A team performance to remember!
13-0, that is how badly my primary school football team was beaten the first time out. From the first whistle it seemed like all the momentum was with the other team. The memory that stays with me is the heaviness of my legs, teammates blaming each other, not being able to look my teacher in the eye and desperately, desperately wanting the game to end.
The other team started taunting us in the way that only 7-year-olds can. Dads started chipping in from the side lines: “Get on with it”, “Buck your ideas up”, “It’s alright, son it doesn’t matter!”. At one point our goalie and a defender sat down on the grass for a few minutes making daisy chains.
The more we fell behind the less we cared or contributed. As for the other team, they went from being hungry for more goals to just coasting, we’d made life too easy for them.
What team performances do you remember?
No person or team is immune from the ups and downs of life. Sometimes the wind is in your sails, sometimes it is not. And, have you noticed how changes in momentum makes people in a team feel, think, behave, and interact?
What is Psychological Momentum?
The concept of ‘Psychological Momentum’ – first coined in 1981 – is currently defined as “a positive or negative dynamics of cognitive, affective, motivational, physiological, and behavioral responses (and their couplings) to the perception of movement toward or away from either an appetitive or aversive outcome”(1).
Put more simply, it is how movement towards or away from the outcome you are looking for – either individually or as a team – impacts the way people think, feel, behave and interact. Researchers are still exploring its impact.
If you and your colleagues discussed how Psychological Momentum impacted people individually, how could what you learn help you become a better team?
People believe in Psychological Momentum
If you’ve ever heard people say things like “we need to keep the momentum going”, “success breeds success”, and “if they don’t believe they can win they won’t”, you’ll be aware that people believe in Psychological Momentum as a factor that influences performance.
Some people believe in the power of this kind of momentum so much they look for ‘miracles’, ‘lucky breaks’, ‘a little bit of magic’ or ‘touches of genius’ to help turn negative momentum into the positive kind.
As a leader, what would happen if you joined your team in noticing, naming, and celebrating the small wins and beautiful moments, especially when things are tough?
Psychological Momentum effects men and women while impacting both
In 2016, German researchers wrote a powerful discussion paper titled ‘Psychological Momentum and Gender’(2). They found that “men’s performance is significantly affected by Psychological Momentum, while women’s is not…[which is] in line with evidence in the biological literature that testosterone, which is known to enhance performance of both men and women, commonly increases following victory and decreases following loss only among men”.
Their analysis of 2,140 men’s and 1,484 women’s judo fights showed that whereas Psychological Momentum increased the probability of a man winning by a massive 18%, the influence it had on whether a female won was found to be statistically insignificant.
They suggest a major reason for this, namely, that it is “only among men that previous winnings lead to increased levels of testosterone, which in turn increases the likelihood of future wins, while previous losses lead to decreased levels of testosterone, which in turn increases the chances of further losses.”
The connection between increased testosterone and increased aggression and risk-taking is not lost on the researchers: “sometimes momentum can create price bubbles in financial markets, because success in a first investment leads among men to increase their willingness to take additional risks and reinvest. Thus, an increased share of women traders in the market might reduce the creation of such bubbles”.
What goes up must come down, all successful runs come to an end and all bubbles burst. And when it comes to Psychological Momentum, overconfidence, aggression and risk-taking seem to play a part in the pendulum swinging from positive back to negative.
While the impact of gender on Psychological Momentum seems to be significant, it should not be seen as a ‘male’ problem. Quite the opposite, an all-female team should try to cultivate positive Psychological Momentum and be open to exploring the role negative momentum plays in their experience of working together as a team. And, women in a mixed gender team will be impacted by Psychological Momentum at the team level because its impact will ripple through the whole team. It’s traits like this that make it a systemic team development issue.
All male teams should reflect on how well the composition of their team equips them to efficiently sustain performance. There may be a strong case for reflecting on the benefits of integrating gender diversity to moderate the impacts of large swings in Psychological Momentum on their efficiency and efficacy.
Knowing that positive momentum flows into negative momentum, how could your people in your team best ‘be’ together to extend phases of positive momentum?
Team Performance and Psychological Momentum
A small but interesting recent study titled “How Psychological and Behavioral Team States Change during Positive and Negative Momentum” (1) gives us more useful insights into how Psychological Momentum impacts team performance:
- Collective Efficacy i.e. a team’s belief in its ability to produce given levels of attainment – “increases during positive momentum and decreases during negative momentum”
- Task cohesion i.e. the degree to which team members work together to achieve a task or goal, also increased during phases of positive momentum and decreased during negative momentum.
- Interpersonal coordination i.e. the exchange of verbal and non-verbal information between team members, decreases in quality during phases of negative momentum.
- The researchers also found that “relative to positive team momentum, negative momentum elicits stronger (opposite) psychological changes and accompanies different (less adaptive) behavioural regulation”.
This means that when things are not going well, it is likely that people will start to doubt the team’s ability to perform, resulting in them working together and communicating less effectively. It is also likely that team members will feel less confident, less in control and more anxious – an obvious concern for leaders trying to improve team performance.
As a leader, where do you think individuals on your team are on the spectrum between positive and negative Psychological Momentum right now? Where is the team as a whole?
Psychological Momentum in Leadership, Functional and Project Teams
If you’re part of a leadership team, project team or functional team at work you’ll know that positive momentum towards a successful outcome really matters. Why else would people want to avoid ‘getting stuck in a rut’ when ‘things aren’t going their way’?
Individually we experience how our own emotions, thoughts and behaviours change as we move closer to or further away from our own personal goals. The feeling of disappointment or shame that comes with not living up to or delivering on expectations is real. Maintaining positive momentum and overcoming negative momentum is important to leaders. Not least because they know that they are judged on the performance of those they lead.
Psychological Momentum in a competitive sporting environment is relatively easy to imagine. As it goes down for one competitor it tends to increase for the other. The goal of the players is also obvious – to win! How well do you think the concept extends into professional team contexts where there is a diversity of goals, outright victory is not possible, and the definition of success is more ambiguous? Is the concept still meaningful?
Why Psychological Momentum is a challenge for Team Leaders and Managers
Managers might be reluctant for the teams they lead to have open discussions about identifying issues, risks, and responses to phases of negative or positive momentum. And in fairness, many teams do not have the psychological safety, competencies, perspectives, and skills needed to talk openly and constructively about how to overcome team challenges.
Giving accountability to the team to sit with what’s happening, process it constructively and negotiate a way forward is for many managers the very definition of ‘opening a can of worms’; going there has the potential to complicate things and make them worse.
Leaders may appreciate the theoretical value of giving the team more ownership and accountability for self-managing in the face of positive or negative Psychological Momentum; while also lacking the skills or objectivity to facilitate and hold that space while the team develops its ability to do so.
It is also extremely hard for a team leader to step into the role of neutral facilitator. Particularly when they are so heavily invested in, and such an interdependent part of the team. Because of that, we always recommend that leaders are a part of these important team conversations.
If teams in your organisation were able to effectively self-manage through the challenges associated with negative and positive Psychological Momentum, how would that enrich employee experience and organisational culture?
When the impact of Psychological Momentum on the team cannot be ignored
It is natural that there are times when the impact of negative momentum is so present that it’s unignorable. You can see it in people’s energy, the lack of eye contact and the results. You can feel its presence heavy in the air.
Ready or not, here it is, and it needs to be addressed.
So, the team begins to discuss what’s happening, where they are and how they are feeling. There is some denial, some blame, some defensiveness. People on the team who are meeting their own performance targets have an energy apart. Some people lean back and look at the ceiling. Some make knowing eye contact. Some feel that they’re to blame.
The can is open. Worms start to wriggle out. Things are getting complicated. People sense that the discussion is not making things better and everyone starts to look for the emergency exit. Without saying a word, people have opted for conflict avoidance because the team does not have what it takes to do conflict constructively.
“What are we going to do?” someone asks.
“Yes, what is the plan?” asks another.
Unimpressed and feeling the pressure, the Team Leader tells people what the plan is. People listen quietly and nod their disengaged agreement.
Quiet chats between team leader and team members to encourage compliance, commitment and effort become more regular and people start to feel insecure. The emphasis shifts from team goals and shared purpose to individual goals and individual survival. Stress levels go up. People start to spot the mismatch between espoused organisational values, cultural aspirations and what is happening.
The next time the team leader talks about being a team, supporting each other and being in it together, no one listens.
In the scenario I have just described, what is gained and what is lost by skipping over ‘how we need to be together now’ and going to ‘what needs to be done now’?
Team Performance is not all about ‘doing’
Now is a good time to remember that positive and negative Psychological Momentum changes the way people on a team think, feel, behave, and relate. As does the way people interact and relate.
People respond differently to phases of positive and negative momentum. And, it is the interplay between individual responses that gives rise to how changes in Psychological Momentum show up in the team. Also, people’s responses are not consistent, they will change depending on what else is happening in their lives and how their experiences over time condition them to respond.
Negative Psychological Momentum tends to make people feel less confident, less in control and more anxious. It also tends to make people believe in each other less, work together and communicate less effectively. Positive Psychological Momentum is associated with greater belief in the team, working together and communicating more effectively. But it can also be associated with overconfidence and risk taking, particularly in men.
Teams, like all relationship systems, have a ‘doing’ and ‘being’ aspect to them because all teamwork is more efficient when the atmosphere is right – regardless of context.
If ‘being’ is as big an influence on team performance as ‘doing’ how do you want to be as a team when things are not going your way?
Final thoughts on Psychological Momentum and Team Performance
I started this post by sharing one of my early experiences of negative Psychological Momentum – losing 13-0 in a game of football against another team when I was 7-years-old. As a child I felt how, when winning got further away from me, I felt worse. I also observed how it made teammates and their dads act and feel.
As adults we become intuitively attuned to changes in Psychological Momentum within ourselves as well as the teams and organisations we are a part of.
As professionals with shared interdependent roles and goals, we believe that you owe it to yourselves to go one step further and develop the skills and competencies to work effectively through ever changing phases of Psychological Momentum.
If you think so too, we would love to talk with you. But before you call us, please be mindful that developing a team’s capacity to work with Psychological Momentum consciously and intentionally is a process and not an event, it takes time and trust. It also helps to have a business driver for wanting teams to be able to self-manage around the challenges associated with Psychological Momentum.
Thoughts and reflections by Stephane Kolinsky, Team Development Specialist at Sky Space.
Stephane is a certified Executive and systemic Organisational coach and is accredited by the International Coach Federation. He takes clients to a place where they can take full ownership of their feelings, relationships, triumphs, and challenges.
He lives by the sea in Plymouth, Devon and over the last 10 years has worked in the voluntary, social enterprise, education, public, creative, and professional service sectors across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. He is currently the International Coach Federation Devon Chapter Group Leader and hosts regular meet-ups for coaches, and coaching curious professionals in the area.
If you enjoyed this article, let us know in the comments below and be sure to check out other articles from our team development blog.
(1) “How Psychological and Behavioral Team States Change during Positive and Negative Momentum“. Den Hartigh, R., Gernigon, C., Van Yperen, N., Marin, L. and Van Geert, P., 2014.
(2) “Psychological Momentum and Gender“. Cohen-Zada, D., Krumer, A. and Shtudiner, Z., 2016. Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), (Discussion Paper No. 9845).
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