Thoughts, Feelings and Actions – A Lesson from Wimbledon for Managers?

The Power of Self Talk?

Much has been made in the press about Serena Williams referring to a notebook containing a half dozen or so ‘motivational’ tips. This helps her to perform at her best. So how does it work? And if it works for tennis players can it work for managers too?

First of all – yes it works. And yes it works for managers too. But it is not about motivation. It is about what we choose to believe and think. It is about how these beliefs and thoughts then drive our feelings which in turn drive action. It is about inspiration. If we can change our thoughts, then this will certainly change our feelings and our actions.

Think → Feel → Act

Good managers are obsessed by actions and behaviours – by what people do in work time. They know that their job is to get the right actions and behaviours consistently from their team. They also know that actions are driven by feelings and feelings in turn are driven by thoughts. Sometimes the best way to get the desired action is to influence the feelings and thoughts.

If Serena thinks ‘I will win Wimbledon’ this will influence feelings of ambition and drive – especially when she has just served another double fault. The feelings of ambition and drive will cause her to lift her head up, put her shoulders back and fight even harder for the next point.

If she entertained an alternative thought, even subconsciously, such as ‘This could be the person that knocks me out of Wimbledon’ it would influence different feelings (such as frustration and anger at the same double fault) leading to different behaviours. The shoulder might tighten, the head might drop and the service deteriorate further. So what she thinks, feels and does are pretty tightly linked. And conveniently enough the thoughts of the brain can be controlled quite easily. Tell it something enough times and it will start to believe it!

So how does this work for managers?

Well imagine that you woke up with the next great idea to take your organisation forward. A new product or service or a new management tool for example. You can’t wait to get into work to share it with your boss. You knock on her door, invite yourself in and tell her all about it. She barely lifts her head from her e-mails, makes a few nods and grunts and tells you she will think about it. No enthusiasm, no praise, no thanks – nada! You leave her office feeling deflated, frustrated, disappointed and cross at her inability to see a great idea. You pick up the jobs section of the paper on the way back to your desk and wonder whether your talents might be better recognised elsewhere.

But what thoughts and beliefs triggered these feelings and the job-searching behaviour? They are probably along the lines of:

  1. the idea is a great one that will really help to move the organisation forward
  2. your boss is uncaring and not open to new ideas and enthusiastic employees
  3. your talents would flourish in a more caring environment

Supposing you substituted an alternative set of thoughts:

  1. the idea has some potential and deserves to be properly considered
  2. your boss is busy and might react better to the idea when it has been more thought through and if it is tabled at a scheduled meeting
  3. your talents will flourish right here

If you choose to think these things then it will trigger a different set of feelings and actions. Instead of walking out feeling bad you might say:

‘I can see that this is not a great time for you to think about this. I will do a bit more work on the idea and perhaps we can find 15 minutes later in the day to run it by you?’.

Different thoughts will trigger different feelings which trigger different actions. This is powerful stuff especially because the way we are wired up means that our first thoughts are always to place the problem being ‘out there’. The ‘bad boss’ or the ‘lazy team’ member.

Identifying ‘thoughts and beliefs’ that cause us to ‘feel’ and ‘act’ in ways that are less than optimal and changing them is a very powerful way of improving performance. Serena’s notes serve to do exactly that – they reinforce the thoughts and beliefs that are most likely to trigger the feelings and the actions that will help her to win the game.

There is a very good chance that Wimbledon will be won by the player who has the strongest mental game. This is what gives them the edge. Mental preparation and self awareness matter for managers as much as they do for tennis players.