How The Mighty Fall

With 1:55 left in the game and with the Minnesota Vikings leading the Dallas Cowboys 27 to 3, the Cowboys had no real chance of winning. Surprisingly to many, Viking’s quarterback Brett Favre completed a pass in the end zone to Visanthe Shiancoe for the final score. There was conversation in the announcer’s booth about “running up the score” and Terry Bradshaw, my movie double, was indignant. He said that when he was playing, he called his own plays and he would never do what Favre did. In other words, it was unsportsmanlike to score that late in the game when the game was won. Only one of his fellow sports announcers disagreed. Is it unsportsmanlike to run up the score? Think of it this way, if a team plays in a way not to score, is it fair to the fans? If the game is won, why not just stop playing? Why doesn’t the losing team declare the game over? There is no point to further play. Can you imagine a coach saying to his/her team before playing a clearly inferior team, “Good news, you don’t have to do your best to win today.”

Most sports fans would think that absurd. What about saying in the last two minutes of a game, “Looks like we have this one in the bag, so just go through the motions till the game is over.” How patronizing is that? Do we play just good enough to win and then lay back? Is that enough? Any team or company for that matter that plays only good enough to win will ultimately lose. Corporations should take heed. Too many companies that once dominated their industry and business sector no longer exist. I would suggest that one of the main contributors to their demise was the fact that when you are on top, there is a period of time when employees no longer have to do their best to stay on top.

During that time bad habits can develop. When you are on top the acceptable margin of error is very small and taking your eye off the ball for an instant can cause major problems. Even mighty Toyota is learning that lesson with the current recall of millions of vehicles. The problem affects a very small number of cars, but it has shaken the confidence of many Toyota owners and perspective buyers. Unfortunately, many companies only realize habits have changed when it is too late because you cannot talk yourself out of a bad habit or into a new one. Mark Twain said it best, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” Years ago in the textile industry, there were companies that could actually sell off-quality goods for a higher price than first quality – a perverse situation, to say the least.

In the mid-seventies demand for their products was so high, many textile companies were “sold out.” The only way that new customers could get product was to buy “second quality goods.” In the five years between 1974 and 1980, the inflation rate was 49.33%. Because the first-quality prices were locked-in by long term contracts, some companies were actually losing money due to what the high rate of inflation had done to their costs. Price increases were possible only for off-quality goods. Unfortunately, the natural consequences favored producing poor quality, and lots of it. The problem came when a recession hit the textile business in the early ‘80s.

Over night the demand for off-quality goods was zero. Now customers were looking very carefully for the slightest defect as a reason to reject a shipment and get out of a high-priced contract. Habits that had been developed when quality was not important could not be turned around on a dime and some companies failed to adjust in time and went out of business. The lesson for business and sports is this, play every play as though it will be the determining factor between success and failure. This is the only way that you can stay on top of your game. Just one play where a player gives a half-hearted effort weakens habits and the drive to excel on the next play.

The seduction for managers and coaches alike is that the change in a habit after one play is imperceptible but the effect is cumulative over time and eventually shows itself in inattention to detail and a lackadaisical approach to the task. There is an old saying, “Every success sows its seeds of destruction.” For teams that are good enough to win easily, each easy victory has the potential of undermining motivation. It is the best coaches who understand that fact and create positive reinforcers for players and employees to give their all on every play. The score should be of no concern to the players.

The already legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said he never told players to win-- only to play their competitive best. He said that if the players played their competitive best and the team lost, that was a reflection of his behavior, not the players. I hope no one who reads this will assume that I am saying that we live in a “dog eat dog” world in which you should attempt to win at all costs. Lack of civility is all too common in the world today and it is of great concern to me.

Doing your best in sports and at work should in no way refer to aggressive, mean, unfair, illegal, unethical or immoral behavior. It simply means playing to your competitive best within the context of what society expects from its heroes. When your mother told you to always do your best, she knew what she was talking about. Follow her advice and you will always be on the top of your game.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.