My Yoga teacher has to remind me to breathe. I chuckle because breathing is pretty fundamental; how the heck do I keep forgetting to do something that has become an instinct? When I am contorted in a pose, trying to remember all of the “corrections” so that my body doesn’t recoil or get hurt, I obviously lose sight of the basics. It’s all too much to remember.
I am new to Yoga. The teacher assures me that, as I practice, I will build “muscle memory,” and my body will begin to remember more and more of the basics, so that I can move on to more complicated poses.
He is right. Even as I sit here writing this article, my back is straighter, my shoulders are more aligned and I am attuned to how I am holding my head. I find myself instinctively correcting my posture when standing around, and that little crick in my back subsides.
Could Yoga be a compelling metaphor for organizations? I am fascinated by the possibility.
We are far too busy these days. Leaders and employees in organizations are just keeping up with the influx of information, the barrage of email, the lengthy and often purpose-less meetings, and myriad other demands on our time. We haven’t taken the time to build the “muscle memory” that allows us to act on common instinct.
Because the world is churning even faster, we keep taking on new roles, new strategies, new tactics just to keep up. We ask our already overburdened leaders to be super-human, leading operations and financial progress while spending quality time with employees to develop talent and improve performance.
We are asking organizational leaders to perform advanced poses, but are we helping them remember to breathe? Are we even establishing, demonstrating, observing and reminding them of the basics? We don’t spend the necessary time to build that muscle memory for even the most basic of concepts, like communication and connection with employees.
Sometimes even, we lose sight of simple things like courtesy, caring and kindness, because we are so contorted in trying to accomplish advanced tasks and actions we are not ready for because we haven’t built that muscle memory. Perhaps there are some lessons in this metaphor; perhaps they are the same lessons my Yoga teacher is sharing.
Start with the basics
I looked up Yoga poses on the internet before I started and thought, “Ain’t gonna happen.” And had I tried one of those cool looking poses, I probably would have hurt myself. I didn’t know the basics. After several sessions, I am getting closer; my hands touch the floor when I do “forward fold”, and I can “plank” for a few minutes.
What are those metaphoric basics in organizations?
Before you can execute on a compelling service promise, you have to have mastered basic courtesy, even in the face of angry customers. When common courtesy is put to the test as it often is, leaders have to have the skill to observe and correct; to remind employees to “breathe.” It sounds so simple, it almost sounds silly. But sometimes we all need a simple reminder. Waiting until the annual performance review is sillier.
Remember the purpose
Yoga makes a connection between the mind and the body. The poses force the mind to reflect on what the body is doing in a way that we rarely consider; we unlearn unhealthy habits in favor of those that are better for the parts of our body. It is this link that builds muscle memory and we have to make a conscious decision to practice poses in order to grow stronger.
In the busy world of organizations, that purpose is similarly critical. The organization has a business strategy, an operational plan and core values. That is the mind of the organization. The body, however, operates on habit and instinct unless the connection is made between individual behaviors and the organizational purpose on a regular and consistent basis.
It takes constant observation and correction
My Yoga teacher corrects in “sotto voce” – in a soft voice. All he has to say is “Carol – shoulders” and I correct. I don’t feel nearly as productive practicing alone as I do in class; I welcome the correction because I have too much going on right now in my mind to do the pose perfectly. And the reality is, I probably will always need that gentle reminder because I am not perfect, nor will I be.
Leaders today are often uncomfortable correcting, and most don’t have time to observe. Correcting somehow seems analogous to chastising, but it shouldn’t. We all need a little help remembering all of the things we need to do well to perform our job successfully.
Every single behavior of an employee can make a difference in engaging or turning off a customer. As a client of mine said, “The employees may think that if only one glass out of a hundred is dirty, that is good performance. But if the prospect I am showing around the facility sees that one dirty glass, we may lose that sale.” Perhaps a little “correction” might have highlighted that one dirty glass?
Observing and correcting can and should be positive. Too often, we think of being corrected as a repudiation, telling us we are wrong. It need not be a negative if the organization has a vision of success, and has a culture of helping others build that muscle memory in terms of making sure that the basics are consistently displayed. Turn it around so that correction is seen as helping to remember the basics.
Stretch, but know your limits
After a particularly challenging pose yesterday, a student said his quads were “screaming.” The teacher asked, “Are they screaming, or are they whining?” In reality, they were whining. To the teacher that meant the student wasn’t in danger, but might just be a bit sore in the morning. He encouraged the student to keep stretching.
We all tend toward hyperbole, particularly when faced with discomfort. But it is important to understand if the pushback has implications of danger or merely discomfort. This is the job of leaders – to stretch the performance of their employees, but at the same time, to know if they are being stretched beyond their capabilities.
It might be that the employee can’t accomplish the task because she doesn’t know how. It could also be because she has developed a habitual way of doing things, and just doesn’t want to change. The leaders’ observation and correction are critical to whether to push, or to stop and make sure that the basics are in place.
We end each session in back resting pose. The teacher guides us through the connection between our mind and our body, telling us to relax each part of our bodies and reflect on our breathing.
Organizations need time to reflect as well. Reflecting can be taking time to review what went well and what didn’t go well in a project or process. Reflecting brings covert habits out into the open, so that they can be considered, either corrected or enhanced, and the correct execution can become part of the organization’s muscle memory.
This is hard to do. We are too busy and too overwhelmed, and taking time to reflect seems, at least on the surface, to waste valuable time.
But taking the time to reflect offers a sense of rejuvenation, a confirmation of what is important, and an interactive dialogue about observations and corrections that can build muscle memory. Without it, we continue with every individual’s habitual actions and responses which may, or may not, accomplish the purpose, and may even be harmful.
How can we all be yoga teachers?
We can start by making “helping” an organizational value. We can create a culture where individuals welcome feedback because they trust that the feedback is intended to help them remember, when sometimes they are too busy to get it all right. And by remembering the “purpose” – the reason we are in the organization in the first place – we take the focus off of us, and put it on the customer, where it belongs.
This seems too simple to be really helpful, but perhaps a bit of reflection may illuminate the reality of our world today – that we are far too busy to be successful without some helpful correction from time to time.