Essay

Pugil Sticks and Candid Conversations

One of the cool parts of running a basic combat training outfit is watching young trainees experience things for the first time. For many, Basic was full of firsts: first time away from home, first time someone really yelled at them, first time without a cell phone for more than a few hours (this was usually the most traumatic thing for them)… the list is really long.

One first that many trainees experience is actually hitting another person. Hard. And the psychological impact of hitting someone hard has an interesting effect on people. The other first for many is being the recipient of that blow. This also has a psychological effect in addition to the obvious physical impact.

When I first saw trainees don football helmets, chest pads, and hockey gloves and pick up pugil sticks (they resemble a giant Q-tip) I wondered why in the world we were still doing this. This didn’t seem like a particularly useful skill on the modern battlefield. But, it turns out, there is a point to this exercise.

It’s interesting how people take to it. Most folks are really hesitant at first, not wanting to make the first move. It often takes a lot of yelling from the instructors to get them going.

When most people hit someone for the first time a few things go through their mind. First, “OMG I just hit someone. This just got serious.” The response to that thought typically goes one of two ways. A fairly common second response is, “I think I should do that again before they hit me back.”

But the other response I saw time and again was that many people stopped and apologized.  Now I think it’s nice that we have raised people to generally be polite, but there comes a time when you have to get past niceties. Combat training is one of those times.

Either way, most people became very emotional once contact was made. Some got scared, frightened about what they just did. Others were scared about the retaliation. And some got angry. They felt that if they started it, they had to finish it.

The people who tended to emerge victorious from the pugil bouts were those that kept their heads and didn’t let their emotions dictate how they acted. This composure normally only came after a bit of practice and coaching.

I sense that there are similarities to the emotional responses to pugil hits and the interaction we sometimes have at work. We shy away from verbally hitting others, we try to avoid being hit ourselves, and when first contact is made we have a fight or flight response that doesn’t make sense in a business setting.

Because of this, we too often have benign meetings that don’t have any conflict. These are probably not the most productive meetings. Polite meetings, where everyone nods along with the narrator, are generally useless, leaving unresolved issues floating out there and eating up valuable leader time having secondary meetings to resolve the issues.

Other times there is too much emotional conflict. Someone critiques someone else and it’s “game on” like a couple of 18-year-old privates swinging at each other out of emotion instead of cool reasoning.

The same thing happens when supervisors have to deal with an underperforming employee. When we have to be critical of others, many leaders simply shy away, avoiding the confrontation. Of course this leaves them with unresolved issues and an uncorrected employee who isn’t going to improve. So tension builds up, and makes things worse. When it gets to the point where they can’t stand it any longer, the supervisor tends to hit harder than they probably wanted to, and the employee either leaves or stays and works out of fear. Neither is an optimal result.

Like the pugilist, those leaders with a calm head and control of their emotions during tense moments tend to emerge victorious. And, just like the privates learning to confront their fears with composure, leaders benefit from practice and experience. The more you practice both giving and receiving candid criticism, the better you will respond when conflict arises.

Of course this kind of interaction requires a culture of giving and accepting honest feedback. Fostering this culture and hiring people who share these values will go a long ways in cultivating a place where healthy conflict thrives.

So, leaders, don your helmets and pick up your pugil sticks for some practice rounds so when it really matters you can be the victorious one with a cool head.