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For those too young to remember, Nike’s “Just Do It!” campaign began in 1988. The slogan and accompanying ads encouraged everyone, regardless of age, physical build, or athletic ability, to get moving (in Nike shoes and gear, of course). While it was a wildly successful marketing strategy, the reality is that, as human beings, we have evolved to “Just do the same thing we always do” because doing something new or different is harder and involves significantly more risk.
During graduate school, I earned my keep teaching introductory educational psychology courses at Michigan State University. One of my favorite units covered a variety of topics related to motivation and why we do (or don’t do) certain things. Without going into too much detail and risking oversimplifying a complex topic, as a rule, until we are faced with a compelling reason to try something new or different, we stick to what we know.
Think about infants and the progression from being completely immobile, to crawling, and eventually to walking and running. Later-born children tend to reach these gross motor milestones at a younger age than their older siblings. The reason is simple and again rooted in evolutionary history. The first child receives the undivided attention of parent(s) and often has everything he or she desires. In comparison, subsequent children cannot receive the same amount of individual attention, and can observe first-hand the benefits of locomotion their older sib(s) enjoy. As a result, they are motivated to work through the challenges and certain falls and bruises to get moving at an earlier age.
I know that most of you have little—if any—contact with infants in parks and recreation programming, but the universal lesson is that kids and adults become motivated to try something new when what they’re currently doing is not meeting their goals. This simple truth explains why some children embrace new opportunities while others refuse to try anything new. It also, coincidently, helps to explain why your staff members (and gasp, even you) frequently show resistance to new programs or policies.
Met With Resistance
Let's look at Jillian, an 8-year-old girl who is enrolled in a beginner swim class. She’s been in the class for a while and is perfectly comfortable doing what is asked of her, as long as she can keep her head above water. In fact, Jillian really enjoys the class and particularly loves the “free time” after the lesson is complete when she gets to play with her best friend, Amanda. Jillian’s trouble starts when the instructor asks her to put her face in the water. Much to the instructor’s chagrin and despite her best efforts, Jillian steadfastly refuses.
After about a month, Amanda and most of the other children move on to another class, but because Jillian still won’t put her face in the water, she is forced to repeat the beginner class. To her parents’ and instructor’s great surprise on the first day of the new session, Jillian quickly and resolutely closes her eyes, scrunches her face, and sticks her whole head under the water. After doing a double take, her instructor stammers out effusive praise for her effort, and then asks why she chose today of all days to “take the plunge.” Without missing a beat, Jillian replies, “I want to be in the other class with Amanda.”
Regardless of whether your department serves infants or offers swimming lessons, Jillian’s story illustrates the basic psychology of motivation and how most of us ultimately commit to try something new. In Jillian’s case, as long as she had a chance to play with Amanda, there was no good reason to push past her initial unease about being underwater. However, when choosing not to go underwater was no longer adaptive, she overcame her anxiety in order to receive a desired outcome.
What This Means
In a nutshell, children and adults are generally unwilling to try something new or different unless they expect some type of benefit that outweighs the effort and risk. In many cases, pleasing a parent or supervisor is sufficient benefit. At other times, the expectation that a new activity will be fun or exciting is enough to get even the shyest child to participate. At times, however, try as we might, we all encounter individuals who steadfastly refuse to do something new. It’s these “reluctant” participants and staff who can stymie a program’s momentum, and may even end up taking valuable time and effort away from everyone else.
So, what can be done to get everyone going in the same direction? Returning to the example of the baby who decides to take a first step, or Jillian’s desire to be with her friend, conveying the rationale and assuaging the fear of risk can do wonders. In fact, frequently, those individuals who appear unmotivated do not have an understanding of how the new activity could be beneficial or enjoyable. To overcome this lack of understanding, there are four time-tested communication strategies that you can use.
The first and most obvious is to simply verbalize how and why the individual will benefit to do what is being asked. Frequently a short conversation is all that is needed to help move a child from the sidelines, or a staff member to finally start following that new procedure. This approach falls short when working with younger (non-verbal) children, or when dealing with more deeply rooted anxiety.
The second and generally most effective way to have someone embrace the unknown is to demonstrate the advantages of the new activity and to assist the person through the steps until he or she becomes more comfortable (or put another way, successful at the task with limited help). Helping a baby to take a few steps and reach a toy on a shelf that previously was too high to reach illustrates the benefits of standing and walking. Or, by limiting Jillian’s opportunity to play with Amanda for even one minute, and then explaining that her friend wouldn’t be in her class anymore, you could help her to try putting her face in the water one more time.
Relationships, like new skills, take time to develop. By frequently “saying” and “showing” an individual that there is a reason to do what you’re asking, you are building trust and reinforcing the idea that doing new things leads to positive outcomes. Over time you can expect less resistance to your directions, and ultimately you’ll be developing increased confidence and efficacy in those individuals you’re leading.
Perhaps the most important thing that you and your staff can do when trying to encourage someone to do something new or different is to be mindful of the person’s knowledge and perspective. When you’re able to put yourself in those shoes (Nike or not), it’s much easier to envision what matters to the individual and what you’re asking is a better means to the desired end. At the end of the day, if you can help your participants feel comfortable and understand all that they can gain from your programs, everyone wins!
Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .