Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Tarzan Swing

Tarzan, a heroic adventurer who is loyal and generous, is a fictional character raised by wild apes. He may be best know for his ability to use branches and hanging vines to swing at great speed through the jungle as he seeks to solve a life threatening problem for some one or some animal. Be it in comic books, movies, video or computer games, Tarzan supposedly represents the best of noble leadership, especially as someone devoted to helping those less fortunate. But in the work place today, we may not see many Tarzans but we sure do see a lot of Tarzan swings.

As I continually remind clients and students of mine, there is a point in the journey of strategic change that I like to call “The Trough of Chaos.” While more recently it has felt like the Grand Canyon of Chaos, there is a time and a place in change when motivation drops, resistance surfaces and people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is happening. As they slowly move through their shock, grief and anger, employees arrive at a place where they are not as afraid as before but also where they are not completely hopeful, committed and focused. In this fragile situation, people tend to do what I call the Tarzan Swing. At one point, they are caught in the moment of OMG or WTF and within minutes they can pendulum swing to the place of “ It’s too late to panic, so what do we do? Let’s work together and get this over with.” This swinging back and forth from shock, dissatisfaction and resistance to the desire to explore new ideas, resolve problems and collaborate well with others is normal.

The hardest part is that this emotional swinging back and forth can drive some leaders bonkers. While they are wanting their employees to continue forward progress, many leaders do not understand that most employees can only take so much change and process so much change before they are overwhelmed, or as I some times like to say “their circuits are overwhelmed.” As someone from the power industry once reminded me, you can not push 220 volts through a 120 volt system without something getting burned up.

For some leaders, the solution to this problem is to get angry and stomp around like they are having a temper tantrum. Other leaders think doing the work themselves will solve the problem and they often burn-out or become very cynical over time. And finally some leaders just want to start whistling the theme song from the 1960’s cartoon show, “George of the Jungle,” a parody of the popular Tarzan story where George is depicted swinging on vines and repeatedly slamming face-first into trees and other objects even as the theme-song warns him to “watch out for that tree!”

The key to solving this normal but at times difficult, employee Tarzan Swing is to become better at three specific leadership actions. First, remember the words of Marcus Buckingham in his book The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, Free Press, 2005: “To excel as a leader .... You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you.” The key is to be able to provide a clear sense of strategic direction in combination with a definitive reason why changing is less dangerous than staying the same.

The second key to dealing with the Tarzan Swing is to improve your ability to coach. In the beginning, spend more time discerning whether those who are swinging need help shifting their perspective, i.e. they just don’t have enough understanding about what is going on, and thus need to comprehend the bigger picture or larger context, or whether or not they are swinging because they don’t have the skill set, i.e. the capacity to plan and to execute a plan. From my experience, having superb coaching skills is mission critical when people are doing the Tarzan Swing.

Finally, the third step is to build and maintain exceptional teams. People in the Trough of Chaos swing less when they have the trust, the support and the confidence of a highly functioning team.

Remember: no matter where you are in the journey of strategic change, you may encounter short or long periods where people are pendulum swinging between shock and clarity. In these situations, do not freak out. Just stay calm, continue to explain the strategic direction, continue to coach well, and continue to build and maintain your teams. If you start to do some Tarzan swinging yourself, give me a call and we can line up a couple of executive coaching sessions to help you regain a sense of balance and perspective.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates # 319 - 643 - 2257

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