…lessons from Martial Arts

Sometimes we can see valuable Management lessons at work in unexpected areas, such as the martial arts. For several years now, three of my kids have been practicing Tang Soo Do, a traditional Korean martial art that is similar in many respects to Tae Kwon Do, the Olympic sport. Last year, I decided to join them, since I was the one driving them to and from their classes.

Though my original motivation was the physical aspect (I felt I had been neglecting my body too much), I have been finding out quickly that there is much more to martial arts than exercise or learning to defend oneself. I have been learning about the history and customs of Korea, China, and a bit of Japan, as a consequence of researching the diffusion of these disciplines. But, more importantly, I have been observing first-hand the application of many concepts I teach in my classes, in a fascinating context that I had not previously considered.

Exhibit 1: Organizational Socialization
Take for example the organizational process of socialization. As you might recall from (or are about to learn in) your management classes, this involves introducing new members to the organization and to its culture, in an explicit effort to integrate them more speedily and smoothly. Identifying and assigning “sponsors” –well-established employees—to guide the newcomers through their new environment is perhaps one of the best techniques to bring new members onboard. Though this is not a formal process in our studio, I have been observing that the new students who have friends or relatives who are more advanced tend to stay longer and learn faster than the new students who come as “pioneers” from their social circles (so-called “boundary spanners” in the field of social networking).

Similarly, Human Resource Management researchers have found that new employees hired through internal references tend to become more productive and adjust more rapidly to their new employer than other employees hired through external labor markets. To me, this suggests that organizations (especially those that depend on volunteer work like NHSMBA) would do well to ensure that every new member is assigned a sponsor if they do not already have other friends or acquaintances inside. Not only would this reduce attrition, it will increase the chances that these new members will be more engaged, committed, valuable, and satisfied.

Exhibit 2: The Danger of Narrow Evaluations
There are ten different belts from white to black belt. To advance from belt to belt, students have to fulfill attendance requirements, self-defense techniques, hand and kick techniques, a few language and culture terms, and a specific “form” (hyung is the Korean term, also known as “kata” in other martial arts). These forms represent a fight with an imaginary group of enemies, who are defeated through the use of specific, tightly choreographed defense and attack techniques. Because these forms are much more complex than the rest of the requirements, they tend to capture to a greater extent the students’ attention. It is easy for the less mature students to think they deserve to skip belts because they have learned the forms that correspond to those more advanced belts.

This narrowing of the evaluation scope tends to occur in businesses too! Sometimes new employees find themselves more deserving than their managers think they are. But other times it is the managers who fall prey to the “halo” or the “recency” bias that cognitive psychology has identified. Of course, this might happen in any martial art as well: if we are not careful, we might believe that someone is ready to take more responsibility than they truly are because we restricted our appraisal to only a few outstanding factors, neglecting to see the full picture.

Of course, it is also true that people often “grow into” new roles; sometimes the best available candidate only has the essential competencies and some training and development in the near future will bring them to their full potential. But the main point remains, that there is danger in restricting our personnel evaluations to only a few aspects, especially when they are a complex, yet incomplete part of the whole picture.

There are many other lessons that have been coming to my mind as I am about to reach the end of my first year as a Tang Soo Do “artist” (that seems to be the preferred term). I know that some of my friends and students have reached the black belt, that highly priced, attainable by very few individuals. If you have been having similar considerations from another martial art or from a different field (for example, music), I would love to hear from you.

¡Hasta la próxima!