ORG Blog

Giving Muscle Memory a One-Two Punch


“I’m going to a training session to learn how to collaborate,” one of our clients told his wife recently as he headed out for a work.

“What?!” she responded. “People in business today have to be taught how to work together? Seems simple enough to me.”And while Sam’s wife was right about collaboration seeming simple, it is, in fact, harder to practice than preach — especially when the organization striving to have people work together has a history of adversarial labor-management relationships.

We call it “muscle memory” — that practice of reacting out of habit, of responding with familiar behaviors — often the same ones that have historically won praise and promotion. Never mind that those tried and true responses may be different from those required in a collaborative environment. Just as a doctor’s expertly placed tap below the knee cap will send the lower leg reflexing without a deliberate thought from the patient, so too will organizational cues “push the buttons” of even well-intended leaders. Often this muscle memory on the part of one leader can launch a spiral of escalation that derails early attempts at working together.

Without a deep level of understanding and skill, the best-intentioned efforts at collaboration can be overcome by old muscle memory. It goes something like this:

A group of leaders come together and agree they will work collaboratively. It makes sense and it seems simple. They talk through it, get excited about the possibilities and share their enthusiasm with very public pronouncements to their members and employees. They talk about trust; tout the new way of doing business; even show up as labor-management leaders in previously unexpected ways and places. Momentum builds; skepticism diminishes; expectations soar.

Then something “breaks.” It’s hard to know where it will happen, or when, but it will. When muscle-memory kicks in, the escalation volley begins. Pull up a chair and sit a spell — this is just the bout the skeptics have been eagerly anticipating.

Now comes the: “See? I told you so! You can’t trust management."

Or, “It was just a matter of time. Labor can’t change its stripes."

It’s easy to pile on, and even the thoughtful, well-intentioned initiators of the collaborative effort get swept in: “I guess I can’t trust them.”

Or from labor’s perspective: “How could they do this to me? I was out there on a limb with my members, and they sawed it off.”

And then the unfortunate lob comes back, often in the form of retaliation. “Let’s see how they like this stack of grievances!” Or, “Wait’ll labor sees what it looks like when we really enforce the rules!” And the ever-popular labor or management response:  “I’ll show them we haven’t forgotten how to be adversarial!”

And so it goes. Muscle-memory wins the organizational tug of war and the parties’ efforts to collaborate have been derailed by the very forces they set out to change.

The cycle, while predictable, isn’t inevitable.

Overcoming it requires leaders at all levels to recognize that muscle memory is both the spark that ignites the escalation spiral and the fuel that fans the flame. Recognition is a critical first step in interrupting the cycle. The harder work of replacing reflexive behaviors with new, more productive ones calls for a process of learning that enables leaders to analyze concepts, actively experiment, observe and reflect on them, and gain concrete experience in actually applying the new behaviors. As the research of David A. Kolb and others confirm, adults learn by doing, observing, thinking and planning.

So, back to Sam’s wife. She’s right. The concept of collaboration is simple. But creating and practicing a new collaborative muscle-memory isn’t.  It requires enlightened leadership, deep learning, deliberate effort, perseverance and, yes, even training.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on muscle memory and the escalation spiral. How have you seen this this all-too-familiar scenario play out?

Cathy Wright

Partner - Overland Resource Group 

Topics: Collaboration Labor Management