Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend an overnight workshop which involved working with horses. Let me be clear, this was not a horse training or riding class, but rather a personal development workshop that incorporated horses into the process as co-facilitators.
What I ended up learning was not only a lot about myself, but also plenty about respect – giving and receiving it – from the horses. Establishing respect with a horse is not unlike the dance we undertake to garner the respect of another human being. Horses, like humans, respond to communication that involves both verbal and non-verbal cues to convey respect.
My first task in establishing respect with the horse was to be clear about my intention. Since we were in a circular pen, I decided I wanted him to trot around the ring counter-clockwise. Setting this as my intention was important because it forced me to focus. Yes, I occasionally lost my focus, but it was remembering my intention that allowed me to succeed in having the horse gallop around the ring.
Being clear with what I wanted to achieve with the horse and establishing an intention is similar to creating a respectful workplace. In order to achieve this, there must be a clear vision of the outcome. For example, this vision might include building an environment where employees feel recognized and motivated.
Once I had a clear vision that I wanted the horse to trot around the ring, I needed to focus on finding a way to achieve this. One way horses learn, I quickly discovered, is through the repetition of body language. Swinging the end of a rope, while pivoting in the direction I wanted the horse to move, signaled to him my intention. Depending on my pace, he ran quicker or slower. But it was the repetition of the swinging rope that held the motivation for the horse.
The same is true when setting an intention to create a respectful workplace. There must be consistent behavior in order for this to be successful. For example, treating everyone fairly all the time is more effective than choosing favorites when developing a team based on respect. Similarly, the horse responded to my consistent approach in the ring and followed my lead.
Finally, horses, like humans, are social creatures that respond to communication when conveying and receiving respect. In the ring with the horse, I learned to use my body to communicate my intention and the swinging rope to declare my boundary and lead the pace. I soon realized that if I altered my stance to convey a sense of confidence the horse picked up on this and sprinted faster.
This is comparable to how we interact in the workplace. Our communication may include non-verbal cues like giving someone eye contact when they are speaking or greeting someone with a smile. Clearly, communication can also be verbal and include compliments and praise, which works equally well when establishing respect with both horses and humans!
A friend of mine who is a horse professional once made an interesting observation. Horses are five times, or more, larger than we are, why do they obey us?
It is because of the power of our focus and intent, but also significantly, because of the social relationship that we develop with them as you say above. Certainly for any manager, your group is larger and stronger than you as an individual. As such, these lessons are highly appropriate.