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Business Lessons from Body Building

I’m a big believer in being seen as a ‘whole person’. Much as life makes more sense when we give people different labels that define various roles and relationships, at the end of the day, we are the sum of those parts. We are the sum of those different roles.

So, not only am I an HR practitioner, friend, yogi, son, consultant, musician, workplace mediator, brother and school governor to read off a few of my labels…I would also describe myself as an aspiring body builder. OK, so I’m not giving Arnie a run for his money any time soon, but everyone has to start somewhere, right? And the great thing about seeing yourself as a whole person is that…

you can appreciate the learning you get from one aspect of your life and apply it in another.

Here’s what I’ve learned about HR from my recent forays into the strange new world of body building.

Ignore the Bro-Science

Bro-science is best described as the totally unscientific gospel you hear guys in the gym that is worryingly handed from friend to friend (or rather, “bro to bro”) and perhaps more worryingly from personal trainer to client. You know, things like “you can turn fat into muscle” or that you can reduce fat in a certain body area by doing exercises to target it (neither have any basis in science).

These false premises are sometimes based on naively swallowing more than just a protein shake. Other times, it’s when people have misapplied a genuine scientific concept, resulting in an assumption or assertion that has no basis in reality. It can be a very real scientific phenomenon that has been magnified out of all proportion. Other times, it’s a mantra that has been developed by a supplement companies who claim that their product works based on scientific studies. What they fail to shout so loudly about is that the studies they are referring too, even if they are supported by peer reviewed clinical trials, are conducted on mice. Mice with underlying medical conditions. Taking huge amounts of the stuff. You cannot reasonably claim that the compound will have the same medical benefits for a 30 year old healthy male. Raspberry ketones anyone?!

As a smart body builder, you have to become adept very quickly at spotting bro-science by going to reputable sources, educating yourself by looking at the real science and asking challenging questions (in your head, if not out loud). Otherwise you end up very poor and very disheartened very quickly.

How does this learning help me as an HR practitioner? Well, it reminds me that

my technical knowledge is best when it has come from reputable sources.

It has taught me that I need to question carefully advice and truths that I am told to really evaluate the effectiveness of a proposed course of action. It reminds me too that there are all kinds of bro-science in HR too that you need to be prepared to debunk in a scientific way – things like “you can’t dismiss someone on sick leave” or “you have to advertise all vacancies internally” or (as I recently heard from one consultancy client) “we can’t treat this disabled employee differently because that’s discrimination” when I suggested that they put in place reasonable adjustments to support and safe guard a vulnerable employee.

By the way, I absolutely love Bro Science Life by (comedian) Dom Mazzetti who spoofs the many fitness a gurus on YouTube who offer advice on youtube and peddles the most common Bro Science out there. Hilarious …but not particularly recommended for viewing at work.

A lot of people have no clue what they are doing

In the gym. In the workplace. In life.

I used to be so scared of going in the free weights section of my gym. I felt intimidated by the big boys. The grunters. Throwing the weights around. I felt much more at home on the treadmill. With the help of a friend, I faced my fear and managed to focus enough on what I was doing that I stopped caring at what other people were doing. I stopped caring about other people looking at me. I decided that “my thing” would be doing everything with good form, even if I couldn’t lift the heaviest or my muscles weren’t the largest.

And, as I educated myself on the various lifts and learnt best practice when it came to form, I started to realise that the vast majority of gym goers have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They weren’t the newbies either. Sure, they looked really impressive, so they must be experts, right? Oh, no. You see people doing crazy exercises that won’t develop their their bodies in any way. You see inefficient lifters – doing a lot with little pay back. You see injuries waiting to happen when form is terrible. Yet all of this is delivered with such confidence and gusto. And the less confident? Well they do things because they kind of think it will work or maybe they read something in a magazine or someone mentioned this exercise once….or hell, just because everyone else is doing it.

Just like the gym, if you take an analytical view point, you realise quickly that there are a lot of people wondering around that pretty much have no clue about anything.

They act like they do. But they don’t. This learning has taught me to take pride in my craft, in best practice and the technically-strong executive of my profession. It has made me wary and discerning in my interactions with people who ‘talk the talk’ but don’t necessarily ‘walk the walk’. There is a reason good technique exists for body building – it is efficient, it gets the best results, it minimises risks of damage. The moment you disengage your brain and follow others blindly, you’re opening yourself wide open to all kinds of risks.

The same is true of proper technique when it comes to HR….or indeed, any other profession. This learning also taught me to lower the volume of my inner self-doubt.

Self-doubt is healthy but if your skills and experience are solid as a practitioner, you have every right to be raise the volume of your voice in the face of those who have very little clue in the workplace.

(Not literally, obviously – that would be rude)

Don’t get me wrong – you should always seek out the advice of seasoned professionals…but employ a healthy dose of critical thinking no matter where the advice comes from.

You don’t achieve much without discipline, rigour and consistency

One of the most frustrating things about my body is that to get results, my training and nutrition absolutely have to be on point. I have to train consistently, going to the gym regularly with a well-constructed weight-lifting programme. My diet with its daily calorie target and macro-nutrient breakdown must be followed (yes kids, I’m that sad). The slightest deviation and I get mediocre muscle gains or poor fat loss. Frankly, I majorly suck at this as my colleagues will attest (for example, I don’t think Haribo Tangfastics in my desk drawer quite fit the definition of ‘high protein’, sadly.) Eating right but training poorly will get me nowhere. The best training programme in the world will not build muscle if I’m not eating enough and eating right. But when I do get all these things in alignment, great things happen.

The parallel should be clear here – with HR (and many other things in business);

Doing a little of the right things, some of the time will get you limited results. Do the right things that work together, all the time and be sure that what you do in one area is not hampering the progress of other plans if you really want to succeed.

Change happens when it’s difficult

It seems counter intuitive to want to fail but much of my training is about lifting until my muscles fail. The science behind this is that overload causes muscles to grow – if you’re not demanding more of your body that its current capability, you have no stimulus to change. It’s an uncomfortable feeling physically and psychologically. No one likes to do things until they fail….but if you want to grow your muscles you have to adopt this mindset of pushing yourself physically. That’s where the change happens.

It’s a worthwhile reminder that a) change can be difficult and challenging but that b) if it feels like that, progress could be being made.

It is true in business, just as it is in body building that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

Someone once said to me that if something feels painful or difficult, the likelihood is that you’re learning or growing or developing in some way. This is a more encouraging mantra than “no pain, no gain” or indeed me suggesting that everyone should go around trying to fail at things. That would be silly.

Measuring and tracking is a powerful tool

It’s become rather cool to criticise metrics in business – particularly in creative environments; “so much of what we do, you can’t measure”. You even get leaders start to talk about things like “magic”. Magic?! Really?! At least with “special sauce” it’s something tangible! Recording and measuring anything is seen as some kind of overly corporate draconian practice. Gut instinct and whim seem to be the favoured tools of the day rather than basing decisions on things like, you know, sound logic, evidence or data. It’s just not cool any more. Apparently you’re not a leader if you use such tools – you’re just a manager. Know what else isn’t cool right now? “Management”.

Give me a break.

I for one, am not ready to depart from the truth of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. When it comes to body building, I have to rely on measuring my progress. If I don’t record the data, how will I know if my I’m stronger if I don’t know how much I was lifting a month ago? How will I know if I really am leaner if I don’t know what my body fat percentage used to be? How will I know if my muscles are bigger if I abandon my tape measure?

Anyone who does any kind of body transformation will tell you that how you look in the mirror (and boy do I love looking in the mirror) can be deceptive. Supplements you take, the time of day, what you had to eat yesterday can all change the way you look because they affect things like water retention. Would anyone suggest that I should change my entire training or nutrition regime based on how I felt about what I saw in the mirror on a single day? Hell, no.

When I first began consulting I asked a client what they did to manage employee absence and the person doing their HR told me, “Oh that’s not a problem here”. I asked, “Do you track absence?” and I was told, “Well, no because we think that generally we’re quite good at that”. “So, if you don’t monitor absence, how do you know it’s not a problem?” I queried. “Well, if we thought it was a problem with an individual, we’d have a chat with them”. Still confused, I asked, “But if you don’t have the information, what basis do you have for that conversation beyond your intuition? How do you know that there is a problem with that person and not others?”.

That conversation didn’t go anywhere sadly so I helped them run a data analysis of absence for the year. It cost this small business over £250k….but they didn’t think it was a problem.

Measurement and tracking in business are an important information channel for monitoring change, along with what your eyes and ears tell you.

Learn + Do & Do + Learn = Results

I didn’t know anything about weight lifting before I began. I learn as I go along, but I also did (and do) my homework. Weight lifting was something that I was not at all comfortable about before. Now, I love it. I guess I could have stuck to yoga or cardio – the areas where I felt safe. I would have learned nothing and I wouldn’t have achieved much either.

The take home?

If you want to do something new – you simply have to do your homework and give it a go. And continue to do your homework. And continue to give it a go. Really, you can achieve anything if you adopt the right approach.

It’s better with a buddy

I’m very fortune that I train with a couple of gym buddies. They keep me going when I feel like calling it a day at the gym. They spot me on some of the more dangerous lifts. They check my form when I lift and even take the odd photo or video to illustrate. Having them around adds a healthy sense of competition. They encourage me to try new exercises and support me emotionally with either motivating praise or, when I need it, some tough love.

In business, we need people like that too. We need people to partner us in our thinking. We benefit from doing things together. It always helps to check out thinking with someone else for a second opinion or to get feedback. This can come from colleagues or your manager or a mentor outside the business. The important thing is that they can’t do the work for you but your performance is all the better for having them around.

Now, I’m not saying you should all become body builders but I wonder what learning you could take from other aspects of your life and apply in your work.

It’s good to be a whole person.

About Xander Hough (2 Articles)
Xander Hough is an HR business partner and freelance consultant on a mission to change how people think about the HR profession, banishing negative stereotypes - sometimes by being sensible and insightful and sometimes by being provocative, flippant, cheeky and down-right naughty.

1 Comment on Business Lessons from Body Building

  1. Wow, great blog.Really looking forward to read more.

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