Lessons From the Gym: Starting the Change Process

Anyone who knows me knows I am a big fan of taking lessons from personal fitness and bringing them into the workplace (I even wrote a book about it). 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.

In a recent talk in Bangkok, Christian Mason, the Managing Director for Virgin Active in Southeast Asia, offered some ideas as to why people have trouble starting a fitness regimen. One that really jumped out at me was a spin on Newton’s first law, which describes inertia: an object in motion tends to remain in motion, while an object at rest tends to remain at rest. Our natural state is to keep doing what we are doing, so if you have been sitting on your butt staring at a screen, you will naturally keep doing that tomorrow rather than going to the gym. 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.

Start today, not next week

The question, then, is how to get started, and Mason offered a couple critical points that I also found useful when I started running. One great idea is to offer short-term goals and rewards rather than focusing only on something so far down the road that the person is 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. I would suggest another 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? Another key point he made is to make the fitness effort social, so whether it’s joining a class and interacting with others, or going to the gym with a buddy (who will also hold you accountable), you are more likely to get started and continue if you are doing it with others.

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, market or technology, 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 — and 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.

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 sharing sessions that include people from multiple business functions, where people can discuss their challenges and get ideas from others about how to proceed.

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 flexible organization 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.

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