The one where I am truly humbled

I am by nature fairly difficult to impress. I don’t know why but my default reaction to most things is “that’s great but…”. I don’t know where this came from.

This afternoon I witnessed something humbling. I witnessed several thousand people running the London Marathon and although I have watched it many times  on TV and even in person once before it wasn’t until today that I was truly in awe of the achievement of the people running past me.

Just a few of the 40,000 runners

There was nothing to characterise those running – they were male & female (and if you took the costumes at face value several animals), every age, every hairstyle, every brand of headphones and some rather fascinating tattoos but in their pursuit you had no idea of their occupation, net worth, property value, car brand etc etc

The diversity of the charities was also incredible. Obviously the big hitters were out in force but some were clearly very personal whilst others were far more timely (a Japanese team out in force)

From a psychological perspective, the thing that struck me was their resilience. They were attempting this literally marathon task and with the exception of power drinks, iPods and the support of an enthusiastic crowd they weren’t stopping (I didn’t see Paula Radcliffe though). One definition of this phenomenon is:

“Resilience” the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected (much like an inoculation gives one the capacity to cope well with future exposure to disease) (Masten 2009).

If anything I have seen typifies this then it was those I witnessed punishing themselves today.

The second thing I noted was that with the exception of the elite runners (who were done before I got there), there was no sense of win/lose, no sense of competition – everyone was there to support, help, cheer or at worst avoid crashing into, someone else. The crowd were not hoping one went faster than any other, no one cared how much these people were paid and there was definitely no chorus of “you’re not singing any more”.

The third thing that struck me was the celebration. At the end every runner who completed the course was given a medal and bag of stuff (chocolate, t-shirt etc) and the look  of pride on the faces walking past me said how they felt about wearing that medal. I think organizations are incredibley poor at celebrating success, they may do it privately, behind closed doors and then there is always a hint of embarrassment and a collective look of either a) we should have done more/better or b) this celebration is not allowed we should be working. The look on those faces should tell CEOs everywhere why celebrating success is an excellent use of time.

Finally, and this kind of links to the lack of celebration, organizations love to take any completion and immediately turn it into a case study, hold a “lessons learned” meeting or a review on “what should we do better next time” robbing anyone involved of that little moment of validation that says “i’m good at this”. Don’t get me wrong I am all for achieving goals but maybe, especially in current financial conditions, organizational leaders need to give their teams a chance to understand what they’ve done well and take a well earned pat on the back for it.

Amongst the biggest advocates of goal setting theory are Gary Latham and Edwin Locke and they make it very clear in numerous publications (a few are referenced below) that without clear feedback attempts at goal setting will be far less effective so what follows is my feedback :

To the c40,000 people who ran today I hope you achieved what you set out to, have an experience you’ll never forget and full truly proud of yourself this evening

To Virgin and all the others sponspors, well done for continuing to support this event. I hope it doesn’t become a budget cut and that you achieved what you needed from it

To all those involved in organising it including TFL staff, the Police and the volunteers who held ropes and lifted bales – well done!

And finally to my friend Mel Buckenham, despite my crass humour at the finish I feel humbled by what you’ve achieved and hope you too feel incredibly proud of what you achieved and the money you raised.

That’s great….no but!

My friend Mel with her medal

Latham, G.P., Locke, E.A. (2002) “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation – a 35 Year Odyssey” American Psychologist, Vol. 57 No. 9

Latham, G.P., Locke, E.A. (2009), “Science and Ethics: What Should Count as Evidence Againat the Use of Goal Sharing?”, Academy of Management, August

Latham, G.P., Locke, E.A.(1990) “Work Motivation and Satisfaction: Light at the End of the Tunnel”, Psychological Science, Vol. 1 No.4

Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary Magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3): 28-32.


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