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Let’s Talk About The Horse in the (Board) Room

Business / 04/12/2017

It’s not only elephants.

How often do we let the important questions go unasked? Or awkwardly or politely talk around the real-issues? How often do we feel unable to challenge behaviour, performance or opinions?

 

It is difficult enough amongst peers, but what about in the leadership hierarchy or upwardly within the organisational structure of businesses?

 

Leaders need feedback too.

 

It is rare that we feel courageous enough to speak truth to authority or perceived superiority. So points that we might otherwise freely express remain unaddressed, but they do not go away.

 

Neuroscientists have proved through fMRI work that “what we resist, persists”. In fact they recognise that when we attempt to divert or suppress issues then we imbue them with greater strength. So avoided, or suppressed topics fester, often growing in strength.

 

 

We need to create safe space where truth or concerns can be aired. Without it, personal or organisation performance can be under-mined and individual well-being compromised.

 

What has this to do with horses?

 

Horses are spared the over-rationalising or contemplation that so often ties up the human brain. They are more honest and connected with what we would define as the intuitive. As such, they can show us how we are.

 

In so doing they can speak truth to power; title, experience and relative position are superfluous. A horse will not fail to indicate when there is an elephant in the room.

 

In this way, horses represent the ultimate experiential 360° appraisal, reflecting without judgement who we are and how we are, in the moment; their sensitivity can give us a running commentary on our mindset, our demeanour and our behaviour. And when we decide to act or change the way we are coming across, their honest and immediate commentary continues.

 

The nature of the horse – a herd based, flight animal – carries an awareness and presence which is connected to the energies and intentions of the situation and those around it. Within the immediate honesty of their behaviour lies an invitation to change.

 

“That’s just how he is at work”

 

Peter (not his real name) is CEO of a large international property firm. When invited to carry out a task with a horse, he grabbed the rope and marched off – the horse eventually, with some reluctance followed, largely as he was now at the end of an ever-tightening rope. His options were limited.

 

Something was missing here.

 

I asked his colleagues what they saw – “oh that’s just how is with us in the board room”. We all laughed.

 

This short interaction facilitated a discussion around the need to develop connection and how performance can be changed in context. The situation offered a safe opportunity to shine a light on individual default behaviour; much more importantly, here was a chance for Peter to enact the change that was needed – to role model a change of behaviour.

 

Peter returned to the task, but this time established a connection before making any demands of the horse; pausing to develop relationship and engage his equine counterpart in the interaction. Thus revisited, the horse responded positively and accompanied Peter in his task without resistance.

 

And then we added colleagues – and then we added obstacles. Around the horse we brought the team back together. There they found time to recognise themselves and roles – they found space to work together and acknowledge their individual and often complementary skills. All the time the horse quietly worked with the team and remained comfortable staying within the group.

 

 

Beyond the constraint of language

 

Communication is not just language. Our actions and behaviours reflect our intentions as much as our words. And sometimes more so.

 

Human beings need congruency between word and deed, instruction and action. Matthew Lieberman in Social (OUP, 2015) talks about the growing research in social neuroscience which explores the connectivity between our brains, he outlines the potential negative impact of someone reacts presented with incongruence in another. We must be aligned in mind and body.

 

As much as we might talk around leadership and change, in practice they are much more than instruction or commitment. Change requires action. It is about being different and that is more than a cognitive exercise. We need to embody the change; “be the change that you wish to see”, to paraphrase Gandhi.

 

Beside the horses we connect with communication beyond the spoken word. We get to see safely and without judgement what in the “Johari Window” model we might call our “unseen self”.

 

As a team working with Peter, we observed more of the horse than the human. The horse’s response highlighted the clumsiness of the initial attempt to lead. In this open and neutral environment, the team were able to acknowledge and question behaviour in a way that might not have been so welcome in the boardroom. Here was an opportunity to change. The horse acknowledged this and immediately reflected that change.

 

Both CEO and team now have a simple anchor to reflect on, a gentle reminder of the need to build connection, as a foundation for clear communication and instruction.

 

 

So how does it work?

 

Alongside the horses our learning in experiential. The learner is placed at the heart of the process, and as such it represents a personal commitment where the learner is empowered to drive the process based on their own requirements or aspirations.

 

The learning is somatic –involving the whole body. It draws our full consciousness into the process: cognitive, emotional and corporeal. It enables us to recognise the full physicality of our behaviours; and it offers us a safe space to model and embody any necessary shift.

 

It is an opportunity to consider both problem and solution, to review options and model change in real-time. Alongside the horses we create a clean physical space which is unencumbered by the baggage of existing relationships and or familiarity of location.

 

The horse most importantly offers honest and non-judgemental interaction. As we have seen, it does not concern itself with titles or hierarchies, it simply reflects how we are. It shows us the “horse” in the room. And in so doing it presents feedback; armed with that feedback we are invited to change.




Elizabeth Jenkins-Smalley
Editor In Chief at The Executive Magazine




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