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Brain circuits

Are you struggling despite “winning”?

Published 3 November 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

The pandemic has disrupted the rules of leadership in many ways, but one surprising and often overlooked observation is that leaders at “winning companies”, i.e. companies that have seen their performance boom during the crisis, aren’t really feeling like winners at all.

In fact, winning leaders are reporting having mixed emotions, feeling just as exhausted as their more unfortunate peers, and on top of that being puzzled by their reactions to their own flourishing during a period of great uncertainty. There is a combination of survivor’s guilt and pandemic fatigue behind this, combined with the worry that future results may be benchmarked against the last year and a half, even if that means the comparison will be grossly distorted.

If you are leading a winning company, there are some things to keep in mind going forward.

Recalibrate responsibility

Many business leaders are used to attributing business progress to clever strategies, stellar execution, and deft communication. However, the pandemic has disrupted the link between what we do and the outcomes. Global consumer needs have been so reshaped by the pandemic that a campaign that once yielded a mediocre return now explodes. Conversely, a product launch that would normally be an earth-shattering blockbuster now touches dry land because of the exceptional circumstances.

Don’t fall prey to attribution bias

In other words, be careful not to ascribe the success of your business to your own decisions and actions. Distinguish between the external factors that have supported your success and your own contribution. Separating luck from leadership builds credibility, releases tension, and constructively challenges your team to devise tactics to win in new ways.

Rethink expectations

Managing expectations will require psychological scenario planning – preparing for radically different situations, for example – and reconsidering benchmarks for success. And, if you meet with success, this is not the time to drop agile crisis management mode. Instead, continue to update and realign expectations with your colleagues and your organization, for example by reshuffling priorities, resetting targets, and redistributing resources. 

Rebalance empowerment

Leaders have become so accustomed to the dual practice of empowering individuals and teams, and then holding them accountable for performance, that they fail to consider when this approach flips from being motivating and invigorating to being crushing and paralyzing. If leaders delegate too much of the burden of future performance in times of excessive volatility, they put the wellbeing of the teams at risk. This is particularly salient in companies and cultures populated with “insecure overachievers”.

 

As leaders, it is time to take a different approach to risk and reward. For starters, don’t define success in terms of outcomes, but in terms of actions. Take some of the risk off the shoulders of your team members. Reward doing the right things and doing things right, rather than turning your formal and informal reward and motivation systems into a game of post-pandemic roulette.

Further reading: 

Why worry about the wellbeing of winners?

By Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Authors

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders, and she runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.

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