Should A Leader Praise A Team For Trying Hard But Finishing Second?

“It is better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all”

I was watching my last place, bumbling Atlanta Braves play the first place Dodgers. The Braves held their own on the entire series, losing two games in the 10th inning by identical 2-1 scores. In the last game a Brave’s rookie pitcher outpitched Dodger all-star pitcher Clayton Kershaw but was defeated when the Braves’ keystone cops defense made multiple errors allowing unearned runs. The Braves have no chance of anything other than last place this year primarily due to the actions of the dumbest front office on baseball. They placed inferior talent on the field in the hopes of betting on the future. But the stupidity of the Braves’ front office in the area of talent management is a story for another time.

The game made me think about young talent that tried hard but failed. The young players on the field had held their own with a superior team and lost even though they probably should have won. The game made me think about a team I had managed earlier in my career. They were young and talented but had no seasoning. Their enthusiasm was exciting but their naiveté was discouraging. The team had gone up against several formidable opponents in competing for a project. They were clearly outclassed in the area of experience but not in effort. The team pushed hard, challenged themselves, attempted to be innovative but the effort still fell short. In the end lack of knowledge and experience were their undoing.

In both the cases described above the leaders face the same issue: a team tried hard, did some good things but did not win. Does the leader praise the effort even though the team did not win? Is that like giving out trophies to everyone who competed? What should the leader do?

Yes, Praise The Team For Trying Hard!
People tried hard and did their best. They finished second through no fault of their own. There was little they knew to do differently since they could not manufacture seasoning and experience except through more time and more quality experience. In both cases the leader should take pride that their “David” team played with the “Goliaths” and almost pulled the upset. So the team needs to hear the leader’s encouragement and be recognized for their contributions despite the final outcome.

No, They Did Not Succeed. Don’t Mask The Final Outcome!
It is easy to create a culture where close enough is good enough. A team can take pride and be self-satisfied that they “hung close” even though they did not win. Second place becomes acceptable and a legitimate finish. Praise for trying only solidifies that trying is an end in itself and organizations do not succeed by finishing in second place. Besides, if a leader praises trying, it minimizes building new capabilities because people feel they already “best in class”.

Principles For Managing Trying Hard

As with many leadership issues it is important for a leader to separate and clarify. There are two issues, each of which should be managed differently. The first issue is, “How did the team perform: What did they do well and not do well?” The second issue is “How did the team finish?”

1. How The Team Performed
This is where the leader facilitates the team through a rigorous analysis of their efforts. The goal is learning and stretching one’s thinking.

Team self-assessment is an important leadership action. It is easy for a team to bask in its effort and forget about analyzing its performance. When I was Chief Knowledge Officer at a consulting firm, I would often meet with teams of young consultants working in projects. When I would lead them through the self-assessing their performance the most discouraging answer I would receive was to the question, “what could you have done better.” Often I would hear that there was nothing that could have been done better – “we did our best.” It is in self-assessment that the greatest opportunity exists for a leader to push and pull the team and out of their comfort zone so that true coaching can occur.

Four questions guide the self-assessment process:
1. What did the team do well?
2. What did he team not do well?
3. What could the team have done better?
4. What is necessary to implement needed changes?

This is the place where pinpointed praise for excellence should occur. It is the place where specific shortcomings should be identified and analyzed. It is the place where brainstorming different alternatives can bring out data or alternatives that were neglected or missed during the heat of battle. It is the time to develop specific plans on how to improve.

In assessing how the team performed, the leader recognizes and reinforces the pinpointed high quality actions that the team demonstrated while stretching the team’s thinking on what is possible.

The key is not to indicate the team acoomplished the goal by trying. The leader praises the components of works that performed well while indicating that growth and change will be necessary to accomplish th eultiamte goal: winning.

2. How The Team Finished
Whether it is losing a project to a competitor or not meeting customer expectations on a project, a leader can never be that trying hard is good enough. The leader can never allow a team to feel that second place is good enough. The leaders dissatisfaction with finishing second should be clear and visible. This is the only way that the leader can demonstrate and build the appropriate level of urgency so that during the next effort the team expectation is not only that we compete but also that we win.

Good To Great And Leadership’s Restless Dissatisfaction
There is much talk about how organizations move from good to great. One of the key leadership traits behind that move is restless dissatisfaction. A leader can be pleased with the effort and actions of a team and even pleased with the fact that, at this point in time, a team did its best. At the same time the leader can be dissatisfied that so much more is possible and greater results could have been accomplished. Letting the team see this dissatisfaction with what is possible while praising their specific contributions provides the challenge to the team to become better so that trying hard does not become good enough.

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  1. I like this article because I too had gone through the same mindset when I was watching the performance of Sri Lanka Cricket team in recently concluded T- 20 Cricket World Cup, where they were the defending champions,.
    This team consisted of immense young talented players with lot of international exposure but failed to deliver.The team chemistry was not as it was and they did some fundamental errors and decision making was pathetic. Management too acted poorly where team enthusiasm was not there.
    I would like to send this article to Sri Lanka cricket management so they can learn lot from this.
    Thank you.

  2. If we believe that all teams that do not finish first are not accomplished then only one team per year will be an accomplished baseball team. Failure is certain for all but one team.

    Success does not require never losing.

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