What can you learn about business leadership in trapeze school?

June 29, 2014 1:46 pm

I recently received a gift certificate for a trapeze class. Yes that’s right – the kind they have in the circus! I was thrilled and anxious all at the same time. On the appointed day, I made my way to the trapeze centre; only to find the others in the class were, on average, 25 years younger and a whole lot fitter than I was! But not one to give up easily, I fronted up; signed away all rights related to potential loss of limb and life and settled in to watch the safety video.

Before I had time to worry we were on the mat practising our first ‘trick’ on the low bar and learning the set of instructions to jump, swing, reach and release.

No more than 20 minutes later I find myself climbing the really high and somewhat shaky ladder to the ‘jump’ platform.

A quick check of my safety gear and the coach hands me the surprisingly heavy trapeze ‘fly bar’. I hear the command to jump and suddenly I am swinging more than 12 meters in the air. Then hanging by my knees. Much more quickly than I imagined was possible, I am reaching up and out and then finally releasing my legs in order to grab the hands of my ‘catcher’.

The whole experience was exhilarating! Essentially I was able in a short space of time to learn and execute an entirely new set of complicated behaviours.

What is it that makes this possible? What makes it possible to learn and execute any new set of behaviours?

Based on years of working with change leaders who are responsible for ensuring employees learn and perform new behaviours quickly and effectively, I have found that there are several key factors that are crucial regardless of the situation, and one of these is trust.

The consequences of low trust in a leader/employee relationship are many.
If the leader has low trust in the employee she will micro manage at best, and resort to carrot-and-stick performance management systems that only serve to further degrade trust at worst. When employees don’t trust their leaders we typically see reductions in performance due to: avoiding any risks or creativity, limited discretionary effort, procrastination and efforts to ‘cover’ themselves.

Most people think of trust as almost a character trait and believe some people are trustworthy and others are not. Naturally we all see ourselves as trustworthy!

People also struggle to describe what causes trust, other than to say it develops over time. We tend to have less trust for people who are different from us.

But science shows us there is more to it than that, and the practical reality of work tells us that we have to figure out ways to build trust quickly even with people we don’t know well.

Lets think about it. When choosing to fly through the air 12 meters above the ground to maybe be caught by a 20 something who makes a living hanging by his legs – trust did not come naturally!

What helps build trust?

The trapeze business did a lot of things right that also apply to any business.

First, they were honest about the risks. Rather than gloss over the fine print they took the time to make sure each participant really understood the risks and the level of responsibility the organisation took for that risk. They covered the big stuff from a ‘legal’ point of view, but importantly, they covered the little stuff. ‘You are likely to be sore after this activity, you may get blisters on your hands or legs from friction on the trapeze bar’, …and even ‘you could suffer embarrassment based on your own performance!’

The honesty engendered higher trust and more willingness to participate. Why? Anyone can see there are risks when using a trapeze – pretending they don’t exist reduces credibility and trust. Employees, just like customers of the trapeze school, can handle the truth. When they know what they are dealing with they are in a position to allocate their brainpower to learning and performing, not wondering what is being hidden.

Second, there was a very high level of clarity. The desired end result was made clear. Each action was described and demonstrated. At every step I knew what was expected of me and what I could expect of others. I could focus my effort on doing my part and I knew how it fit with other people. I also knew the expected end result.

We frequently lack this level of clarity in our office-based environments. As leaders, we make a lot of assumptions that people know what is in our heads even though we have not shared that information. Leaders who clearly define what they are expecting, and by when, tend to have higher levels of trust in their employees. The research shows they also have more highly accountable teams. Similarly, when employees:
• are informed about what to expect
• know when to expect it and
• understand how their work impacts others and the bigger picture
their trust is higher and subsequently so is their performance and sense of wellbeing.

As leaders we have to remember that we have access to more information and perspective and that our employees can only access that information through our communications. Like the trapeze coach, our many years of experience helps us know what we want, but if it is not clear to our team members, with their varying levels of experience, they will not be able to do their part.

Of course, leaders can’t always define the future or reveal all of the plans of the organisation, but we can often provide more context and more clarity than we do.

Some of the best trapeze artists are not necessarily the ones who are good coaches. Coaches, like good people leaders, have to be able to break down tasks and articulate what they are doing and what they need their people to do. They also have to be patient and supportive – recognising that people have different strengths and will learn at different rates.

It was interesting to watch the trapeze coaches carefully and respectfully adjust the training and performance expectations for those who struggled versus those who excelled. I have seen the same skills in great leaders. Terrific leaders are clear about what they want but know they have to adjust their communication approach to get the best out of their people.

Asking team members to change is not that different from asking them to have a go on the trapeze. Candid discussions about risks, well defined goals and clarity about what is needed provide the predictability required for team members to trust themselves and others.

Video credit: Jim Lowe

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