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managing

I’m a student of Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi arts, and was surprised at one point when it gave me an unexpected lesson in management after my instructor at the time returned from a long holiday. The instructor replacing him – who is equally proficient – had been working on a key exercise known as the tor yu, in which we move backward and forward, with hands extending and retracting, while the spine gently swivels. She had been coaxing us to abide by an evocative and mysterious phrase, handed down from the organization’s founder: “The hands lead the hips, and the hips push the hands.”

Our regular instructor was distressed, however, at what he saw, telling us that we were lunging. We were now to concentrate instead on pushing from the feet to gain our momentum. The midsection is carried along for the ride. And we were to push up from the feet at both ends of the move – it’s an up-and-down motion as well as backward and forward.

Tai chi is as confusing – and as difficult to get right – as management. A tantalizing riddle. Unlike management, however, we practise tai chi.

Unlike the workplace, in Taoist tai chi we get to see the proper move. Explanations are followed by a demonstration, to help understanding. And if we are struggling, we are gently given tips to improve. It is considered good – perhaps in some cases an honour – to receive feedback personally. It’s called a “correction,” and unlike the workplace we relish them. The instructor cares enough to help. For some people, a class without a correction is a disappointment, not a sign of perfection. Imagine.

After fifteen or twenty minutes practising a move, we can start to look reasonably good. But then when we try to incorporate what we learned in the 108-sequence Taoist tai chi set, it often falls to pieces.

It’s an eternal quest. That too is like management. Managers lunge when they should move more gracefully. They struggle to handle so many activities and factors in a day that they also have trouble getting everything synchronized right. Sometimes, as with tai chi, a manager will realize he or she has just flubbed a move but the day’s activities continue relentlessly, and you can only hope to do better on the next step.

Managers rarely have instructors, although they do have mentors, coaches and management books for advice. Managers rarely practise, except when sent for the occasional burst of training. But there are things they could be practising, methodically, in a version of the three-by-three method. If you’re not assertive enough, why not watch a few times somebody else who is assertive? Then practise, in your next three encounters, applying what you saw. Do it again and again, until it starts to feel natural, and then move on to another area you can bolster.

How about requesting a “correction?” Ask somebody you value to help you by offering suggestions for improvement. That takes courage, for both parties. But if you can convey that you truly value their input, perhaps you can get an honest, helpful answer. Or ask how they accomplish a management move, admitting your own weakness. Perhaps you can even inspire others around you to try the same approach, welcoming rather than cringing at feedback, changing the workplace pattern.

If the advice conflicts with somebody else’s counsel – as regularly happens in tai chi – try it anyways, as we learn to do, and you may find that in time the dissimilar notions will surprisingly meld together. In the heat of battle – the sequence of office “moves” – you’ll still make mistakes. Practise does not make perfect. But it does move you ahead, slowly.

Cannonballs

  • What management lessons can you adapt from your favourite hobby, fitness activity, or volunteer group to the workplace?
  • study of companies competing against each other in a corporate acquisition found that the winners and losers in the bidding war did not differ significantly in terms of stock price performance prior to the deals, but the losers’ stock returns were 24 per cent better than the winners during the three years afterward.
  • Be wary that you don’t tell “you are doing great!” when you mean they are doing the exact job they’re paid to do, says HR blogger Tim Sackett.