In the IT world you see praise and idolisation for the actions of cliff climbers; "...overcoming that production issue.", "... meeting the unrealistic deadline.", "...redefining our processes.", "...increasing sales to our toughest client.", "...enabling us to deploy even faster.", "...leading our industry in to a new age."
The proverb (and 1985 Billy Ocean song) says 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going', meaning that when a situation becomes difficult, the strong are the ones who become engaged.
Cliff climbers are strong both in resilience and in skill, and step up in tough situations.
You want cliff climbers in your team. They keep our companies ahead of our competitors, at the fore front of our industry, and able to respond rapidly to our fast changing environment.
Rana Betting wrote an interesting blog post in 2010 about how actual rock climbers are "addicted to finding the flow."
She talked about how rock climbers get their most happiness from challenging their skill level, and that happiness and reward drives them to keep going for bigger climbs.
The concept of ‘Flow’ Rana referenced is the seminal work of Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also known as being 'in the zone' or 'in the groove'.
"The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. [...] characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill..." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You can probably think of cliff climbers you've encountered. They look for challenges to over come, and are driven by the potential benefits that they, their team and their company will experience after achieving the climb. The climb brings with it an intrinsic motivation from matching their high skill levels against the toughest challenges,. While it can come with heightened stress, like the rock climbers in Rana’s blog; they have an addiction to climbing these cliffs.
So, what happens when the going gets 'good'?
A state of Flow will give all people satisfaction when the challenge to skill ratio is right. Cliff climbers in your company have a higher skill level, and therefore require harder or bigger challenges to be satisfied and happy.
"To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi's flow model.
Cliff climbers become disengaged when things become less challenging – even if to they seem challenging to those less skilled than them. When leaving companies, cliff climbers often refer to being “too comfortable” or seeking “new challenges”
There are three things I’ve learnt from working alongside and mentoring cliff climbers;
- Keep your cliff climbers challenged. Looking for a cliff where they can test their skills, even if it doesn’t add immediate value to your team, will show them their skills are valued and result in higher job satisfaction.
- Cliff climbers will be drawn to bigger cliffs, and they may leave us. We shouldn’t feel this reflects badly on us as employers or team leads. The pull of Flow is powerful and there is benefits to both them and your company by avoiding being disengaged, bored, and apathetic.
- Strive to be a cliff climber in Flow. Flow is where your work satisfaction comes from. Look at the skills you have and how to challenge and utilise them to the utmost. Look for the cliffs to climb, and importantly realise there are benefits of not only achieving the climb, but from being in the flow while climbing.