Running, Organisational Change, and “the wall”

By Niel Stander

There are various effective ways of building endurance in running. My body responds best to training that is structured around my heart rate. By using my heart rate zones (zones 1 to 5), I have taught myself how different levels of exertion feel and I train accordingly. When my heart rate is too low (closer to zone 1) it feels as if I am not training and I notice no real benefit. In the event that I push myself too hard (closer to a heart rate in zone 5) for too long I run out of steam, cannot continue effectively with the training session, sometimes just want to curl up and sleep, and take really long to recover with the effects lingering for days. Because of this, I only ever push myself into the end of zone 5 for very short periods and not that often. Getting the mix between comfort and discomfort (around zone 3) just right gets me the best results and I am able to continue for really long distances and seem to improve my running times weekly. Training in Zone 3-4 still takes focus and concentration and sits on the edge of comfort that means that I am not comfortable but still not uncomfortable. The more often I spend time in this zone the longer I can spend in it at a time, and the longer it takes to reach the really uncomfortable zone 5 which means that my capacity to endure (my endurance) has increased.

At some point though, I will hit the wall. Hitting the wall while running refers to a, mostly metabolic, state where there is not enough readily available energy left in your body to power your muscles or brain. When I hit the wall, it feels like I reached an invisible barrier that saps the life out of me and my body feels (and often moves!!!) like cooked spaghetti! I know then that I have pushed too hard for too long and that I have fallen over the edge into prolonged discomfort – it is seldom possible to recover quickly form running into that wall! The fitter I get though, the longer it takes for me to hit the wall while maintaining a close-to-the-edge-of-comfort heart rate.

‘The wall’, in organisational change, seems like an invisible barrier at which teams get stuck, lose momentum, and start showing signs of the team unravelling. Although there are various causes for hitting the wall in the change context, I am interested in the role that pressure (or stress) plays in this. One client described her experience: “even a small change causes major distress amongst staff. And let me tell you, a lot changes all of the time”. When asked how her teams fared in this constant flux she said that “some function and some don’t. Some stick it out while others just disappear”. We show up differently when we are stressed (or uncomfortable) than when we are relaxed (or comfortable). So how do we get to be the best versions of ourselves while faced with the stress and pressure of change?

Dr. Andy Walshe, Director of High Performance for Red Bull, talks about “Human Optimization” and “Stress Inoculation” (read more about his amazing work here: http://andywalshe.com ). I highly recommend searching for podcasts where he talks about how they help people become top performers in whatever it is they do. At Red Bull, Andy and his team help people become used to discomfort to help them know how they would react when that inevitable ‘over the edge’ moment comes. I find a reframe , and some small adjustments, helpful to bring a similar approach into organisational change work.

The view that I currently find useful is that we can be the best version of ourselves by knowing how we are when under pressure. I do not think that people can be trained for every eventuality but I do think that we can prepare ourselves for the moment that we hit the wall and to be an effective, relational being when that happens. By creating and holding safe spaces to work with uncertainty I find that we can work on the edge of discomfort much like I ‘work’ in zone 3-4 while running. By constantly rubbing up against the edge of where we are comfortable I think that we can expand our comfort zone and inevitably displace the wall by moving it back! By developing consciousness of how we behave under stress, I have seen how people become better communicators, managers, decision makers and implementers under the same and worse conditions.

An intervention focussed at helping staff deal with pressure helped a medical team setting up a new clinic to roll out new policies with minimal fallout. Three months earlier the same team ‘hit the wall’ and imploded when rolling out fewer changes. Before the intervention the staff felt that they “were trapped in mud” and “never ever wanted to roll out something new again”. After the intervention Ahmed thinks the reason that the team functioned better the second time was “because we were not as worried and therefore less volatile” while Sheila thought that “the stress just did not keep us awake anymore. We slept, charged and came back for more the next day”. When asked when they started feeling different Andy said that he changed how he acted when stressed after he “became aware of what I normally did when about to crash. By learning the ‘tells’, and using some self-reflective tools, I was able to stay in the situation long enough to push through it”.

While not everyone is a runner, I do think that we all experience massive stress at some stage of our career and believe that we can prepare for when that happens by exploring the edge of our comfort.

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If you would like to talk more about the methods to expand your zones of comfort, or need some assistance becoming the best version of yourself under pressure, do get in touch at niel.stander@sensibusconsulting.com

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