This year, I spent a lot of time observing professional triathletes. In particular, I’d watch them in transition as they changed equipment from swim to bike, and then bike to run. It was fascinating to watch as, under race conditions, world-class athletes struggled with the most basic of task: putting their shoes on. For those few short seconds, as they fumbled around, Olympians suddenly look like toddlers.
This idea made me consider the impact of duress, and how poorly our business leaders prepare our teams for ‘race conditions.’ When we need added performance from our corporate teams, the default position is to add more pressure: tighter deadlines, more cold calls, more overtime. The new demands create both real and perceived pressure for our team members, and our expectation is that the added pressure will result in a spike in performance. Pressure creates diamonds, right?
The problem I see is this: the way to get better at putting your shoes on in a triathlon isn’t by adding more pressure, it’s by removing it.
In sports psychology, we’re aiming to get our athletes in to ‘flow state’ or what you may have heard as ‘being in the zone.’ Flow state is considered the peak of human performance, and athletes who have experienced it often describe it as the game seeming slower, the ball appearing bigger, or that it felt like an out-of-body experience. It’s a mixture of appropriate skills and lofty goals. Triathletes that are in the zone don’t struggle to put their shoes on.
One element that’s not compatible with being in the zone is stress, which is brought about by having a substantial challenge without the applicable skill set to meet the level of that challenge. When you add pressure, without developing the environment for your team to thrive under that pressure, you’re not creating a diamond — you’re creating an earthquake.
The way it should work is that during times of adversity, business leaders respond by looking to remove as much pressure from their teams as possible. What can you clear from their plates so that they can respond to your challenge appropriately? What can you communicate so that they know their jobs aren’t on the line, but you all need to push hard for 30 days? Better yet, how do you involve them in the goal setting so that your new challenge becomes something they own and can achieve together?
You’re aiming to slow the game down, not speed it up. If you want your team to be able to put their shoes on, you need to take pressure off, not add to it.