Fear of loosing or fear of winning?

by Didier Marlier on Sunday February 13th, 2011

Sports coaches know it: the fear of loosing is a powerful stressor for athletes and they do their best to keep them out of it. In an earlier post, as well as in our book[1], I commented on the picture below (inspired from the works of  Daniel Goleman, Henri Laborit or Paul McLean):

In short, it suggests that when a person feels a threat against their survival, territory or habits, an immediate reaction is triggered which calls a defense mechanism to take over (Fight, Flight or Freeze). If Fight or Flight may not be perceived as an immediate problem to a sportsman, the fact that, simultaneously, a hormone called cortisol pops-up in order to switch off our creative, analytical and rational senses, certainly is. An athlete incapable of thinking during his practice will never make it to the top…

We probably all know this by now. What I used to find difficult to understand was the “fear of winning”… I always thought that I’d be really lucky to be surrounded by competitors crippled by that one… However, in two recent discussions, my partner Michael Newman and Swiss therapist Marco Beata helped me understand what is at play in such a case:

For him the fear of winning does exist and may come from the following reasoning:

  • I always “did things that way” (my previous winning formula)
  • If I accept the advice from my coach or my boss (or worse to most of us, from my husband or wife;) I may do better and succeed in a more efficient, glorious, spectacular etc. manner
  • This will therefore prove I was wrong before. Questions may raise on why I did not think of it earlier. My adviser may even blame me for not having listened to them before and been so stubborn…
  • I’d better therefore not try too hard, so that I manage to appear to comply and prove in the same time that I was right not to have tried

Being rather stubborn by nature and upset when my wife is right (with my sincere apologies to Cris;), this immediately made sense to me and I reflected: How can we ensure that we do not provoke either fear of failure or fear of success when engaging our people into change?

One of the key aspects of an engagement process is to “Co-create clarity, meaning and ownership” around the change we want to bring. Leaders must be clear of course on the negotiable and non-negotiable. It is their duty to drive the business. However, nobody can impose clarity on others. When we know that 80% of the elements  that we unconsciously choose to help us analyze a new situation, are retrieved from our experiential memory, the chances are high that everyone will have their own understanding and make their own interpretation about the change. It is therefore fundamental that leaders refrain from leading, selling on the content of the discussion, when they try to engage and keep an eye on the process of it.

People will own the change and feel an integral part of it when their leaders will give them time and space to discuss, explore and understand it. This is probably the best way to let them “own it” and avoid the fear of winning reaction.

On my way to Paris again. Thank you for following this blog each week


[1] “Engaging Leadership” D. Marlier & C. Parker (2009) Palgrave MacMillan page 79

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4 Responses to “Fear of loosing or fear of winning?”

  1. Dear Didier,

    thank you for your weekly blogs. I am reading them with great interest. I just want to add that especially gifted people have sometimes so much fear of winning that intentionally they are not performing well. They simply don’t want to “shine” too bright, thereby dragging too much attention towards them. In the worse case they even become “underachievers”. But this is just an example. The point I am trying to make is that I think the readers of your blogs are (I would imagine;-)) mostly successful people and executives, who are trying to perform and win everyday. When talking about change we simply have to accept that quite some people in an organization are not like that. I have seen big change efforts fail because the leaders gathered project teams of bright young people (performers and winners) around them, thereby loosing the contact to those parts of the organization, who have other values and speeds.

    Have a nice week


  2. Dear Rene and Didier

    Thanks you for the insightful post and comment as can relate to the fear of winning in relation to not wanting what goes with winning, jealousy, etc. Don’t wish to shine too brightly and yet, sometimes environment is competitive to the extent that one finds oneself in a Catch 22, don’t compete and get seen as failing or push oneself to win, thus abandoning one’s values of the collaborative approach.

    I would be interested in how one can allow for the competitive to be what they are and be able to perform well/better, without being pushed into the having to win race.

    Why? I feel the emotions that people release in the too competitive environments are harmful both to them and those around them. While it’s not for me to change them, I would be able to be “competing with myself” as opposed to anyone else.


    • Dear Zoe,
      Thanks for your remarks and sharing experiences here. My grand uncle was an idealist politician in his country. When I used to ask him why he was wasting his time in such an activity, his simple reply (sounds better in French though) was: “If the disgusted ones leave the terrain, the disgusting will occupy it”…

      It seems to be the same with those who are highly competitive and those who dont see the point nor ethics in being ultra competitive internally.

      From my observations, the world is slowly evolving. The emergence of the “Open Economy” and its core values (Generosity, Responsibility, principle of Abundance, authentic Value, Interdependence,Trust, Authenticity and Sharing attitude) suggests that ultra competitive “alpha males” are on the decline.

      Very short reply, your question deserves more time and depth. Thank you


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