The Marathon Effect of Leading Change and Helping Your Team Keep Pace

Overhead view of a group of runners in a marathon
GettyImages/Mark A Leman

Published 6/27/2015

When senior managers announce a significant change, their goal is to get employees on board in the hope that they will embrace and support the change. When employees react with confusion, fear, uncertainty, or question the change, managers mistakenly see this behavior as “resisting change.” They forget they went through the exact same process as the idea of change was being developed and then finalized.

The managers have had time to internalize the change and are now ready to move on with it. .

This “lagging effect” of how people respond or organizational change was described very accurately by William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, Making the Most of Change.

Bridges called it the “Marathon Effect.” It’s an important change model for leaders to understand when planning and leading change.

Change and the Marathon:

This change model gets its name from the experience you might see in a road race with thousands of runners. Let me describe the marathon effect, based on my own amateur running experience. The last corporate challenge I participated in had more than 10,000 runners and walkers.

The faster runners (the “high potentials”) were lined up in the front of the starting line, and the rest of the runners were spread out for many blocks behind them, with the causal walkers at the end.

As the starting gun went off, the fastest runners took off at a sprint. As these first runners raced ahead, those behind them started moving up to the starting line and began their race, although at a different starting time than the first runners.

As this next group moved off the starting line, another group of runners approached the starting line and began their race, and so on.

While all of this moving and lining up is happening, the runners in the far back of the pack were not moving at all. That’s where I was. There was little room to start shuffling our feet, and many probably did not even hear the starting gun because of how far back in the pack we were and of all the surrounding noise. We eventually got to the starting line, but much time had elapsed between when we crossed the starting line and when the first runners took off. By the time the walkers started their journey, the front runners were halfway around the course.

This situation is a great metaphor for an organization going through change. The senior leaders of the organization who have been working on the change have had a chance to think through the change, talk about it, and get used to it. These leaders typically go through their transitions before they launch the changes, while they’re still struggling with the problems and searching for solutions. By the time they have announced the change, they have long since put their personal losses and the transition stages behind them and are ready for the new beginning.

The next level of managers are probably just entering the transition stage, and the rest of the rank and file are just beginning to deal with their losses.

MInd the Gap (and the lag time):

It is important for leaders of organizations going through change to realize the ‘lag time’ between where they are in the process and where others in the organizations are in the process.

The higher a leader sits in an organization (senior leaders) the quicker he or she tends to move through the change process. Because they can see the intended destination before others even know the race has begun, senior managers can forget that others will take longer to make the transition: letting go of old ways, moving through the transition phase, and, finally, making a new beginning.

Six Ideas to Help Your Team Keep Pace with Change:

The ample advice on helping our employees deal with change emphasizes communication, context and involvement. Change expert, John Kotter, appropriately suggests, "in a period of change, you cannot over-communicate." The following suggestions will serve you well as you strive to help your team members "catch up" to the ideas you have long internalized. 

  1. Change should mostly never come as a complete surprise. As manager, you should be offering regular updates on Key Performance Indicators and company and group performance versus goals and objectives. 
  2. Involve your team members early in the discussions about change. Provide context for the firm's strategy and the impact of this strategy on their work. People do their best work when they understand it in proper context. 
  3. Invite people to contribute to the ideas for implementing change. In addition to having context for why change is taking place almost everyone appreciates the opportunity to help define how the change will be implemented in their areas of responsibility. 
  4. Create developmental ideas and stretch assignments as part of implementing the change. Any period of change offers a treasure trove of opportunities for people to learn new skills and get involved in creative problem-solving. 
  5. Treat the change initiatives as projects using the tools of project management
  6. Allow people ample opportunity to provide feedback on how well changes are working and to offer ideas for improving the various programs. Let them implement their own ideas as part of your continuous improvement program. 

The Bottom Line: 

Keep the marathon effect in mind when planning and implementing your next change. While you’re in the runner’s tent at the finish line having a nice cold refreshment, there are many others who have not even crossed the starting line yet. Have patience and allow others to complete the same race you did.

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Updated by Art Petty