Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Being a People Whisperer

Marie and I watched The Horse Whisperer on Saturday. Such a gentle yet moving flick was just what we needed after a diet of near-constant war movies, interrupted only by Ali and The Incredibles!

But it also resonated with issues Marie is facing in the workplace. She's on the cusp of a promotion, getting to put into practice the leadership skills she's been learning over the years and, of course, by listening to my endless monologues about the leadership books I've read.

But the most outstanding capacity Marie will bring to any leadership position is her compassion. She sees people as people, perhaps more so than many others I know. And that's precisely what' seems to be missing from her workplace at the moment (here's hoping they don't read this blog!).

I don't think it's an isolated thing, either. Managers in all sorts of companies give lip service to the idea of being "people-friendly" but sometimes their actions say the bottom line is all that matters. If the job could be done by machines, all the better.

And because of this mindset, employees get treated to a demotivating combination of suspicion and indifference. Suspicion when you're off sick, late or have to leave early, and indifference when you're meeting targets. And of course they make you feel personally responsible when targets aren't met, even if it's an issue of resourcing or company structure.

Why? Because accountants are running the show in countless companies. I don't have anything against accountants per se, and skill with a balance sheet is definitely needed if a company is to know where they are at any given moment.But accountants aren't the best communicators, nor the best understanders of human beings.

An example. Names have been changed to protect - well, to protect me, actually! On the weekend Marie was given on-call duties because her supervisor Kristen was away. It was a hugely busy weekend, with a sudden hailstorm in Christchurch sending a hail of phonecalls in to the call centre.

Early Sunday morning Mandy, who is often late, rang in saying she'd missed her bus but would hopefully be in after 9. Instead of the usual accountant treatment - asking why she was late, making her feel bad for being late - Marie said that's cool, we look forward to seeing you whenever you get here. Marie's been in that situation - let's face it, we all have - and understood that added stress doesn't get you there any faster.

But compassion does. Mandy organised her brother to give her a lift into work, so she arrived there before 8:30. Why? Because Marie had trusted her, and not made her feel guilty for making a mistake.

So ... what does this have to do with Horse Whisperer? Simply this: both the Horse Whisperer and the traditional horse trainer have the same goal in mind - get the horse used to being ridden. It's just that one uses force to achieve his goal, the other uses compassion and mutual respect.

As the original horse whisperer (I forget his name) said on the special featurette (alas, way too short), "I'm telling the horse that I'm the leader and he's the follower, but that doesn't make me any better than him."


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