Best of 2014, first published on May 21, 2014
When people disagree it is hard for leaders to step back and actually listen to what others are saying. We tend to try and “solve the problem” by describing all the good reasons for change, which can backfire.
“Ok, I can do this. This is actually pretty fun. I am glad I joined in today. You know, I may actually end up liking this.” ………. “What do you mean we are starting already? I just got here! Yes, it is fun, the trail looks great. No, I didn’t fall. No, I don’t want to hold everyone back, but I need a quick break. Oh, ok, I guess I can start right away……”
This was my internal dialogue when I started mountain-biking. My friends had only started riding about a month before I had but they were in a very different place than me. They were enthused and excited and wanted me be as enthused as they were! I was ready to try something new but I wasn’t as confident on the trails as them and the uphills were hard. They could ride faster and would get ahead of me. I would struggle up a hill, panting and gasping for breath, and they would be ready to go. I just needed a moment to catch my breath. They were lost in their excitement, had been resting for a few minutes and were raring to get started again. To me it felt like they were not listening. They felt like they had to cheer me on. I didn’t need cheerleading, I just needed 60 seconds to get my bearings. This is an example of the marathon effect.
As leaders of change, the marathon effect can inhibit your success engaging your people and you won’t even be aware it is happening. Think back to times when you have worked hard to explain the benefits of a change to your team. What type of response did you get? Did it feel like you were speaking a foreign language? That is due to the marathon effect. You, as a leader, are already at the top of the change hill and you team is panting to get there. They can’t see the fun downhill that you can see and they are not going to react well when you try and cheer them on.
The marathon effect is a metaphor that highlights the different view a leader has from their team and provides insight to help leaders change their communication to better engage their teams. In large marathons the “leaders” are at the front at the start. When the gun goes off they get to start running and they can focus on the wide open options ahead of them. The leaders are enthused, they can see the change ahead. The rest of the “team” is lined up, often blocks back, and when the gun goes off nothing happens! They are still standing there. They can’t see the change and they are focused on what they need to do to deal with their crowded reality.
As a leader your initial communication efforts need to focus on the crowded reality your team is facing, not the wide open changes ahead. Your team will be more engaged if you can demonstrate you are aware that they are slightly behind you. Initial engagement messages need to focus on the hill your team is climbing and not on the downhill you can see ahead. The challenges they are facing, their struggles, and most importantly, recognizing that they are trying.
It can be hard to rein in your focus on the future but recognizing the marathon effect will keep your people engaged. In the end they will join you and race to the finish, like I have done with my buddies on the trails out west.