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Grit in the shoe: when is it time to step out to something new?

How OK is it to stay doing what we do, and just turn up and do a good job?

This question has come up in a number of guises this week. The coaching and self-development industry can be ardent in encouraging us to always change – is that always a good or necessary thing?

On Tuesday, my friend and colleague Dr. Glenn Wallis was talking to David Pilbeam in his weekly Success ID Podcast about lessons that he learned from his guests over the past month, and how we can recognise a call to change as “grit in the shoe” – something that should feel comfortable, but no longer does.

I have a handful of clients who have come to me recently for career coaching, for what seems like this reason – they no longer feel as motivated as they did in the job they were doing.

Earlier in the week, another colleague with bags of HR experience, Charlotte Allfrey, was questioning whether corporate appraisal systems are adequate at dealing with the large numbers of people who just want to do a good job and be recognised for that, but may feel passed over and unrewarded in comparison to the rising stars (a phenomenon I talked about in a blog post for Aspiring HR last year, “Turning Talent on Its Head”).

Professional coaches, myself included, have fallen in love with Carol Dweck’s idea of the 'growth mindset' – it speaks to our own fascination with growth and change, and our desire to help others to do so. We can think of this as a generative attitude to change – a desire to make big stuff happen. One of my clients recently quoted the Japanese expression "yatte minahare” to me – in an assertive, even aggressive, way, “go for it.” I’m pretty sure that many of us in the professional coaching world have a not-so-secret wish that every new client will be a daring, Nike-style just-do-it athlete, seizing the heck out of every day and making a chunky impact on the world.

Of course, not everyone is like this, and nor should they be. Many of us hold a more adaptive, organic and emergent attitude to change. The wonderfully funny presenter Sandi Toksvig talks about ordinary people who are up to extraordinary, unsung things – she calls them 'National Trevors'. They can be any and all of us. They may not think of themselves as leaders in a conventional way but, in the words of leadership guru Steve Radcliffe, they are “up to something”.

The go-for-it and adaptive approaches co-exist, not always comfortably, at many levels: in our relations with our line managers and team-mates; in the implicit values and norms of our corporate culture; in our social relationships outside of work; and in wider society.

If we are to understand, and make use of, the vast potential of those around us, whatever the context, then we need – first – to notice and respect that not everyone is the same when it comes to responding to change, and that’s OK. We don’t need every organisation to be chock full of brazen trail-blazers, although a few well-placed change agents (people that author Judith Germain calls “socialised mavericks”) are almost always a good thing.

We don’t necessarily need everyone to be obsessively self-actualising, either. People have their own pace of growth. The colleague with decades of experience, and a desire to go home to her family after a good day’s work, isn’t likely to be a dangerous change-resister. She may well, in her measured way, already be responding adaptively to the change that is going on all the time. There’s always some grit, and she has a system for dealing with it. We should be checking in with her, to see what she’s doing. We might learn something in the process. She is almost certainly, in her own way, being a 'National Trevor'.

What of those who actively resist the grit, or deny it in the face of overwhelming evidence? We might see them through our growth-focused eyes as negative and resistant, but their behaviour is actually just a learned response to change. It may just no longer be adaptive – perhaps things always used to work loose in time, but now the grit is developing a painful blister? Empathetic enquiry and coaching can be helpful here, to encourage them to question if their habitual approach is proving effective in the present situation.

In one of Glenn’s earlier Success ID podcasts, an ultra-marathon runner, Simon Dawson, was talking about a different sort of grit – the grit of endurance. This is when we test our limits and go beyond what we thought was possible: and by talking and listening to those running along with us, he explained, we make sure this doesn’t tip into harm and self destruction - we learn where the edge now is.

Not all of us are ultra-runners, but we can all learn by stepping in pace with with our fellow travellers. As leaders, or as coaches, it helps to be consciously aware of our own preferences, attitude and values around change, growth and testing our limits. From here, we can notice when we are projecting these beliefs onto our colleagues and clients, and whether such judgements are right for them.

If we can be equally curious about their own way of responding to grit in the shoe, and how this is working for them, then we are in a better position to help them walk on to where they next need and want to be. It may start with a stumble, and it may need a helping hand. It can turn into a unique and revelatory journey with learning for us both – stepping out with an unexpected 'National Trevor'.

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