Some of the comments I’ve heard from rowing coaches over the years: “Trying isn’t doing”… “rowing is a simple sport” … “why can’t you just do what I’m asking you to do?”. These comments came back to me recently when listening to a podcast interview with former US President Barack Obama’s senior strategist.
When advisers would present simple solutions to the policy challenges of the day, Obama would reply that ‘if it was easy, it wouldn’t be in this room.’ That is to say, multiple people have tried to solve these issues but if it ends up being on the desk of the President, chances are that all solutions so far haven’t worked.
I took a similar view of coaches who told me that rowing was simple and therefore it must be my disinterest that prevented me from making the technical or physical improvements they wanted. If it was easy to row perfectly, I’d already be rowing perfectly. Don’t simplify complex challenges.
Does a similar mindset exist in managing teams in the workplace? Just because you’ve never struggled with a particular issue, don’t assume that everyone in your group will find it easy. Mastering the intricacies of corporate law, or accountancy, or professional services, is not straightforward and shouldn’t be simplified. Experience can help, but accepting that what you are trying to do is difficult, is a positive first step to take.
Back to rowing. In some ways, it is an extremely simple exercise. The rowing motion is one repeated movement, and the tactics to win races are quite obvious: get in front and stay there.
But rowing an unstable boat which is narrower than your hips, on water, in exact time with multiple crew-mates, working your body hard physically when you’re already fatigued, is difficult; and the rowing motion itself is a full-body movement involving every muscle in your body doing something precise. That’s before you consider the pressure associated with competing internationally.
It’s an immersive experience for legs, lungs, mind and emotions.
Rowers are not trying to master astrophysics or learn double-entry book-keeping; but fundamentally it’s not a simple thing to do. And for an athlete, it can be galling for a coach to imply you’re not trying hard enough.
In the workplace, it can be equally galling for a manager or partner with decades of experience to imply a younger member of staff can’t do something. Chances are, a bright graduate from a top university will be trying their hardest, but if it’s a complex problem, they might not be able to work through it immediately. If a coach or manager gives you licence to find it difficult, that can be a huge pressure-valve that then allows all members of the team to feel less daunted by what’s ahead. ‘It’s tough, but we have the tools to do it’ can be a far more positive team attitude than ‘this isn’t rocket science and we need to get this completed.’
If it was simple, it wouldn’t be on your desk. Take time to work through complexities with your team and accept sometimes there isn’t an easy or straightforward solution.