Arrow-right Camera


Workplace needs a little horse sense

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

My mission for the “More Than Work” column is to “help people think differently about how matters of faith, spirituality and religion affect their work and their everyday lives.” More often, readers of the column have helped me, and even forced me, to think differently.

It happened recently when Dr. Deb Bennett, the director of the Equine Studies Institute in Livingston, Calif., wrote in response to a column. She suggested that great ideas on how to treat people and other management lessons could be learned from training horses!

My eyebrows arched in a wee bit of cynicism as I began to read her long note. By the time I finished I was convinced of two things: Dr. Bennett knows her stuff, and her insights into horses can indeed translate into lessons about humans in the workplace.

Dr. Bennett teaches horsemanship to riders of all skills. She learns a lot about the human and the animal in that partnership. She says, “We teach riders and handlers to ‘go where the animal is’ rather than demanding, as most amateurs who try to train animals initially do, that the animal comes (conceptually and emotionally) to where we are.”

That was epiphany number one. The concept of “going where the animal is” can teach us all valuable lessons. Most of us spend a lot of futile energy trying to change people and processes at work. We insist on trying to remake people in our own image rather than appreciating them for who and what they are and working with that. So many managers and leaders lose good people or make them into automatons because they simply don’t appreciate the employees’ gifts.

Dr. Bennett’s keen insights did not stop there. She said some struggling human clients often insist the horse be punished if the rider is not succeeding in the riding lessons. Dr. Bennett says that is a mistake and quoted a trainer from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, who once said, “Whenever your horse is not doing what you want him to do, it will be because he does not understand what you want him to do.”

We find the same phenomenon in the workplace. Leaders and employees often end up at loggerheads because goals, processes and instructions are vague and/or misguided. If an instruction does not make sense, humans and horses are bound to resist it.

Dr. Bennett said one of her teachers, an old Montana cowboy named Ray Hunt, added to this point when he spoke of a mare that had been unwilling to load into a horse-trailer and had tried to hurt Hunt in his attempt to teach her how to do that easily and safely. Dr. Bennett said, “After the mare did learn that she could step into the trailer just fine and that nothing bad was going to happen to her when she did so, Ray said to the students who had watched the whole process, ‘You see, in the beginning, she didn’t think I could be any use to her at all. She tried everything else BUT getting in there. But then, when it started to work, she got more and more willing to consider it. She began trying to find a way to make it work instead of looking for a way to resent it. And when she did that, by crackie, it did work.’ “

American business would be so much better and workplaces would be happier if leaders could find a way to work WITH their employees rather than trying to force them to do things that don’t seem to make much sense.

Dr. Bennett says all horses “appear to want is happiness, joy, understanding, rapprochement, consensus, fun and peaceful interactions, and if offered a clear choice they will go for whatever good deal is offered every time.”

Employees in the workplace want the same thing. If we could provide those things humans would respond well, too!

Tip for your search: Working WITH employees and working WITH bosses is a two-way street. Take a careful look at your work dynamics this week and examine whether you really are working WITH people or if you are working at cross-purposes. What human failing is causing you to push against rather than push with?

Resource for your search: “Working People Smart” by Mel Silberman, Ph.D., and Freda Hansburg, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004)


Click here to comment on this story »