As the Tokyo Olympics are finally about to begin, journalists and sports leaders are formatting their tables to count the number of shiny round pieces of metal that our nation’s athletes bring back. It’s so alluringly easy to measure, and we live in a society obsessed with metrics across sport, business, education and politics. But sometimes a look beyond at what’s less easy to measure tells a different and important story. Olympic medallist and business coach, Dr Cath Bishop, discusses the ‘results fallacy’, and how much of an impact winning is really having on the workplace and society as a whole.
‘It’s all about results!’ ‘Winning is all that matters!’ ‘Don’t be a loser!’ These phrases continue to echo around sports fields as well as workplaces. How can it be wrong when it underpins our school, work and sports systems? But does this laser-like focus on results actually help us – or might it hold us back in ways we have been blind to? If we look a little closer, is there a darker side to our obsession with coming first? A perspective that reminds us of the ancient proverb ‘all that glitters is not gold….’
In sport, although the UK has leapt up the Olympic medal table, the focus 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. There is an increasing recognition this has led to toxic environments and ‘cultures of fear’. Elite sporting environments are starting to understand the importance of creating performance environments based on purpose, values and wellbeing, in order to set athletes and coaches up with a better framework for sustainable high performance.
In business, results clearly matter – yet some types of target-oriented, results-driven workplaces have been associated with low levels of engagement, high burnout and stress. Redefining success in a broader way that includes but goes beyond results offers us a fresh approach to success in business and sport.
First, we need to develop a sense of purpose that goes beyond the next set of quarterly results in business or the next trophy in sport. We need to understand why these results matter. What is their lasting impact? And how will they contribute to the world around us?
Research shows greater medal success at elite level has not translated into increased sporting participation across the country. There are vague notions that the nation is ‘inspired’ by our Olympic and Paralympic success, but precious little clarity on the scale or lasting impact of this. Gareth Southgate and the England team understood that sport is about more than what happens on the football pitch and used their platform to advocate for a fairer, more inclusive society. Sport can be about more than a scoreline just as business can have a wider impact on people’s lives beyond the latest set of annual results. This is the bigger picture that we could miss out on if we only focus on short-term results.
What do we miss when we only value results?
We lose sight of the rich performance that unfolds before the result is known: the decision-making, tactics and teamwork, the exploration of physical and mental boundaries and ability to think clearly under the greatest pressure. There is a similarly rich fabric of work-life that plays out each day, regular interactions, behaviours and connections which we could invest in, if we focused our attention here, rather than on the upcoming set of results.
As an Olympic rower who competed in three Olympic games, I remember the big shift in sports psychology that changed how we thought and performed. Psychologists separate out the concepts of ‘performance’ and ‘results’. While the aim is still to deliver the best results possible, athletes and coaches focus on developing their best ‘performance’. That is within the athlete’s control, and includes aspects such as fitness, strength, nutrition, as well as less visible but still crucial areas of mindset, collaboration and recovery. This in turn optimises the ‘results’ that follow but these are always outside an athlete’s control and depend on multiple external factors, ranging from referee decisions to weather, from health to luck.
This ensures an athlete never cuts short on certain performance areas in order simply to get a result in the next race. All the aspects of performance required to reach peak performance in four years are tied into the daily life of an athlete. It encapsulates a paradox that sits at the heart of performance: letting go of thoughts, of outcomes and achieving a state of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’, enables athletes to deliver peak performances.
When we assess, evaluate and judge according to results, we lose out on the opportunity to learn more broadly. This is why we learnt as elite athletes to review performances regardless of results. 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. With every race I won, the same was true: there were areas I performed brilliantly in and areas I needed to improve. The emphasis is on constant improvement, regardless of results. Athletes focus on being world-class at improving, because that’s going to give them the best chances of winning. In the Olympic environment, we cultivated a culture of feedback, reflection and seeking marginal gains in order to continuously improve performance.
Jonny Wilkinson described how he drove himself to win more and more, caps, titles, points, but admitted that ‘it’s never enough.’ Other winners talk of feeling flat, empty, even depressed when winning. Their results have become meaningless when devoid of purpose, personal growth and relationships. When I get together with old Olympic crewmates, we don’t talk about race results or bring our medals. We talk about experiences, funny moments and friendships. We need to ensure we aren’t cutting ourselves off from success that has lasting value by focusing purely on the next set of results – it’s time to set ourselves up for ‘The Long Win’ with a sense of purpose, an emphasis on constant learning and the prioritisation of human relationships in everything that we do. Oh, and by the way, it’ll get you the best results too!
Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat and business coach. She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialized in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq.
Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at Surrey Business School. Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change.
Her first book ‘The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’, published October 2020, was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.’