Tourist Season at the YMCA

Our family has belonged to the YMCA down the road since it opened many years ago. I served on the board for a few years, two of our children worked there (one was on a poster advertising indoor lacrosse for a long time), and my wife currently lives there (or so it seems). We’ve all enjoyed it tremendously. 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs there every year around this time. My wife and her friends call it “tourist season,” and it goes like this:

  1. The normal population of the folks going to the Y literally doubles in size starting January 2nd, right after people make their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get in shape. 
  2. Competition for the weights and for space in the exercise classes becomes fierce.
  3. The “regulars” try to be as accommodating as possible, but grumble a lot among themselves about “tourist season.” 
  4. By April 1st, almost all the “tourists” are gone, and life at the YMCA returns to normal. 

Why? Because people are attracted to pleasure and repelled from pain. Sounds pretty basic and generally healthy from a psychological perspective, right? The “tourists” tend to think they “ought” to lose weight and/or be healthier, so they join the Y and put together a rigorous and strenuous exercise plan that is absolutely no fun. Since it isn’t pleasurable it isn’t sustainable, so it’s only a matter of time before they stop coming. 

Surely we wouldn’t advise people in general to seek out pain and avoid pleasure, would we? Yet I see leaders try to motivate employees primarily with pain again and again. “The beatings will continue until morale improves” makes a funny joke, but I see it in practice all too often.

“What’s all this talk about happiness and fulfillment? They should be thankful I gave them a job and pay them regularly!” If you’re wondering what the hidden cost of turnover in a business like this is, let me assure you that it’s high and that it reduces profitability in a big way. 

I’m the proud owner of three great millennials, and it always annoys me when leaders call them “snowflakes.” The implication seems to be that these young people shouldn’t care about living happy lives, but instead should subscribe to an outdated “work ethic” norm that dictates that you should do what you’re told and forgo any enjoyment of your existence on the planet.

This is an unsustainable business model and culture. As a leader, you hold a great deal of power over your employees financial lives, so you can threaten and frighten them into compliance over the short term (while they’re looking for another job), but it’s unsustainable over the long term.

Work doesn’t need to be perpetual ecstasy, but treating your employees with basic caring and respect (like you’d want to be treated) will make your business much more profitable than “beatings” administered through guilt and other methods. Incidentally, it’s a lot more fun for everyone too, especially for you as the leader. 

Oh, and the “tourists” at the YMCA? They just need to create a healthy lifestyle that isn’t so painful if they want to succeed over the long term. I guess if they did, the Y would need to expand, eh? 

High-Performance Habits

  1. Treat your employees like you’d like to be treated, i.e., practice the Golden Rule, it works.  
  2. Rather than viewing employee cost only as a line item on a spread sheet to be minimized (i.e., hire the cheapest people you can find), look at it as an investment with a definite Return On Investment. 
  3. Telling folks that they shouldn’t care about living happy lives is an old school management technique that no longer works because people have gotten wise to it; there are much better ways to engage and motivate. 
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