That time in the gym can pay off at work

Anyone who knows me knows I am a big fan of taking lessons from personal fitness and bringing them into the workplace. This is one reason I encourage firms to design a wellness program and help their employees maintain a healthy work-life integration. Not only do you have healthier employees (which means greater productivity and less absenteeism due to illness), it also offers a way for your employees to develop habits that can help them in the office. This is particularly helpful when it comes to leading change.

One of the biggest challenges of any organizational change is getting people to actually start the change process. All too often, people will do everything they can to avoid acknowledging the need for change, because of course that means they need to make an effort. It’s far easier to hope the changing circumstances go away, or that someone else decides to take action, or a big hole opens up under the building and just swallows all of us. Taking those first steps toward change is hard.

The same is true when it comes to starting a fitness program. My book CROSS THE LINES got its title from the idea that, in running a marathon, there are two lines you need to cross. We tend to focus on the Finish Line — that’s where the biggest crowds are, that’s where you get your medal — but, for many people, just getting to the Starting Line and crossing is an even harder process. If you have been sitting around staring at a screen and looking at other people’s lives, it’s natural to just keep doing that rather than going to the gym yourself. Once people start developing fitness habits, they can get to a point where they start going because they want to go rather than because they should go, but they can never reach that point if they never actually get started.

Lacing up your shoes is easy, but convincing yourself to lace them up can be hard. (Photo by Alexander Redl on Unsplash)

The question, then, is how to get started, and there are some things that will help with that:

  • One idea is to set short-term objectives rather than focusing only on something so far down the road that you are discouraged from even starting. When I began running, I never said “I want to run The Marathon Grand Slam,” which would take me a few years; I just wanted to run a marathon, and I already had the date circled on the calendar in just a few months. It’s useful to have a big long-term goal, but don’t make that your only target. It helps your motivation when you get some early success.
  • A related aspect of this is to make the goal measurable, rather than vague. “I want to lose 3kg” or “I want to complete a 10k race” is a specific goal you can work toward, but if you say “I want to be in better shape,” how do you know when you have reached that? People are encouraged when they make progress, so make sure there’s a way to see that happening.
  • Another key point is to make your fitness effort social. Whether it’s joining a class and interacting with others, or going to the gym with a buddy (who will also hold you accountable, so you don’t hit the snooze button and go back to sleep), you are more likely to get started and continue if you are doing it with others. I find that when I run with a group they push me to go faster than I would on my own, in part because I want to show that this 51-year old can hang in there with the university students (I actually can’t, but that’s another story).

Just as these are useful ideas for changing your body and changing your health and fitness, they are also useful for changing your organization. Whether you are seeing a natural evolution in your industry or market, or facing a dramatic change such as a merger or other disruption, it can be difficult to get people to start the change process because they are comfortable as they are. By the time they get uncomfortable enough to change, it may be too late to reverse the damage that can come from waiting. So, how do you get them to start?

  • Following the fitness example, the first suggestion would be to set short-term goals with faster rewards, rather than focusing just on the ultimate end-state. Yes, you need to be thinking about what you want the organization to look like by the end of the change process, but identify the key steps along that journey and let your employees focus on those rather than just on the Finish Line. I once worked with a bank that had acquired another bank, and was planning a three-year culture change process. That’s great that they were thinking through the whole journey, but their managers and employees needed more immediate goals that they could focus on, in part because many of them had no idea whether they would still be in the bank in three years, and so had little incentive to look that far ahead.
  • Next, make sure you have measurable goals. Simply saying “We will successfully integrate our two companies into one” doesn’t tell you what that will look like. Consider setting something more concrete, such as market share, profit margin, time to market for new products, or something else where you can see progress and know when you have reached your Finish Line, or perhaps recognize that something is not working and you need to adjust. Most companies set specific targets for their regular operations, so consider what kind of specific targets will tell you that your change process has been successful, too.
  • Also consider how you can make the change process more collaborative. Change is scary, and if people have a chance to share those concerns then they can see they are not alone in their worries, and can also get more information that can reduce their uncertainty. Have regular discussion sessions that include people from multiple business functions, where people can share their challenges and get ideas from others about how to proceed. Your employees have experience not only in their particular field but often in other companies as well, and they bring valuable examples you can use to your advantage…but only if they talk to each other.

By the way, there is another obvious lesson here: if you have employees that engage in physical fitness, they have shown they can overcome the challenges of getting started, at least in the gym or on the running trail. If they already have that mindset, you are likely to have a more agile workforce that can not only respond to change, but probably lead it, too. I’m not saying you have to build a staff of runners and gym bunnies…but imagine what it would be like if you did.

(Big thanks to the folks at Virgin Active gyms whose insights got me to think about this more.)