We’ve all heard the old saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. I’m a horse person and it’s true. Yet, leading them TO the water is an important part. It enables a limited forced choice. Do you lead employees to the place where they get to make a choice between two items? Drink or not drink? Whether you want them to drink the Kool-Aid or latest shared corporate value system, or you want them to embrace that new policy, program, or process, leading them to that point at which they have at least a 50% chance of choosing the choice you wish, is an important part of the process. Rapidly improve your leadership abilities with these perhaps seemingly “wild” behaviors and yes… we’ll also talk through what to do once they’re at that proverbial “water”…
What are the traits you demonstrate as a leader, that employees talk about? Are you unique in any way? Does what you do stand out or are you simply one among a large crowd and layer of leaders? Too much information, distraction, and messaging vies for the attention of our employees each moment of every day. Being boring will cause you to blend in among the fray and your leadership guidance to only be heard when it happens to be the loudest or most recent set of words they’ve heard. Change that. Entice them. Interest them. Be interesting to be around and they’ll follow you everywhere.
If you’ve ever trained a horse, you know giving a command once is not what does it, but a repeated set of behaviors and usually treats. What are you persistently reinforcing with those you lead? What are your treats? Instead of filling your pockets with sugar cubes, look for each and every opportunity to reinforce your message in a way that works for them and for you. In the race between persistence and power, persistence usually wins when the power fades. You can’t force them to think your way, but you can surround them with the same message so that overtime they decide or comply, eventually feeling as if it was their idea to do so.
Part of what compels employees to follow their leader is trust. A consistent demonstration of actions that line up with words and actually doing what you told them you would build trust. Consistently being honest even when your answer is far from what they desire is how you keep a team in sync and in-tact, and willing to have your back. If in a one on one you share your opinion and make a commitment, but back out or leave them hanging in a larger group, they’ll buck the system and your leadership every time. It’s not about being good or bad, right or wrong, but about consistently being yourself so they know with whom they are choosing to follow and get along.
A corporate client of ours calls me “crazy”. She means it in a good way and if asked describes that she wasn’t sure how to take me when we first met. She thought surely my energy and enthusiasm would fade or at some point go away. When it didn’t, she let down her guard and realized how much of that consistent energy she admired, but also frequently reminded me to get my rest at the end of our work days. What crazy thing do you do that is uniquely part of you and that endears them to you? Are you always forgetting something in your office? Are you the one who always stays the latest? Do you wear attention getting outfits? Similar to being interesting, being crazy is about standing out. What can employees point to or perhaps even help you with that creates loyalty and a reminder that you just might need them? They are far more likely to follow the leader who needs some help than a leader who appears all buttoned up and completely self-sufficient.
Give Them What They Need
There’s no question that one with horses will have happier horses if you give them proper food, clean water, shelter, and an occasional brushing and carrot. The same is true for employees. Don’t go giving them carrots of course, but give them what they need, which is usually…for you to actually lead. Lead them in a way that makes sense for them at a pace they can follow and complete with all the tools needed to do their job. In addition to those important things, employees need a leader who sees what they need, proactively provides it and then keeps their attention on those elements that are less obvious. What level, type, and frequency of development do they need? Are you providing it proactively or only when it’s become critical? Leading them to water, or in this case, to higher levels of performance and getting them to choose to do more or be more, is about you consistently and frequently making that choice available and most appealing.
Get What Holds Them Back
Wishing an employee will jump through hoops of fire or an electrified fence to do as you ask is like wishing your horse would learn to put on its own saddle. Oh how I wish, but that’s just not going to happen. What holds those employees back for which you see so much potential? Are there barriers that are merely physical or about office proximity or are there those for which you need to find a more significant remedy? The wrong employee in the wrong role could be a barrier to choosing to perform in the way you’ve asked. The wrong personality for that type of work could prevent even understanding where you want to lead, much less how to follow. Find their barriers. Clear them out of the way, while also enacting these other listed behaviors and employees will follow you all day, every day.
Leading a horse to water gives them the option to drink. Leading an employee to the right role, that lets them use their natural traits, providing them with the resources they need and a person who peaks their curiosity, or at a minimum, gets their attention, gives them the option to follow and comply. Fail to provide these things and you’ll constantly be begging or fighting or trying to find ways to force them to do more and better. Have you ever tried to force a thousand pound horse to go where they don’t want to go? It’s not easy, but it’s nothing compared to forcing another human to do something that’s not clear, or no fun, or appears to have not benefit one as a reward for engaging their efforts.