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  • David S Cohen

Pride, Passion, and Basketball

Understanding the Link Makes Organizations Stronger

We were all proud of my youngest brother when he played basketball. He was so good that he became a starter in his freshman year for his NCAA Division I school. Daniel was proud of his success on the court, too. He loved to play and succeed at top levels.

Which came first, my brother's pride in being on the court or his passion for the game? That's a question that came to mind after I re-visited Jon Katzenbach's book, Why Pride Matters More Than Money: The Power of the World's Greatest Motivational Force. Katzenbach has written an excellent primer that touches on an issue I think is still misunderstood in corporations today. People don't work for money – what motivates them is something entirely different.

But what is that motivator?

For Katzenbach, it is pride. In his examples, successful organizations develop a culture of pride which draws committed people who excel at their jobs, thereby creating new success which further increases the pride factor. "Anticipatory pride" is the term he uses to describe how people are motivated to succeed by their desire for pride. Certainly, many of the great sports teams have gotten more out of their players because of the pride factor. There's something about putting on the Fighting Irish football jersey at Notre Dame or wearing the pinstripes at Yankee Stadium which makes players put forward more effort. They feel responsibility to the tradition they represent – something that can feel like extra pressure. But that pressure is offset by the special accolades that come to someone who succeeds in those circumstances. For many baseball players, winning a Word Series title is wonderful; winning one as a Yankee is special.

Pride is reinforced in organizations by recognition.

Organizations which want to instill a culture of pride must be sure that they recognize and celebrate employees who do the right things, not only in difficult circumstances. This, of course, is the manager's job; but if proper recognition is part of the organization's culture, the manager's efforts will resonate. Notice again that we are not talking about money. Make no mistake, money is certainly a big issue. But it is a hygiene issue that is taken off the table once the person decides to join your organization. It might be the exit interview excuse for leaving but it is most often not the underlying cause. Interestingly, 10 years ago the Yankess played the Marlins. In that world series, the Yankees, with their $200 million dollar payroll, lost to the Marlins with their $40 million dollar payroll. In following year's Stanley Cup, two small market teams made it to the finals. Little Calgary played for the pride of Canada. Little Tampa Bay was motivated by Jim Collins' slogan, "Good is the enemy of great." Pride clashed with pride, and the result was an entertaining final in which real passion was on the line.

Money is Not the Answer

Indeed, many sports teams (and corporations) have created losing cultures by believing that money is the solution to their problems. Some teams with a lot of money do well every year; but other teams with a lot of money never seem to get anywhere. The talented players they bring on board never perform up to expectations; and give the impression that they are ‘hired guns’, in it for the money and themselves.

In fact, Katzenbach warns us about the "self-serving behavior" that arises in cultures focused on money as a primary motivator. He couldn't be more right. That's why, in the long run, pay-for-performance programs fail, and why incentivizing CEOs with immense stock and options packages so often backfires. When you pay for performance you are feeding the ego of "self-service." People motivated in such a way have a strong tendency to avoid what's good for the group whenever it is superseded by what's good for themselves.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs makes us understand that money is a fundamental concern for human beings. That need is taken off the table when they agree to take the job. Once that base need is fulfilled, other higher needs take precedent. To Katzenbach, one of those higher needs is the need for pride; but in my view, passion comes before pride. Get the passion right, and you will create the conditions in which people can excel.

Pride arises when passion leads to results.

A government employee, teacher, constable, are employees who really care about their work and not in it for the money; chances are they have a passion to do something which money cannot satisfy. Same goes for an artist who foregoes a business career to create paintings; or a basketball player who puts all their spare time and then some into practicing.

Pride comes when passion fulfills potential and gets recognized. Notice how you never feel pride when someone you don't respect says "good job" without really meaning it. When a parent, manager or coach recognizes your success, pride is increased. On the other hand, if you do something out of pride and don't receive the response you desire, it can be very painful. Ask a son or daughter who has been seeking parental approval all their life what it feels like when that approval never comes – the baggage is ever-lasting.

It's Wasn't About the Game!

My youngest brother played elite basketball because of his passion for the game. But he decided to quit for two reasons. First, he had problems with the attitude of his coach – a tough man who did not recognize best efforts and reward passion. But second, and more importantly, he had greater passion for something else – academics. He knew that excelling as a student was almost impossible when excelling as an elite athlete. Making the decision to give up basketball was not so hard; but telling our father, who had such pride in his accomplishments, worried my brother deeply. There were many sleepless nights leading up to the call.

Our father was not disappointed, rather; he was proud of my brother for the decision he made. Our father's response further increased my brother's pride in his life choices, and motivated him to seek more recognition and pride by being a great academic. The circle of pride was strong in our family.

Long before the current conversation of what is going to motivate people I think Katzenbach's book hit on many important themes: pride, recognition, passion and results. But it is when he focuses on passion that he gets to the heart of the real driver for success. Pride supports passion, but passion is why we do things. Find people with passion, recognize their efforts, and you will create the pride that keeps us all going.


David is a globally recognized thought leader in the areas of talent management and corporate culture. You can read more on his perspective on what drives passion and pride in his book on values, culture and leadership: Inside the Box.