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Winning Gold – One wonders ???

August 31, 2016 Articles, In the news, Performance Management No Comments
Olympic Gold

Andrew O’Keeffe ©2016

At the Olympics, bronze medals seem to bring more joy to their recipient than do silver medals! At a rational level that doesn’t make sense, given the silver medallist beat the bronze medalist. But emotionally it’s a whole different ball game. From a psychological perspective it does make sense.


Humans are more motivated by avoiding loss than the opportunity associated with gain. For silver medallists, overwhelmingly their reaction is the anguish of missing out on gold. For bronze medalists their joy is gaining a podium finish and on avoiding being the fourth placegetter who must be in the worst position of all.

Compare the reaction of the New Zealand pole vaulter Eliza McCartney’s delight at bronze with Dutch athlete Dafne Schippers’s misery at winning silver. The beaming McCartney (right) literally jumped out of her skin to come 3rd, and will forever have the satisfaction of being an Olympic medalist.

Schippers (below) was so annoyed at her second place she threw the Dutch flag to the ground in disgust. She was quoted in the Dutch news as saying, “This is terrible. I really can’t enjoy it. I came here to win gold”. 



And even if silver medallists are pleased with their second place, TV hosts are there to diminish their achievement. The Seven Network broadcasted the Rio games to Australia and host Hamish McLachlan was interviewing a pair of sailing silver medallists. Cousins Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin had won silver in the Nacra 17 class. They were overjoyed with their second place – in part because they had improved in the last race from the bronze-medal to the silver-medal position. In closing the interview, McLachlan said, “See you in Tokyo (in four years) and hopefully with a different colour around your neck”. Oh dear.

One of the strongest examples of the loss associated with a silver medal was at the London Olympics when Australian swimmer James Magnussen missed out on gold in the 100m freestyle final by 1/100th of a second. He’d gone into the meet as the fastest qualifier and world champion. He was in his prime. One imagines that Magnussen will be long haunted by that 0.01 second. I imagine his overwhelming emotional memory is of missing gold, not winning sliver.
As leaders and HR practitioners, awareness of this quirky aspect of human motivation helps us avoid second placegetters feeling like losers.

In how we design and implement our performance, talent and recognition systems we can choose not to just focus on gold-medal performers. When we do, that just makes the next most valuable contributors feel annoyed and inclined to “throw down the flag”. Rather we can focus on that vast majority of people that organisational outputs depend on.

Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O’Keeffe is the Principal of Hardwired Humans which assists business leaders design and implement people strategies based on human instincts.

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