Boxer’s mindset helps avoid small business knock-out

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Adopting the defence and attack strategy of a boxer could help small business entrepreneurs adjust to the early weeks of a crisis and prepare them to ‘go the distance’, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

A photograph of boxing gloves

Analysis of 49 weekly diaries written by a group of small business entrepreneurs covering the first eight weeks of England’s March 2020 coronavirus lockdown, revealed a strong preoccupation in the first month with defending businesses. 

By the second month, entrepreneurs had already started entertaining thoughts of recovery and made cautious and flexible plans, shifting their focus slightly between more reactive, defensive, and proactive moves. 

In an analysis published this week in the Journal of Business Venturing Insights, Dr Rachel Doern, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship in the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, observed a number of parallels between boxers’ approach to a fight and entrepreneurs’ thoughts and actions in the early stages of lockdown. 

The study is believed to be the first to capture small business responses to an unfolding crisis over the initial impact period in real time, creating a picture of short-term recovery. Small business crisis management research is typically more concerned with examining pre-crisis planning and post-crisis responses to one-off crises, Dr Doern says. 

The difficulties of planning when uncertainty is high and the need to stay calm and adapt quickly were themes observed across subjects’ diaries. Or as heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The diaries showed an intensity of emotions expressed by entrepreneurs, along with the speed and agility with which they responded to the unfolding crisis. This ‘fight for business survival’ caused Dr Doern to reflect on other kinds of fights, specifically boxing and its parallels with the covid-19 government-ordered lockdown.

The study grouped entrepreneurs’ responses into boxing-related themes – checking vitals, blocking, deflecting and developing tactical awareness – representing the different kinds of strategies entrepreneurs were using to go the distance, to increase their chances of small business survival and get through the crisis without being knocked out:

Checking vitals: monitoring business functioning over lockdown (financial, human and physical damages) to ascertain losses and where things currently stand, and detecting further risks. One entrepreneur noted: “My mood is up and down, largely ok and reflective, but very frustrated. It’s really strange to run a business which is doing extremely well and then quite suddenly hits a wall where we can only do about 25% of our work …”

Blocking: employing quick defensive moves to absorb damages and defend against further risks (closing businesses immediately to avoid the physical risks of working to staff and customers down the road). “[W]e felt we had a duty to our staff and public to stay safe and not operate to minimize risk of passing the infection on.”

Deflecting: deflecting further damages or avoiding blows by offering greater protection and in some cases by creating counter opportunities (engaging in emotion regulation, mobilising resources from networks, and using the momentum and features of the crisis to adjust). In the latter case, an entrepreneur explained: “It seems a little crazy on the one hand to be talking about trying to save my businesses, while on the other hand thinking about opening more shops. But definitely I think there may be the possibility of taking on other locations … I think in the short and medium [to] long-term people are going to stay localised …” 

Developing tactical awareness: planning the next move, trying to work out how covid-19 related regulations might change and they would respond (for example, extending outside premises if permitted), and managing expectations (reflecting on the possibilities available given the circumstances and diminishing feelings of disappointment). “Probably finding myself a little more stressed as we start thinking about re-opening … [N]ow the real work is going to start again. Which is slightly daunting, knowing that the business we have built, the way we were used to operating is going to change – all more negatively …”

Dr Doern said: “In an unfolding crisis, a boxer’s mindset involves acting quickly while taking stock of damages and responses and assessing where things stand. It’s about reflecting on how a crisis is evolving and the implications for the business, thinking about where things might be going and where one needs to be.

“It’s also about accepting the need for short-term planning, engaging in the practice of trialling plans, and managing expectations around what is possible given the challenges at present and ahead.”

The business owners who submitted weekly email diaries for the study held small offline businesses in hospitality (cafes and pubs), consultancies, or wholesale. Several businesses were between 5 and 10 years, with others more established. Employee size ranges from around 10 people, to one larger company of around 200.

Dr Doern is continuing to work with the companies involved in this research, collecting data since March 2020 to the present in order to explore the longer-term impact of the pandemic and the associated thoughts, emotions and behaviours of entrepreneurs.

Knocked down but not out and fighting to go the distance: Small business responses to an unfolding crisis in the initial impact period by Rachel Doern was published in the Journal of Business Venturing Insights on Monday 25 January 2021: