My eleven year old daughter has been taking riding lessons for just over 9 months. Each weekend, we drive out to a stable and she spends an hour with her teacher and a borrowed horse learning the ins and outs of safe riding and jumping. I play with the barn cats, take pictures and translate the instructor’s words of wisdom into my world as a management consultant and coach. Before I begin, a disclaimer – I am in no way implying that people are like horses, nor should they be treated as one. I just find many of the things my daughter’s teacher says to be applicable to workplace relationships.
Lesson 1: Be present with yourself and your team. It’s important to show up both mentally and physically in general, but even more so when others are depending on you for information, guidance, and support. Before you interact with others, take a few moments to come into the present by taking a couple of full, deep breaths and setting a positive intention for your time together. Like in my daughter’s case, distraction can easily be a safety issue for many workplace roles. For others, being fully present communicates “I’m with you”, a foundational element for effective relationships.
Lesson 2: Work as partners, but be in charge. When my daughter is riding, both she and the horse are picking up on each other’s cues and adjusting accordingly. It’s a give and take but, ultimately, she needs to set the direction and speed to make a successful jump. At work, leaders need to be clear about the organization’s direction and goals while also being available to get their hands dirty to meet important deadlines. Working “with” communicates empathy and a sense of “we’re all in this together”.
Lesson 3: Provide direction, then let go. Being a new rider, my daughter frequently has a death grip on the reins and every twitch she makes serves only to confuse her horse. If you’re like me, I not only set the direction, but I sometimes find myself dictating how to get there. This can be very confusing and demoralizing to team members, especially when they have a better understanding of the details than you do. Keep a loose grip and re-direct only when truly necessary.
Lesson 4: Give your team enough time and space to see what’s coming. My daughter learned very quickly that if you don’t give the horse enough time and space to see the next jump, he’ll either trot around it or come to a complete halt, potentially throwing her off. When leaders announce new initiatives or big changes, people sometimes shut down, do what they’re used to doing or subtly (or not so subtly) refuse to come along. It’s important to remember that by the time you’re ready to implement a change, you’ve been thinking about it and planning for it for some time. For an effective roll-out, your team members need information and time to understand the reason for the change, opportunities to provide input, clarity about what will be different and what the ultimate outcome will look like.
Lesson 5: Stay calm and be prepared to adjust when things go wrong. Especially during times of change, expect there to be problems, set-backs and adjustments. Re-learning a process, using new equipment or changing roles entirely rarely goes smooth right out of the gate. Making changes to processes that used to be automatic requires deliberate thought and focused attention. Try writing your name with the opposite hand if you don’t believe me. Our brains need time and repetition for the re-wiring to occur. Whether in the arena or at work, “progress, not perfection” is a good approach to take.
Lesson 6: Celebrate and give thanks. It’s pretty typical to be working on several projects or initiatives simultaneously and just the relief you experience when one is done may seem like enough reward. But “relief” doesn’t communicate thanks nor does it celebrate accomplishments. My daughter’s lesson always ends with a good jump, a quick review of how far she’s come and a hug for the horse. With your team, take a few minutes, recognize what went well and thank everyone for their contributions.
I’m the last person to say that I’ve mastered all the lessons. The older I get, the more I realize that there’s always room for improvement and new tricks to learn. Self-reflection, feedback and having an honest mentor are good sources for continued improvement. Enjoy the ride.
Carol Wilson joined Empathia in 1990. As Senior Vice President, Customer Relations and COO, she oversees all service operations at Empathia. Additionally, Carol is an experienced corporate trainer and consultant who has worked with a number of high profile corporate entities. She is an associate certified coach and a member of the International Coach Federation.