The results fallacy: Why focusing on outcomes is counterproductive

Business performance lessons from elite sports.

by Catherine Bishop
Last Updated: 15 Jun 2020

‘It’s all about results!’ ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!’ ‘Don’t be a loser!’  These phrases resound throughout our lives from the playground to the boardroom. The logic is alluringly simple, reinforced by parents, teachers and then managers, that life essentially revolves around the results we achieve. 

But this laser-like focus on results needs challenging.  It’s holding us back in business as it is in sport, education and politics. Experience and an increasing body of research in psychology and organisational studies show serious flaws in this way of thinking. Our obsession with outcomes is leading to serious unforeseen consequences, not to mention poor results.  

When we assess, evaluate and judge according to results we lose out on the opportunity to learn. When I was competing internationally, within every race I lost, there were world-class elements to my performance, as well as areas that needed serious improvement.  

Athletes know that they have to maximise their learning through failure in order to build success later. In the workplace, a sole focus on results ends up devaluing ideas, achievements and learning along the way, which in time, diminishes future results.

Sports psychologists separate out the concepts of results and performance when working with athletes. While the aim is still to deliver the best results possible, psychologists and coaches know that the focus must be on developing the performance – that is within the athlete’s control – in order to set themselves up for the best results – which are outside an athlete’s control and rely on many external factors (here Olympic athletes and business leaders share a common experience in 2020 of losing all hope of achieving the results they had planned for.)  

It’s a subtle but significant shift to optimise all the performance elements within an athlete’s control or influence: from obvious areas of fitness and strength, nutrition and recovery, to other areas such as mindset, collaboration and communication which may be less visible and measurable but all agree are essential to high performance.  

It means that long-term and short-term, measurable and less measurable performance factors are invested in on a daily basis.  This prevents an athlete from cutting short on certain areas in order simply to get a result in the next race. Instead, all the aspects of performance required to win the Olympics in four years’ time are tied into the daily life of an athlete.

In sport, the tradition of focusing on medals at any cost has come at a high price to individual athletes in terms of both performance and personal growth, affecting the length of an athlete’s career, their mental health and their results. Jonny Wilkinson described how he drove himself to win more and more, caps, titles, points, but admitted that ‘it’s never enough.’ 

Other winners with stories of being depressed, empty and unfulfilled after achieving their dream have made the mistake of failing to link their longed-for result to any wider purpose outside of themselves. This is where the key to deeper motivation and untapped potential can be unlocked. It brings in the language of meaning and purpose, and prioritises values, compassion and collaboration as essential to sustained high performance, and not optional.

This is why there are significant moves to reshape the culture of elite sporting environments, based on a performance-focused mindset and broader realisation that purpose, values and wellbeing have a key role to play in high performance.  

In business, results matter too, and should be driving similar thinking, but it seems to be happening more slowly. Persistent low levels of engagement, high burnout and stress demonstrate that our target-oriented, results-driven workplaces are not getting the best out of people. Developing a performance mindset, relating targets and results to a broader purpose and defining our criteria for success more broadly could underpin a fresh approach to succeeding in the workplace.

How do we develop a performance mindset?  Firstly, consider what we lose, prevent and stifle when we over-focus on results. Secondly, take on board the shifts in sports psychology over the last 20 years to see that a focus on outcomes does not lead to sustained high performance. Thirdly, recognise that performance is related to a broader set of criteria than are being measured in those results. 

That will set up a route to creating more meaning around work and ensuring that purpose, values and wellbeing become as much a part of daily work life as meetings, emails and targets.

Dr Cath Bishop is a rowing World Champion, Olympic medallist and former diplomat. She currently works as a leadership coach and consultant, and teaches at the Cambridge Judge Business School.  Her book ‘The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed’ will be published in October and is currently available for pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones.

Image credit: David Rogers/Getty Images
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