Next time your favourite sports team is narrowly behind at half-time, feel relieved. Intuitively, one would think being just ahead at half-time would be a better position to be in. Not so. A team just behind at half-time wins more often than a team just ahead.
This is due to a quirk of human nature. We are more driven by the avoidance of loss than opportunities associated with gain. Knowing the power of “loss aversion” is vital for leaders interested in human motivation.
In a study of 60,000 games of professional basketball in the US, a curious thing was discovered. Not surprisingly, teams that are well ahead at half-time are more likely to win. Teams that are ahead by six points or more at half-time win 80% of the time. But the reverse happens around zero. Teams that are behind by a point at half-time win more often than teams ahead by one.
The authors of this research, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope, say that people put in a spurt of extra effort from a slight loss position. Half-time is a critical aspect to the effect. According to Berger and Pope, the importance of half-time is that the “sustained break provides an ideal opportunity for all team members to know their position relative to their opponent, reflect on it, discuss it and become motivated”.
So, knowing that humans are more motivated by the avoidance of loss (and overcoming a deficit) than the opportunity to gain (and hanging on to a lead), the next time your work team or division is just missing a target, don’t panic and don’t play the heavy.
All you need to do is take time out. At this “half-time” session you gather as a group, you discuss current achievements against goals, you reassess resources and support and you recommit as a team. Then human motivation will kick in and the group is likely to achieve the goal in the end.