The other day, my daughter Olivia and I walked out to the pasture to get Dublin into the trailer for lessons. Dublin’s a sweet little mare, friendly and always up for a snuggle. She loves Olivia and Olivia loves her right back, with the special understanding that children and horses sometimes seem to have. As usual that day, Dublin came over to investigate us, curious about what we had planned. When we brought her out of her corral, though, she hesitated. She didn’t want to leave Boogie, the other member of her herd and resident of her pasture. With minute hesitation in her feet, twitches of her ears, widening of her eyes, she let us know it.
It’s like this almost every time. Horses are herd animals, but we tend to forget that, since in the modern age they’re most useful to us one at a time. They’re prey, with hundreds of years of instincts tying their herd to safety and protection from the predators that lurk just out of sight. On windy days, when they can’t hear or smell the world around them, they lean even more heavily on the other members of their herd, trusting them to alert to danger. On calmer ones, they stand together, grooming each other and communicating in their silent, expressive way.
A lot of people I know keep their horses separated, in enclosures that don’t allow them to form these natural herds. The thinking is logical: if horses can’t form close-knit relationships with each other, then they form them with people instead. The person becomes the trusted one, the one the horse can turn to in the moments when they need some reassurance. You don’t have to chase them around or deal with separation anxiety if they don’t want to come with you, because they don’t have a choice. Of course, I want the horses to trust me; I want to be worthy of that trust. But I want to earn it, not have it given to me because they need security and I’m the only one offering.
When I was a kid, I sometimes saw advertisements for horses that ran along the lines of: “Free halter, horse included.” The horse was a thing – a fundamentally worthless thing – that was useful only inasmuch as a person could control it. That’s never felt right to me, but I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it then.
I am now.
People are herd animals too. We don’t do well on our own. We look to our spouses, our families, and our friends for support; we work together on big problems and small ones. We’re better when we crowdsource, when we ask for feedback, when we aren’t afraid of what other people think.
For a long time, most of what I saw modeled in business was competition. You didn’t want to help other people, because helping, or being in a herd, was a sign of weakness. You didn’t want to share credit, because it diluted your own importance. People talked a lot about teamwork, but often what they meant was working parallel to other people instead of truly with them.
Just like that doesn’t feel right with horses, it doesn’t feel right with people. I have a small team, just a few women who are all skilled at what they do. They have overlapping talents in project management, copywriting, web design, and marketing. I could wall them off from each other, creating a space where each person stares at a screen, puts her head down, and does the work, but instead, I’m trying to do something different. I’ve recognized something different: that getting the best from people isn’t about making them rely on you. It’s about letting them rely on themselves, and on each other. I won’t sugarcoat it: at the end of the day, I’m in charge. That’s what owning a small business is. But as much as I’m in charge, I’m not in control. I’m not looking over every interaction and making every decision. We trust each other because of the freedom we have to try and even to fail, not because there’s no other choice.
With horses, I had a road map of people who had done it before. With business, I’m picking up a little bit at a time and feeling it out as I go. We started with meetings, seeing each other’s faces in real time instead of connecting over email and Slack. Conversations that used to spread over a week suddenly took minutes, and we started to have short exchanges about real things: our families and our hobbies, what we’d been doing during the week.
Everyone on my team takes a DiSC assessment when they join. This personality assessment looks at people’s workplace habits and preferences in terms of their dominance, influence, conscientiousness, and steadiness. It explores how they like to work, and how the work environment can support them. As I’ve delved more deeply into it, I’ve started using its insights to guide my communication with each team member. In fact, it’s been valuable enough that I think it’s worth its own blog post, which will be coming up.
These were little changes, but they had a big effect. There’s more humor now, more laughter, more camaraderie. We send each other video messages on Marco Polo and our internal Slack channels are full of emoji. We’re not in our separate pastures anymore, and while having our work tangled up in each other’s might make it take a little longer, it also makes it better, deeper.
Now, instead of reacting to things, I’m responding to them. Instead of being the only one people can come to for help, I’m able to take a step back and be there for the big things. I don’t have to be in control all the time, and we’re all healthier – the Kinship included – for it.
If you’re reading this because you’re wondering about your own team, your own way of approaching trust and community, I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t have it down to a handy infographic with the top five tips for building teamwork. (Frankly, I’d be skeptical of someone who did.) What I can say, though, is that in discovering the power of letting my horses be horses, I’ve reflected a lot on the power of letting people be people. For me, relinquishing a little control in favor of adding a whole lot of trust has made my team stronger. I think it might make yours stronger, too.