Leadership Motivation: How winners talk to themselves after a setback
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Leadership Motivation: How winners talk to themselves after a setback

There are lots of differences between winners and losers, but perhaps the most significant is the way the former talk to themselves after a setback.

That’s right. It’s not necessarily about personality, or talent, or intelligence. The big difference between the successful and the unsuccessful is what a landmark psychological study calls “explanatory styles.” This is an insight that leaders will find useful for both personal and team development.

The study we’re referring to was conducted by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. In collaboration with a major insurance company, he surveyed thousands of insurance agents – people who experience frequent rejection. He found that one factor outweighed all others in determining who succeeded and who didn’t. That factor was optimism, which helped agents to persist when facing short-term setbacks.

What makes an optimist

But what is an optimist, really? Seligman found that their key trait was  “explanatory style” — that is, the way they talked to themselves after failing at something. He described three different types of these explanatory styles:

Personal: Is the explanation Internal or External?

Did I cause a given setback to happen, or was it created by external circumstances? When encountering a rude prospect, successful insurance agents in Seligman’s research tended to use an external explanation. They said, “He was rude because he’s having a bad day.” Unsuccessful agents favored an internal explanation, such as, “I must have said the wrong thing.”

Pervasiveness: Is the explanation Universal or Specific?

When successful agents lost a prospect, they focused on why this specific account failed to convert, as in “Cash was tight, so they had to choose the wrong solution just because it was cheaper.” Unsuccessful agents used universal language such as, “Nobody cares about quality anymore.”

Permanence: Is the explanation Permanent or Temporary?

When successful agents got rejected repeatedly, they said, “This is hard, but it’ll turn around if I keep doing the right things.” Unsuccessful reps sought explanations suggesting the problem was permanent and beyond their control, as in “Our product isn’t good enough.”

Never say never

Let’s see how these explanatory styles might play out in an incident involving a fictional employee of yours, whom we’ll call Nicole. For months she’s been trying to get a project funded by the company’s financial committee, but they just turned her down for a second time.

She comes to you and says: “I’ll never get this project funded. The culture at this company fights new ideas. Or maybe I’m just not persuasive enough.”

Aha, you think. Nicole is using several negative explanatory styles. She’s framing this setback in language that’s personal (“I’m not persuasive”), pervasive (“The culture fights new ideas”), and permanent (“I’ll never get this funded”). She’s discouraging herself from regrouping, rethinking and trying again.

To get her back on track, you need to challenge these explanations and help her turn them around. You could start like this: “Nicole, is it true that you’ll never get this project funded because the culture fights new ideas?  What reasons did you hear the committee members give in the meeting?”

Nicole might then reflect, “Well, I suppose one committee member did say that he loved my idea but a current project is running late and has locked up the same support staff that I’ll need. He didn’t want my project to be starved for resources from the get-go.”

You ask, “Is there anything else?”

Nicole might say, “Yes, another committee member pointed out that the company is considering an acquisition that might affect the scope and direction of the project.”

‘It’s all my fault’

You’re not finished. Nicole has suggested she wasn’t persuasive enough, using negative self-talk that’s internal, not external. The explanation for her failure is personal; it’s all her fault.

So you say, “Nicole, do you really think you weren’t persuasive enough?”

She might reflect, “Well I guess there were good reasons for the committee’s decision, so maybe not.”

You then reinforce the idea that she didn’t fail.  You say, “I was at the presentation and I thought you came across as passionate and well-prepared.”

Changing the conversation

What you’ve done here is right on the money.

You’ve helped Nicole find a “specific” rather than a “universal” reason for the committee’s decision – it had to do with an episodic scarcity of resources. You’ve asked her to come up with more reasons why the delay in her project may be only temporary. And you’ve challenged her internal explanatory style, which says her lack of persuasiveness made the committee reject her. You’ve helped her recognize the external explanations the committee gave, and used your own observations to endorse her persuasive ability.

Your conversation with Nicole is a first step in changing the way she perceives short-term setbacks.

By arming her with the ability to frame these in a positive way, you’ve given her a new perspective on the committee’s decision to reject her project. She can now view it merely as a speed bump and find the motivation to persist until she achieves her goal. And with any luck, she’ll adopt and internalize more positive explanatory styles as she moves on in her career — and her life.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Overcoming Setbacks: The Power of Explanatory Styles.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Seligman, M.E.P., and Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory Style as a Predictor of Productivity and Quitting Among Life Insurance Sales Agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 832-838.


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