How Do You Motivate People After A Big Loss?

Almost everyone I know is enjoying the annual college basketball tournament known as March Madness. As usual there have been several surprising upsets where the favored team lost. Athletic competitions are pregnant with possibilities of brilliant performance. That’s why we watch. The anticipation. The suspense. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

In business, every day is game day. Every day presents us with the gift of possibility. But no matter how talented, even the best occasionally lose. One of my associates asked, “How do you motivate people after a big loss?” This is an important question for any leader. As usual, I don’t believe there is a single answer to this question. However, I do have some thoughts.

First, we have to understand that for top performers losing hurts. It hurts emotionally. It hurts physically as well. The agony is painfully real. A great leader honors this reality and tolerates some anger, tears or other forms of negative behavior. Don’t encourage people to be good losers. As fabled coach Vince Lombardi said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

Next, pay attention to the self-talk. “I’m no good at this” is a very different statement than, “I had a really bad day.” Take a no tolerance attitude toward the former. That kind of self-talk undermines confidence. If you say that often enough you begin to believe it. When you begin to believe it, you’re done. You’re already defeated.

Next, help people understand the vital importance of resilience. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between resilience and great accomplishment. Let’s assume you’ve established lofty and meaningful goals with your team. You’ve suffered a setback, a loss of some sort. Okay, it hurts. Did you think this would be easy? Did you think there would not be obstacles, difficulties or setbacks? Okay, you got knocked down. It sucks. Are you going to get back up or not? Those really are your only two choices.

As a leader you must have this sort of attitude. You must display it with authentic emotion. You must select team members who have this sort of resilience. And then, when necessary, demand it. Demonstrate your unequivocal belief in your people. Refuse to accept defeat.

Tomorrow is game day. Are you going to let yesterday’s setback cause another defeat today? The words of my father ring in my ears. “Shake it off, boy.”

Thanks, Dad.

And thanks to my associate Kara Bunde-Dunn for suggesting this topic.

I’m sure there is much more to be said about this. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

6 thoughts on “How Do You Motivate People After A Big Loss?

  1. Great summary on a tough topic. Your article reminded me of the research in learned optimism with the Stanford swimming team – although many people do show emotion, the resilient among us come away from a loss strong and more ready to win. Thanks for a great contribution.


  2. I don’t know any successful leader who has not failed. They probably had mentors who helped to cultivate resilience. Your reflection is on point!
    Winners dislike non-challenging projects and initiatives that will not have a significant impact on the bottom line. Winning without any obstacles does not feel the same as winning after having tried several times.


  3. Pingback: Larry Sternberg’s 2014 Top Ten | Leadership Laboratory

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