A Satisfying Thump

recently had the opportunity to attend a jujitsu clinic with Coach Ed Griffin, a 75 year old, 7th degree blackbelt in Judo and Jujitsu. He demonstrated a technique in which someone would punch him in the face … or at least try to. All he did was turn around and gently place his hand on the attacker’s punching arm and, amazingly, the attacker would go flying through the air. At first we thought his partner was jumping, but he swiftly disabused of that notion anyone who wanted to try punching him.

Then we tried it with our partners.

One person would punch and the other would turn and place his hand on the puncher’s arm. Amazingly, the attacker did not go flying through the air.

The difference was in the touch. When Coach did the technique, he barely touched the attacker. Conversely, when we did it, most of us had the tendency to grab the punching arm and try to force our attackers to fall. We were, naturally, rather concerned about getting punched in the nose. Completely indifferent to whether or not that punch landed, Coach used absolutely no effort at all. The more force that someone applied to the technique, the more their attacker would instinctively resist the throw… even though the attacker was trying to cooperate! The resulting struggle would exhaust both partners. On the other hand, simply allowing the attacker to go where they wanted to go and just giving them a little encouragement worked wonders. They also made a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.

In most businesses, managers are not trying to throw their employees on the ground, nor are the employees trying to punch the managers in the nose. Frequently, however, they are doing the moral equivalent.

About twenty years ago, I was working for a high tech startup. The VP of Engineering called the engineering team together, with the exception of “Fred,” with whom he had worked in a previous job. He told us that he knew how good Fred was, that the rest of us would have to live up to Fred’s standard, and that when it came time to give out raises, well, he knew the quality of Fred’s work, but the rest of us would have to measure up.

As a motivational speech, it came up just a tad short. It was the verbal equivalent of grabbing the punching arm and trying to force the attacker to fall down. Instead of generating cooperation, it generated resistance and a good deal of resentment. The VP of Engineering had successfully transformed a team of highly skilled people who deeply wanted to build the product and see the company succeed, into a group of people who had to be constantly pushed to work harder. Instead of a team, he created a group of people who were competing with one another. While the VP ended up leaving after less than a year, his successor was never fully able to undo the damage he had caused. The company eventually failed.

Quite simply, no one likes to be forced to do anything, even something that they deeply want to do. The instinctive response to force is resistance, and the instinctive response to resistance is more force. Even though the manager may successfully force the employee to do what the manager wanted, neither of them enjoys the experience; both are frequently left drained and less productive.

Using force deprives the employee of autonomy. Given the freedom to work the way they want to work and given clear goals, odds are most people would work far harder than anyone else could ever force them to work. Just as in jujitsu, a little encouragement at the right time can work wonders.

So how does a manager develop this verbal jujitsu?

The first step is to start thinking of yourself as a coach, not a manager. Every Olympic team has a coach; if you want your people to perform at the equivalent level, become their coach. Work on helping team members build connections with one another and with the ideal of the company. At its peak, employees at Digital Equipment Corporation knew and trusted one another and believed in the vision of the company. When that sense of connection vanished, it wasn’t long before DEC followed it.

As you build connections, also maximize autonomy. No one likes feeling suffocated or micromanaged. The strong connections between employees need to be balanced by the feeling that within the goals of the team, each person is free to work however they see fit. Conversely, the more autonomy you give, the more you have to build affiliation to keep the team from flying apart: people work hard to not let down someone they know. They are comfortable letting down faceless others or someone with whom they perceive themselves in competition. Finding the balance is as much art as science and people can be very patient when it’s clear that you’re making the effort.

Finally, remember that a little encouragement goes a long way. People like to feel competent, so look for ways to build their sense of competence. Avoid a focus on threats or risks; instead, become the Optimist-in-Chief. That takes more than just saying, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.” It means taking the time to listen to the problems that employees are struggling with and remind them of their past successes and hard work. You don’t have to be a technical expert to be an effective sounding board.

The satisfying thump should come from obstacles hitting the ground, not the company. What can you do to coach your employees to higher performance?