Winners Can Be Surprised, but Losers Should Not Be

Have you ever faced public humiliation?

I have. Years ago I was up for a promotion; I knew that one of my peers was also being considered. I lost. My boss at the time had the good grace to call me into his office, late in the day, and tell me he was giving the promotion to the other guy. I was incredibly disappointed, but in retrospect, I’m grateful to my boss for telling me alone, at a time when I could leave the office quickly and nurse my disappointment in private.

The next day, when the announcement went out, I mentally was in a place where I could congratulate my colleague.

Nobody likes to lose. The only thing that makes losing worse is finding out in front of the winner.

It happens at the Oscars. Where people have to feign enthusiasm for the slighter thinner blonde with the slightly better British accent, or the deeper thinking Director with a bigger budget.  But losing at the Oscars is a 1/10 of 1% problem. Their egos might be bruised, but most of the nominees are already rich and famous. Plus they’re actors, who should be able to feign enthusiasm for sixty seconds.

It’s worth noting the Oscars and other award shows are voted on in secrecy by industry leaders, or sometime the general public. Choosing who gets the sales manager job, or which player leads the starting line up, is decided by the boss, someone who has a direct relationship with the players involved, and who should care how they respond to the news.

Leaders who have to choose between one performer and another, should think carefully about how they let the loser know. Losing a coveted spot to a peer is hard.  What’s worse is finding out in public, and then having to work with or, work for, the person who is doing the very thing that you so wanted.

It happens all the time. But how the decision-maker handles the announcement often determines the success of the future relationship.

In my case, I was able to fully support my colleague, because I had been given the time to get over myself. Had I found out in public, I am sure that I would have been much less graceful.

My policy is, winners can be surprised but losers should not be.

In athletic events, people always lose publicly. But there’s a distinct difference. In a head-to-head competition, the rules are not ambiguous.

Deciding who get the promotion, or which dancer wins the coveted solo is a nuanced decision, made people with natural biases, in a political environment that may or may not be about choosing the best performer.

Good leaders think about the impact their decisions have on everyone. It’s not just about choosing the best person for a spot.  The leader job is to create the best overall performance for the organization.

That’s means giving people time and space to experience disappointment in private. My father, who ran an every large organization, told me, “What may be a small decision to you, is the biggest thing in the world to the people involved.  These are people’s lives, their hopes and dreams, as a manager you need to never forget that.”

If you’re dashing someone’s dream, have the good grace to do it in private.