Dealing with 'neigh' sayers in the workplace

A horse

Here are 4 tips from the world of horse training to make your workplace happier and more effective.

‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ It’s an age-old saying we’ve heard many times, especially in the workplace. Whether it’s your manager, leader or co-worker, everyone experiences this frustration at one time or another.  

I suppose it’s frustrating because the horse should know the water is good for it. But what if it doesn’t? I’ve often heard the ‘lead a horse to water’ expression applied when someone feels they have provided the necessary knowledge and mentorship to enable the employee to do the right thing but they still aren’t getting the results they want or expect.

From my experience training ex-racehorses, I’ve found a few principles I’ve used there can also be applied to our daily working lives.

1. When completing a training exercise, if you’re not getting the response you hoped for, stop, think about what you’re asking and ask again, ensuring you’re asking the right way and your instructions are clear.

If you’ve asked your employee to do something or believe an expectation has been set but not met, think about the way you’ve put across your request or expectation — and adjust. We all respond in different ways and even when we feel we’re as clear as clear can be — if we’re still not getting what we’ve asked for — it’s time to re-evaluate.

2. Don’t be disheartened when you’re having a rough day or you feel as though you aren’t getting through.

We’ve all been there. Admitting it isn’t necessarily a failure, either on you or your employee’s part. The best approach is to get through what you absolutely must and, if you’re still not achieving desired expectations, try again tomorrow.

3. An ex-racehorse will respond differently than an English-trained dressage horse; an Arabian has different mannerisms and habits from a Clydesdale. This applies to people, too. We can’t ask an untrained ex-racehorse to pirouette in perfect circles without putting in the necessary groundwork. Even when we do, an ex-racehorse is trained to run, run faster and then keep on running. We may spend years retraining him to be a different class of horse but, at the end of the day, we must remember that horse training is a lifelong and ongoing pursuit.

Essentially, just because Jane from Accounts Payable has been doing it for 20 years, doesn’t mean she doesn’t need a refresher every now and then. We should never assume that, just because we have trained and conditioned a worker to be an AP Officer, they are able to do this 100 per cent of the time. Employees need consistent reinforcement in the same way horses need consistent training. We can lead Jane to the invoices and assume because she’s done it 30 million times before she is able to do it again, but if she makes a mistake or asks for help, that’s okay too. Jane is human and we are often too hard on ourselves and others.

4. Positive affirmations breed positive results. An ex-racehorse (depending on the trainer) may have been abused, forced to miss meals, is poorly trained, incorrectly educated or conditioned to think they are stupid, unloved and worthless. 

So you’ve asked Jane to ensure she completes her invoicing by the end of the week. You ask Jane after the planned deadline if she has completed it and Jane says, “No.” It makes sense to reprimand Jane for not meeting her commitments, right?

Wrong! Ultimately, the expectation has not been met and we need to evaluate why, but reprimanding won’t solve anything. It’s imperative to evaluate the situation as a whole. 

Say, for the past 12 months, Jane has been doing great work and nobody has stopped to say, “Glad to have you on the team, Jane.” In addition to this, Jane overheard Bob telling a supervisor he thinks Jane is lazy. These are subtle ways we ‘reprimand’ and demoralise our workers without actually using a harsh word, and that can damage performance and motivation.  

Let’s tie these things together. 

Sometimes I feel patronising when I teach my horse a training exercise that to me is simple; each time he does what I’ve asked he gets a resounding smile and a “good boy.” It perks him up. He knows he’s on the right track. Bring it back to Jane. Not everything in the workplace revolves around monetary rewards for great performance. Sometimes something as simple as a quick email to say, ‘Love what you’ve done here, Jane’ is enough. It keeps your employees confident in their abilities and feeling empowered.

Another point to remember is you need to be training a horse (read: employee) that actually   wants   your time and effort. If you’re dealing with a lost cause and you’ve put in all the necessary training, time, positive reinforcement and education, but Jane from Accounts is still creating finger paintings instead of completing her invoicing, it may be time to cut your losses. Jane might be trained in accounts, tick all the boxes and seem to ‘fit’ the position perfectly on paper but it’s possible she’s better off chasing her dream to be the next Jackson Pollock.

So the next time you lead your metaphorical horse to water and he kicks you in the face instead of drinking, ask yourself:
  What could   I   have done better here ?

If you’d like more insight into how you can get the most out of your employees, give me a ring. I’d love to hear from you.

Samantha McCarthy
Mining People International