What tennis can teach you about change management

Written by
Andrew Mawson, founder & MD, Advanced Workplace Associates

29 Jun 2020

29 Jun 2020 • by Andrew Mawson, founder & MD, Advanced Workplace Associates

Coaching, practice, encouragement and time are key to new habit formation and key to creating real change, writes Andrew Mawson, founder and MD, Advanced Workplace Associates.

Roger Federer is considered by most tennis fans and experts to be the greatest ever men’s player. The Swiss legend has won more Grand Slams than any other competitor in history, including six Wimbledon titles over 14 years. Among Federer’s impressive arsenal is his supreme serve, one of the most underrated components of his game. It isn’t the quickest. Federer’s fastest recorded serve of 143 mph is 14 mph slower than the world record, held by American John Isner. But 6’10 Isner is also nine inches taller than Federer. Rather than height, Federer relies on incredible technique, deadly accuracy, and the ability to raise his performance when the pressure is on. His 50 aces against Andy Roddick, another player famed for his powerful serve, in the 2009 Wimbledon final remains a Grand Slam record. 

But what does this have to do with change management? Federer sacrifices speed for precision. His serve has a mechanical quality. Each time he swings the racquet, the movement is almost identical, from the jump, the swing, to the spin he puts on the ball. However, if you were to ask Federer to change his technique – perhaps switch hands or even reduce the amount of spin – his serve would be far less effective. 

Rewiring neural pathways 

This owes to the fact that Federer practised and refined his serve over many years until it became second nature. The neural pathways in his brain that govern the serve are so ingrained that it has become a subconscious action for him. Asking him to change his technique suddenly will feel like the most unnatural thing in the world. Perfecting the new technique would take coaching, practice, encouragement and time. The neural pathways have to rewire before the new serve becomes habit. 

This neurological process applies to all other forms of change. Business leaders who are currently wrestling with how to transition their teams to a home working model in a COVID-19 world would do well to think about the impact of this particular change in similar terms to this tennis analogy. Organisations that fail to consider what their employees need, such as coaching, practice, encouragement and time (see above), risk damaging their productivity, output and general wellbeing, as well as compromising the entire change programme. 

Why are habits so hard to kick?

There are 86 billion neurons in an individual brain. The organ that allows us to think is also a learning machine programmed to keep us safe. It is an intricate biological computer. When a person does stuff like play tennis or go to work, patterns and habits become deeply rooted. If someone has worked for an organisation for 10 years, they have spent 10 million minutes immersed in that culture, developing a specific set of behaviours and reinforcing those norms.

This explains why people get stuck in a groove and why habits are so hard to kick. When this is translated to whole organisations, it is easy to see why large-scale change might be tough and in need of a carefully choreographed approach. 

Engage people on an emotional level 

Workplace transformation teams need to learn six things before they can hope to encourage and engender behavioural change: why, where, when, what, how and who. This not only about applying a rational understanding of the case for change but also engaging with the people affected on an emotional level. It’s tough for individuals to make value judgements about change until they know the truth behind it. Only then do they have a chance of becoming emotionally supportive.

The case for changing Federer’s serve is straightforward. Perhaps an opponent has an excellent return on their backhand side – and that opponent is the only thing standing in the way of being world number one. For teams at work, however, the challenge is a little more nuanced.

Everyone will have different circumstances, expectations and objectives. The goal of a good change management advocate is to understand those differences while bringing people together on a journey in which they can ingrain the new skills and habits in the changed environment.