Why kids hunt elephants, and adults don’t

About 6 months ago I was at my son’s weekly kick boxing class.

After warming up and practicing technique, the instructors had the 25 or so 4-8 year olds take part in a mass sparring session, reminiscent of a big American wrestling event.

The older/taller ones were only allowed to block the youngsters, but they still had the advantage.

The interesting thing to me, however, was how hard the smaller children (4-5) tried.

They were fearless, going on the attack against the bigger kids, even when they were fighting each other and the chance of catching a punch was high.

One by one, the older ones were eliminated, until there were two young girls left to fight for victory.

It made me think of them as hunting elephants.

In the real world

That was a safe environment. On the street or in the playground, where the rules were different, they may not have been so plucky.

Or maybe after this training, they would.

And this made me think about how young adults enter the workforce.

Do they have the same fearlessness about dealing with their seniors?

Do those at the top of the house allow the new joiners the freedom to challenge them openly, with no repercussions?

In the majority of cases, I suspect not.

There are reputations to uphold, egos at stake. And in many work places, the culture is such that people defer to the most senior person’s opinion (see the HiPPO effect).

The message is clear: these elephants will chase and trample you. Don’t hunt them!

But what if we could train the same childlike fearlessness I saw at kick boxing into firms’ new recruits?

Companies such as McKinsey do this. People are made to voice their opinions in group sessions, regardless of age, rank or experience.

Or how about it we create the right environment?

My approach to work, using agile mindset to develop new products, encourages psychological safety and seeks contribution from everyone in the team

Nancy Klein’s concept of a ‘Thinking Environment‘ is another good choice – using a process that gives everyone an equal voice, so the less powerful don’t get knocked out by the more powerful.

Final thoughts

Whatever route you agree with, just like the instructors did in the kickboxing class, it’s clear this environment of safety needs to be encouraged from the very top.

And then who knows how fearless the next generation of workers might turn out?

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