What approaching a horse can teach us about leadership.
Read Time: 7 minutes (and i’m a slow reader)
If you’re working towards a career in any field, if you want to be a professional of any kind, it’s inevitable that you’re going to be working with people. Whether they work for you or vice versa, “people skills” are critical. I started my professional journey when I was managing a high volume restaurant at 22. What quickly humbled me was the realization that management positions would be much easier if you didn’t have to “deal with people.” Over the next several years, I realized that “dealing with people” is the MAIN responsibility of a good manager, and it can easily go wrong.
What does dealing with people even mean? At the start of my management career, it meant “I don’t have time to do this, I’m in charge so I’ll get my staff to do it, they have to listen to me,” it also meant “I have to have all of the answers” which only brought on an immense amount of stress. Dealing with people was “I have to call a bunch of people to try and cover this shift because Suzie’s car won’t start.” This lead me to falsely believe that people are annoying. They all have problems and excuses, and it’s my responsibility to figure out their issues. This was NOT in the job description.
There is a certain delicacy to dealing with your staff. You’re constantly on the edge feeling that with every ask, you will either “piss them off and give them a reason to resent you” or “be too lenient and put more work on your plate.” After all, you’re in the management position because of your competence, so you COULD just do it all. Early on in “dealing with people” I was torn because I wanted to keep the relationship intact, but I didn’t want to bury myself in workload just because I “knew” my staff would “hate” doing it. Whether it was true or not this led to another false belief that I was being taken advantage of.
The more I learned about leadership over the years, the more I realized management positions basically expect you to be a psychologist without the years of training. In order to cope with all of this immense responsibility, I’ve done countless hours of psychology research that can be summed up with a few simple analogies. Human motivation is a veeeery deep subject and psychologists have studied it for decades, but some of the concepts can be easily understood.
Imagine you’re on a nostalgic walk where you grew up and notice a beautiful horse that is directly on the other side of a barbwire fence. You feel that feeding and petting this horse would be a beautiful experience. You’ve never dealt with horses in your past, therefore you have no way to predict their temperament accurately. All you have is a subtle understanding that they can be docile creatures, that they love the human touch, but you’re still scared it might bite you. You’ve seen a couple Instagram stories of friends petting horses, but are those just the nice ones? How can you tell if it’s a nice horse or a mean horse?
Now, if you’re going to feed this horse (let’s give him a racehorse name for fun, let’s name him “The New Guy”) you must approach The New Guy properly. At what speed do you approach him? Really take a second to imagine how you would feel as you get closer. Are you scared, are you excited, are you calm? If you were to run up to it as fast as you could because you couldn’t hold in your excitement, would it spook The New Guy? If you approach too slowly, would he get bored and you miss your opportunity?
You must find the balance between these two extremes, which actually comes more naturally than you’d think. You may pick up the grass in front of you and present it to The New Guy from a few meters away and slowly cross one foot over the other until you’re fairly close. You may use a very calm tone and say something along the lines of “Hello, The New Guy, how are you? You’re very cute. Can I feed you some delicious, organic grass?” You’d attempt anything in your tool belt to showcase that you’re not a threat. The entire time you may feel very cautious, and ready to defend yourself in case the horse reacts opposite to what you hope. Maybe you present the grass in a fist so he can’t bite off your fingers, just in case.
The New Guy’s reaction isn’t 100% in your control. In fact, it’s not in your control at all, no matter how nice you think you are. The interaction is very dependant on the horse’s past. If the horse was raised on an abusive farm, it will very likely react more defensively than if it were raised on a loving farm. All you can do is use your past experience and approach The New Guy in the way that you’ve learned how to show love and trust. Then you just have to hope that The New Guy recognizes your intentions as genuine and reciprocates with love of his own. If he had a terrible experience as a young foal, he will likely not trust your affection as genuine and assume an ulterior motive. Therefore, he will spook.
There is a certain harmony in past experiences that must be present in order to quickly build trust with others. This feeling of approaching an animal with no previous knowledge of its temperament is exactly how we should approach “dealing with people” in our business (or even in relationships for that matter.) Every single person has a different past and has learned how to deal with situations in their own way. Where one interprets a suggestion as “I am in the process of learning and your outside help is welcome and appreciated.” Some interpret the exact same wording and tone as “I’m not good enough, I suck at my job, I suck at everything, I’m in trouble, this manager is a dick.”
In some customer service situations, a customer may lash out at you for a seemingly minor event. If you were in their shoes, you wouldn’t deal with it in the same way because of your past, therefore you automatically think this person is an idiot. There’s no sense taking this lash out to heart and let it affect your day. You could actually feel some empathy towards the customer and hope they resolve their pain.
The way your staff and customers interpret your attempts to help is based on all of their past life experiences as well. This includes the way their parents treated/ incentivized them and even from the good or bad sports coaches they had growing up. All of these infinite and intricate possibilities are part of the beauty of “dealing with people.”
Your management style will have to be liquid and form-fitting to their needs. If your pasts aren’t in harmony and they react poorly to your attempts, it isn’t necessarily your fault and you’re not a “bad manager.” What would define you as a “bad manager” would be if you continually tried to motivate and treat everybody the same way, and even though the work gets done, you don’t pay attention and remove yourself from how your decision makes them feel. Some staff may just see the task as a part of the job, some may think you have it out for them. But to the ones who hold the resentment, you’ll be that manager who sits at his desk with his thumb up his ass. But who wants to spend more time on another task at work keeping track of how people feel? The ones who want to get better at their jobs. The ones who want to grow.
To understand how to be a “liquid” or “versatile” manager, you must open up your approach, you must let go of control, you must create trust, which again, is easier said than done. Trust isn’t manufactured, it grows, much like your confidence in assessing the temperament of the horse that you approached earlier, and every horse is different.
In the afterword of famous author Ryan Holiday’s newest book Stillness Is the Key, he tells a story about his neighbour’s bull that had a tendency to make its way onto his property through a hole in the fence. He found through trial and error that if he attempted to control where the bull would go with brute force, the bull’s temper would flare and it would go anywhere but home. He calls it “a costly reminder of the risks of impatience.” (259) But if he was to patiently wait in his tractor motionless on the opposite side of where he wanted the bull to go, the bull would eventually make his way home on his own will. He states “It’s got to feel like it’s his idea. Otherwise, he’ll panic and get angry. And the problem goes from bad to worse.” (260)
As managers and leaders, we must learn how to patiently sit on our tractor and let our people act out of their own free will. We can nudge behavior through feedback but we can’t force it with control (more on control at a later date.) People taking action on their own is what psychologists call Intrinsic Motivation. If we are to attempt to control their actions, their tempers will likely flare like the bull’s and not act in the way you’d expected or hoped.
What makes this tough is that the first ideas that us managers come up with when trying to motivate people are good enough to convince ourselves that we’re doing a good job, but not good enough to actually work.
Within our jobs, we assume our role to be “getting things done in an efficient manner.” The efficiency part creates a trap where we think we come up with good ideas, but they are very surface level, and very easy ideas to come up with. Ideas that took years of research from leading psychologists to determine don’t really work. We tend to think of rewards, and incentives, and contingencies and punishments. We think that we must do something in order to nudge our staff in the right direction. But, motivation is a subtle art that requires counterintuitively putting more conscious effort into doing less. To paying attention to the feelings of our staff and letting the bull return home on his own.
The first and most important concept that we must fully understand is going to be the topic of my next article, the concept of autonomy and autonomy support.