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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: What business can learn from March Madness


“Go out there and win!” “We need to get to the next level!” “No mistakes!”

One product of March Madness is mad coaches. The 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament telecasts offer an interesting chance to watch leaders communicate with their teams.

When the pressure is on we could witness inspirational coaching or, sometimes, spirit-crushing behavior. Whether trying to win a sports competition or attempting to meet a challenging deadline at the office, leaders can certainly have a profound impact on their teams.

When teams are in an intrinsic motivation mindset — where players are being carried along with the excitement and challenge of their sport — amazing things can happen. (And it’s not so very different in business.) Teams that were ranked lower suddenly perform at a superior level. They are “in the zone”: One can see the flow as the defense is fluid and momentum builds.

Leading up to the game, their coaches were apparently meeting these players’ motivational needs to connect with each other, to feel encouraged by their colleagues and coaches. Intrinsic motivation is energizing everyone. But when the atmosphere is strained by scolding and ridiculing — and barking dictates — the consequences are most often not so great.

I had the privilege of advising a coach during his team’s trip to the NCAA tournament. They were ranked among the lowest seeds in the event. We discussed ways of keeping anxiety at a moderate level, while allowing enthusiasm to run high. His team excelled, and TV commentators noted its distinct sense of “We’re in this together.” Even trailing by about a dozen points at halftime did not discourage these teammates, who had locked arms on the bench throughout the game. Whether a shot went in or not, the coach could be seen encouraging them to keep on trying. They made it to the Final Four.

Sounds somewhat elementary, doesn’t it? Yet when the pressure is on — when the game is televised nationally and the current opponent is considerably more difficult than the last one — anxiety sometimes brings about sub-optimal behavior in coaches.

One also needs to take smart, intuitive chances, including the ability to sometimes fail. The other night in the NBA, Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets missed his first nine shots of the game. Did he get benched? Rather, he helped lead his team to victory, having been given a chance to work out his playing.

Anxiety is a serious detriment to a player’s performance, as it is to a worker’s output. A coach or a business leader can either exacerbate that variable, or help ameliorate it. I estimate that a typical college team often loses 10 percent or more of its performance due to excessive anxiety. One way to approximate this variable is to look at free-throw percentages. The free-throw is the same event whether it takes place in practice, in a game, or in a playoff game. I submit that a leading variable affecting performance is the anxiety attached to each situation. Oftentimes, you will see the success rate decline at each level.

During the NBA playoffs a while back, I was interviewed by the sports director of a leading network affiliate before that night’s game. I predicted the outcome based on comments made by players on the respective teams.

A player on one team going into that final game of a regional playoff commented along the lines of “We really need to win this round for our team to be taken seriously,” while the words of the opposing team were closer to “We really want to get to the next round.” No mention of “needing to.” Is this just semantics, or did those words reveal the team’s level of anxiety? The first team shot 53 percent from the line that night (compared to a season average of 75 percent), whereas its winning opponent hit 82 percent (vs. 70 percent for the season). That reporter was eager to have me on his show the next morning to discuss the psychological dynamics described above.

Wanting versus needing. It’s a good reality check: Nobody truly needs to win. We need food, water, air — not a sports victory or a business close at every attempt. People perform better when they are driven by a “want” posture, where they experience respect and empowerment; but we don’t often get to see demonstrations of these principles in contrasts of leader behavior.

Until March Madness gets underway.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University; a former senior line executive in the television industry; and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation.