Send Him To The Cowgirl – How to Handle a Difficult Employee

To be clear – I am not talking about an NFL trade here. In the sport horse industry there is an expression (which I love) – “send him/her to the cowboy”. That’s what you tell a friend who has a horse that has learned how to buck and regularly uses it as a tactic to get out of work by throwing his/her rider. Most riders can ride a buck or two but when a horse has decided to lose his rider, most riders will end up in the dirt. When you send a horse to the cowboy he’s going to encounter someone that he can’t buck off and he will learn that the extra work required to try to do so is counterproductive and that it’s time to learn a smarter strategy.

It struck me that there is a similarity here with calling in a coach for the difficult employee. Most executive coaches I know don’t particularly want to be the cowboy to the difficult horse. But I love helping people of all types find that sweet spot where they learn that certain behaviours no longer serve them and it’s time to develop more productive strategies, be they the equivalent of bucking and rearing or more passive behaviours, like pretending to be in agreement while silently opposing and undermining the status quo. Working with horses can change the dynamics for people in an immediate and powerful way. Horses can’t be lied to, manipulated by bullying words, intimidated by fancy clothes, impressive job title, salary, or high end car.

I have been working with a couple of people recently with 2 very different horses. It is interesting to see the differences that the horses each demand from people in terms of leadership qualities. One horse is very pushy and tricky. He is used to getting his own way, using his size to intimidate. The other horse is more passive, seemingly a loving horse, who also wants to get his own way. He employs different strategies such as seeking physical connection and love, knowing that many people will give in to him and not expect much from him if he can elicit the maternal instinct from those around him.

Working with these 2 horses is a real leadership challenge and a personal growth opportunity. In order to give each horse what he needs one must be highly aware of all the different body language signals being exchanged by oneself and the horses and be adept at accelerating and throttling one’s energy, like driving a standard transmission vehicle. If one gets too big and bullying with one horse you might elicit big resistance in return, while with the other horse you will get a shut-down horse that is full of fear. In either case the result will be driving a wedge between you and the horse; you will not be gaining the respect and trust required for real connection. Finding the sweet spot in between, that speaks to the individual needs of the horses, teaches us so much about our self-awareness, self-esteem, the need or fear of competition, the desire to dominate when frustrated, and the ability to let go of expectation and live in the moment.

Today there were some breakthroughs for both people. Each recognized and confronted an inner awareness that broke through some old patterns and created the opening to learn new strategies free of manipulation, fear, and competition.  Lessons learned in the presence of horses tend to be profound and long lasting as the whole person is engaged in the learning. No intellectual classroom learning here. This is whole body, whole brain engagement and produces prodigious results! What a great day we had today.