Overcoming obstacles, leaping over hurdles, and recovering from fumbles can strengthen a team that has the discipline not to panic under pressure. Expectations remain realistic, grounded in knowledge of what people are actually capable of doing, based on detailed metrics and feedback, like the rigorous self-assessments and group assessments of the North Carolina women’s soccer team.
The deep knowledge teammates have of one another, and their mutual respect and commitment, makes it possible to regroup quickly, to take initiative without throwing out the game plan. It helps to have practices that are tougher than games (as Connecticut did), rehearsals of responses to disasters (one of Nokia’s ways of remaining on top), or written scenarios that anticipate alternative futures .Going through the physical or mental discipline of performing under the most difficult circumstances—like finding a solution for each trouble in my “worst-case scenario” exercise—strengthens problem-solving and builds collective skill in how to work through disasters, the way the Continental Airlines team did in the Great Blackout of 2003.
Confidence is based on reasonable expectations; so-called overconfidence is not. The dot-com stock market boom of the late 1990s was dubbed “irrational exuberance” because it involved emotional contagion without a basis in reality—not confidence but wishful thinking. Executives who routinely exaggerate benefits and discount costs in planning major initiatives are said to exhibit “delusional optimism.” Spinning tales of possible success without examining the potential for fumbles is foolish.
Cognitive psychologists have defined “overconfidence” as a person’s certainty that his or her predictions are correct, exceeding the accuracy of those predictions. This kind of overpromising is sometimes pushed by greedy investors, or it is encouraged by managers who stretch goals well beyond reality. Inaccurate expectations are more likely when people oversimplify and thus fail to see some of the things associated with success or failure. They might say that success is a matter of action A, when it actually results from A plus B, C, D, and E. And, not surprisingly, this kind of overshooting is more likely to occur when there is little prior experience with similar circumstances. (I’m reminded of the famous physicist’s saying, “Forecasting is a dangerous occupation, especially about the future.”)
Arrogance makes people lose sight of reality as they fly high in their fantasies, and when they are no longer grounded, they are tempted to panic at the first signs of trouble. When winners keep their heads under pressure, they are better equipped to recover from fumbles. But when they become complacent, take winning for granted, begin to believe with little evidence that they can succeed in untested realms, and neglect to maintain the foundations supporting them, then winners begin to lose.