their performance. Burnette et al’s (2013) meta-analysis found that the desire to win is positively related to goal achievement, whereas the desire to avoid losing is negatively related to goal achievement. Senko et al’s (2017) meta-analysis found that “wanting to win” improves performance only when it’s accompanied by strategies that leverage a competitor’s feelings of mastery. The take-away from these research findings is that “wanting to win” is not enough to protect people from the pitfalls of social competition that provokes fear of losing.

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A primary function of executive coaching is helping people build lasting tactical strategies that motivate behavioral change for goal achievement and peak performance. My coaching practice in Silicon Valley is filled with non-stop competitive people- entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, and creative builders leading the edge of tech innovation. Naturally, using competition to fuel new habit formation and improve performance is a no-brainer for many of my clients. But not all tools designed to foster competition  will improve motivation and performance for all people, in all situations. Competition is good for sustaining motivation and achievement only when it reinforces feelings of competency or a person’s intrinsic values beyond winning alone.

Designing life goals through the lens of one’s self-determined values is vital not just for achieving a high success rate but for overall psychological well-being. As one might expect, people generally like to feel in control of their own lives. Self-Determination Theory asserts that people seek and engage activities that satisfy these Three Basic Psychological Needs:

Competence: the feeling of satisfaction achieved through completing a challenging goal. Why does this matter? You get to feel masterful and effective. You get to feel that you’re achieving hard things. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are ineffectiveness and helplessness!)

Relatedness: the satisfaction you get when you feel understood, liked and inspired by people you care about or value. Why does this matter? You get to feel closer to the people you’re engaging with in meaningful ways. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling rejected and disconnected!)

Autonomy: the satisfaction you get when you act with a sense of personal commitment and choice. Why does this matter? You get to feel in control and the master of your own outcomes. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling coerced and micro-managed!)

Cross-cultural research has shown these Three Basic Psychological Needs to be intrinsic to all people’s healthy development, engagement, motivation, and well-being. When these needs are met people achieve greater work performance, less perceived stress, and experience fewer turnover intentions. When these needs are blocked, people are likely to experience negative psychological consequences.

A Behavior Change Technique (BCT) is an ‘active ingredient that brings about behavior change’. BCT’s are often used to build a competitive framework, and can either support or frustrate the three Basic Psychological Needs.

How Different Behavior Change Techniques support or frustrate the ‘Three Basic Psychological Needs’
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Goal Crafting.
    • Build in meaningful ‘whys’ or reaching the end goal of a competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us many goals fail to motivate because they aren’t personally relevant, or they provide incentives that help people avoid losing rather than winning for personally rewarding reasons. Helping people craft goals that reflect their unique values reinforces their sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Feedback Crafting.
    • Build in useful feedback or making progress in the competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us well crafted feedback promotes feelings of competence and mastery. As people monitor their progress through feedback they have the chance to use well-timed feedback for making improvements. Crafting feedback that provides a practical roadmap for making improvements helps people achieve feelings of competency. Encourage how feedback is incorporated to reinforce the person’s sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Social Comparison.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Competition Size Matters.
    • Build a group size that factor’s in a person’s proximity to the top performance to optimize a person’s effort. There’s a reason why Junior Varsity and Varsity teams are still a thing! If you want to get the most benefit from a competition creating small, ability-based groups may be the best way to go. A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom shows competition is most motivating when there are fewer competitors in the comparison pool.

Whether in a work environment or in one’s personal life, people who measure their growth against those with comparable values and abilities experience boosts in motivation and performance. “When we see someone else just like us being able to complete a task and gain the recognition we seek, we up our game to achieve these outcomes for ourselves” according to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, professor of psychology, who’s research findings demonstrate the positive influence of rivalry on competition outcomes.

These are just a few of the techniques I use to inspire meaningful motivation through executive leadership coaching. By considering how our innate psychological needs factor into what’s driving our sense of competition, we can achieve greater outcomes with longer lasting results.

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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