Asking the Winner



"I won because… I believed more, I trained harder, I wanted it more…"

"I passed my exams because… I studied hard, I prepared well, I’m intelligent…"

"I succeeded in life and business because… I got up early, I tried harder, I worked smarter, I was more disciplined…"

After the Olympic final the winner predictably is asked why they won. We ask CEOs of large corporations the secrets of their success. They all tell us about how much they believed in their ability and how they tried and they trained and they applied themselves. The thing is, so did the athlete who finished 7th. So did the entrepreneur who didn’t secure the investment. When we ask the winner how they did what they did what we hear reflected back to us is their belief about the ingredients that led to their achievement. But it is skewed, attributing successes more to positive, internal, personal traits.

There’s a flip side to this narrative - we also have a habit of attributing our failures and our losses to factors that are external to us.

• The student who failed their exams may say they failed because the teacher hadn’t covered the whole syllabus in class, that there was a lot of distracting noise outside the exam hall, or they hadn’t slept well the night before.

• The entrepreneur who didn’t succeed may say bad weather slowed down their sales, their website crashed on a key trading day, and the person who was meant to listen to their investment pitch was 15 minutes late and flustered when they arrived.

• The athlete may say they didn’t win because the opposition had better equipment (or better drugs), that they were recovering from injury, or a distraction from the crowd meant they missed a critical shot.

This isn’t a conscious process, it’s the result of a subconscious bias called the self-serving bias, developed (we believe) to protect the ego of the individual and allow them a more positive outlook on life. Who wants to fundamentally believe that they didn’t achieve their huge life goals because they lacked vision, motivation and talent.

It’s particularly a thing in western, more individualized, cultures, where we are conditioned to believe that anything in the world is possible if we just want it enough, if we want it more than the next person.

How does knowing about the self-serving bias help you?

1. Your organisation and your service may become the reason someone gives for not achieving their thing. They may say the reason they didn’t succeed is because your delivery was a day late, your product was ill-fitting, they didn’t get the confirmation email you sent etc. This is potentially a lose-lose situation for you because if you argue that the customer was solely to blame for their misfortune you hurt their ego - not exactly a way to win affection either. The thing to remember about this is it’s not personal to you, you are simply an external factor for them.

2. When you carry out market research and ask customers what they want, how it will help them and how they succeeded on past occasions, you might not be getting the whole story.

3. When you read a business biography, or watch an interview with a winning sportsperson saying how they won, don’t believe all of what they say. Some of it was luck.

4. When you are celebrating a recent win, definitely enjoy the moment, but also see point 3 above.