21st Century Alchemy: Learning to be a cowboy

“One day you’ll teach them all to fly, boss-whisperer” (photo: iStock) “One day you’ll teach them all to fly, boss-whisperer” (photo: iStock)
February 14th, 2016 7:00 am| by David Parkins
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When I was eleven, we visited my sister in the countryside. Her neighbour owned several horses, including a yearling that had never been bridled. My brother just had to touch it. He hopped the fence and approached silently from behind, in a futile attempt not to scare it.
But he’d never been in the country or around horses. He didn’t know any cowboy proverbs. And before then, he had never flown.
Demolished dreams
As a career coach and strategy consultant, I often hear my clients’ professional dreams and corporate visions.
Last spring, I met an aspiring content developer with dreams of creating a high-performing team in her office. She approached her boss, who seemed supportive, and then her co-workers.
That was when everything shifted. Tearfully, she told me a traumatic story filled with resistance, pettiness, and eventually humiliation (not from her coworkers, but from her boss). It was her manager who had killed her momentum and, soon after our talk, she quit her job.
All in the approach
You’ve probably heard stories like hers of life-sucking workplace tensions, and if you’ve been in a similar situation, you’ve searched the internet for tips on how to handle them. Most point in the same direction: lead from behind (manage up), but none respect the cowboy way: “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.”
If leadership is approached from behind, then a pretty predictable outcome is that, sooner or later, we’re kicked down, kicked out, or kicked through the air just like my brother.
Like Tom Booker
What we need is a Tom Booker – that smooth-talking, boss-whispering cowboy who swaggers into our workplace, coiled lasso in hand, transforming your chief into the confident, strong leader we want them to be.
In truth, your boss is probably no weaker or more insecure than you are. And they probably shouldn’t be approached with a ‘lead from behind/manage up’ perspective (it can be perceived as arrogance). You’re not the leader and if they appear ‘weak’, neither are they (at least not in your eyes).
Perhaps, a different approach is needed, one of mutual respect, like between a rider and a horse, treating the other as they are and not as we’d like them to be.

Questions & Answers
Cat fight
Q: I’ve two employees who don’t like each other and are constantly ‘telling’ on each other. It’s wasting my time, affecting office morale and I’ve had enough. What can I do? ~ Gareth
A: Conflict is inevitable, but when it goes unchecked and affects the workplace, it’s time to tackle it head on. Talk to them together, explain how their behaviour is impacting on others and give them limited options: 1) work on it together, 2) involve a mediator, or 3) both resign (no winners). If they don’t have the motivation or the ‘skill’ to handle their differences, commit them to remediation (communication or conflict resolution training).
Office gossip 
Q: We have a gossip, but she’s really good at her job – so good that we usually overlook her innuendoes and hints that make others look bad. But every conversation leaves me with a bad impression of whomever she’s talking about. ~ Rhoda
A: Gossip is one expression of insecurity. How do you handle it? Be direct. Let her know (with examples) that her behaviour is inappropriate and you don’t want to hear it. You may not be friends, but do you want to befriend a gossip? But also give her specific compliments and affirm her good interactions. If everyone in the office does the same, things will change.
Boorish and boring
Q: My department supervisor is self-centered and conceited (his jokes are crass bordering on sexist) and he has a horrible habit of cornering people and, if allowed, ‘monologuing’ for hours. How can I stop him? ~ Celia
A: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) is a specialised form of military training used by armed forces all over the world. Plan, prepare, and practise a number of strategies and replay past scenarios employing them so that you can become an elite expert in workplace SERE. Your very work life may depend on it!
Need more time
Q: I’m 39, work as a FT supervisor, volunteer at a community project, have three kids (four counting my husband), two dogs, and parents who need constant attention. I also take evening classes in leadership. I’d appreciate some time management tips. ~ Jacqui
A: You don’t need time management. You’ve been pressing the accelerator too much for too long and things are out of control. Learn to use the brake pedal (cut back). Eliminate the non-essentials and focus on the criticals (for a season). You’ll have more time and may not need as much time management as you think. Less can be more.

What to avoid with a horse (or a boss)
- Do not make sudden or unpredictable movements
– Do not make loud or startling noises
– Do not surprise/harass them while they’re eating (or during other down times)
What to do with a horse (or a boss)
- Understand their body language (pause to watch, reflect and respond)
– Confidently and in a non-threatening manner, let them know you’re there
– Before approaching, create an inviting atmosphere and not a demanding presence
– Approach them diagonally and from the front whenever possible
– Avoid areas of vulnerability (blind spots)
– Respect their flight zone (keep the emergency exit clear)
– Stay out of their kicking range/zone
– Give them treats and rewards

 

David Parkins


21st Century Alchemy is a weekly Q&A column for career-minded professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses written by David Parkins, a business (re)development specialist, company culture strategist, career coach, and IMCSA speaker (ep3.dk)