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25 Aug

On letting people win

"The only way to win is to keep playing."

Let's extend this thought to how you as a manager can increase enthusiasm for the work in your new reports.

As a manager, you can make the mistake of only communicating what needs work or what needs to be improved to your teammates. So the only thing your reports are constantly hearing from you is, "You're not good enough. You can do better."

However, for someone to be motivated enough to improve at a game, they need to be winning at least 20-30% of the time. If one is losing all the time, they lose the motivation to play the game.

Why does this happen?

Because we learn via feedback loops.

And if the feedback you're getting is only negative, you never identify the correct direction to move in, as that can only happen once you win a game and look back on all the things you did right.

To improve, winning is as important as losing. In fact, winning is a much richer signal than losing as there are thousands of ways in which you can lose a game, but only a handful of ways in which you can win.

To illustrate this point further, here's a scientific study that shows how winning every once in a while can keep one motivated enough to stay in the game and keep improving.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp was a neuroscientist who studied the role of play in rats.

The rats would play a wrestling game where they would pin each other to the ground.

The larger rats would beat the smaller rats most of the time, given that the ability to 'pin' another rat down is largely enhanced by a rat's size and weight. But what Panksepp observed is that when larger rats would not let smaller rats win once in a while (around 30% of the time), the smaller rats would stop playing with them.

They no longer wanted to play when it was impossible for them to win. But they were fine with losing most of the time, as long as there was a chance they could win. The small possibility of them winning induced a thrill that helped them stay in the game and keep playing.

Likewise, when new reports feel that they're improving and getting at least some things right, they keep on playing. When they get bashed every time and only the bad is communicated and not the good, they will lose motivation and interest in their work.

Letting people know what they did right is crucial to helping them develop good judgment.

And helping your team build good judgment is how you scale as a manager. Time and attention are limited resources. The only way to help people continue improving and finally arrive at a place where they need no oversight is by letting them know what good judgment looks like.

This means being specific in your feedback around what they did right and what they didn't.

Failing to do so would be akin to expecting a person in a casino to get better at betting at the roulette wheel with every iteration. It won't happen, because the roulette wheel is not a valid environment. There are no patterns to glean that would help you do better in the next iteration. Every iteration is as random as before. There's no helpful feedback in terms of what strategies lead to better outcomes.

Playing a roulette wheel is as good as starting from scratch every time, and a person playing it for the first time is no different than one playing it for the thousandth time.

As a manager, you need to make sure that your reports aren't gambling at a roulette wheel. And for that, you need to give them specific feedback and let them know when they win.

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