Using efficient body language to persuade others

Kristian Cabanis and his horse

Everyone talks about using new technologies to increase efficiency. But the success of any business undertaking actually depends on the quality of its management. In my job as a consultant, I’ve wondered how I can improve this. As an enthusiastic rider, I came up with the idea of using horses as effective coaches.

Every day in the media we hear that new technologies and processes, such as artificial intelligence and agile working methods, will be the “bread and butter” of companies in the future. As a result, even airlines are pouncing on these new technologies and jockeying for position to gain a competitive advantage. Some will burn through a lot of cash, and some established companies will disappear. But the best will survive and grow faster than their competitors. Regardless of which strategy you want to use, however, people – and specifically managers – are always the decisive factor.

Managers have to implement the chosen strategy using an appropriate leadership style. But how can someone know whether they’re managing others “appropriately”? This is where the neutral third-party comes in. It seems a bit “old school” compared to artificial intelligence: namely, horses. With their ability to distinguish lead animals from average creatures, they tell us immediately and honestly how much they are willing to accept us as leaders.


Appropriate employee leadership

What we often forget in our discussion of new technologies is the human factor. In my experience, the field of human resources is a decisive aspect when it comes to implementing projects or strategies.

These resources naturally include well-trained technical experts as well as suitable managers who will assemble the right team, motivate them with an appropriate leadership style and credibly convey their leadership to others.

The central aspects of leadership involve managing people

  • in a cooperative way

  • with empathy and intuition

  • based on agreed goals

This is nothing new, of course, and we have many very good examples of it from history, including Amundsen’s and Scott’s race to the South Pole, which tragically demonstrates just how vital appropriate leadership is. Amundsen was a team player with leadership qualities, while Scott was a domineering commander who followed strict hierarchies – with well-known consequences for both expeditions…

Ultimately, leading is similar to driving a car – as a manager, you have to be able to respond well in different ways to different situations. This raises a question: just how good are our managers? In the Willis Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 2017, the leadership abilities of top managers were investigated in a survey of 97,000 people in 30 countries. Among other things, the study says: “Managers use social skills to drive the sustainable engagement of their employees. But employees in Germany give them low scores here. And the management is rated positively in terms of company growth and cost control, but not as regards its actions in accordance with company values.”

This result calls for initiative, particularly if a company wants to expand and assert its leading position in the market.

 

How can you find a good manager or employees, or how can you train someone to be one?

In my day-to-day work as a consultant, I’ve noticed that the employees who attract the most attention in their working life are those who are most conspicuous. On account of the extroverted and dominant way in which they push themselves to the foreground, such employees are often promoted or given (managerial) responsibilities sooner than others. A dominant leadership style is not necessarily negative, but it can become a demotivating factor for employees when their manager overestimates his or her own competence, leads aggressively and thus fails to generate trust among the employees.

Then there are the introverted employees who are often overlooked in everyday professional life because of their inconspicuous manner. A closer look reveals that these employees are frequently very reserved and do not make optimal use of their potential because of a lack of communication. They may perform very well, but their unobtrusive way of working attracts less attention on the job than that of their extroverted colleagues. It is hard to realistically judge their capability, and this frequently leads to a poorer assessment. It can be a significant loss for a company if these employees are not recognized and encouraged. By the same token, bad managers can lead to a loss of human or real capital if existing opportunities are not taken, established goals are not met or a company has to withdraw from a market.

 

Coaching: Effectively foster potential – improve leadership qualities

During my time as a consultant for restructuring projects, in which decisions had to be made quickly on far-reaching measures and employees had to be enthusiastic about these decisions, I met numerous managers with many different facets. Restructuring projects are not just projects in which new strategies are developed or companies are broken up; they also always involve a very high degree of change management – meaning human resources. In connection with this, I asked myself how I could improve the leadership qualities of managers and foster the potential of reserved but very capable employees.

The solution I always came to was coaching. For Timothy Gallwey, an American sports educator, coaching means “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.” And according to Peterson and Hicks, “coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective.” In this sense, coaching is not a theoretical lesson that imposes “something” from the outside; instead, it uses the path to self-knowledge to find personally relevant solutions.

But how can suitable tools be used to quickly, practically and, above all, effectively convey to managers – who are always pressed for time – where their potential for improvement lies while simultaneously introducing them to solutions without wasting valuable time in theoretical personality training seminars?

 

Horses are effective coaches that cannot be manipulated

My experiences as an enthusiastic rider prompted me to make use of the special traits of horses. To this end, I worked closely with an experienced horse trainer and competition rider. Horses are social creatures with particular character traits. When you interact with them, you learn a lot about them but also about yourself.

Horses as a species have the following three typical traits:

  • horses are herd animals
  • horses are flight animals
  • horses communicate

Like people, horses are social creatures with the same innate desire for company. They feel most comfortable in the company of other horses (Rees). To satisfy their need for company, horses of different ages and sexes come together in herds.

One prominent feature of a herd is the importance of role assignments, family and friendship. This is what makes the horse a social creature. There is a clear hierarchy within the herd. The most dominant horse takes on the role of lead animal who is followed by the entire social group.

Dominance must not be confused with aggressiveness; the lead animal is distinguished by its leadership qualities (Rees). This means that, thanks to its dominant position, it is capable of providing safety and protection to the entire herd. The lead animal makes all (vital) decisions, and the herd follows without hesitation. This interplay is the only way to ensure survival in the wild.

In dealing with horses and in the context of coaching, it is important for the person to take on this leading role. He or she can then lead and influence the horse, which is essential to working and interacting with the animal. The person also creates a sense of security and trust. This can only be achieved through clear, unambiguous and confident self-presentation. On account of their innate flight instinct, horses can sense the slightest insecurity and cannot be deceived about a lack of any of these fundamental abilities. This makes them an honest mirror for one’s own behavior that cannot be manipulated.

This self-knowledge and self-perception should lead to a desire to change. But how can this be put into practice?

The decisive factor here is Whitmore’s GROW model:

G = Goal - Defining the aim
R = Reality check - What am I actually projecting to the outside world?
O = Options - What options do I have for getting a grip on “this”?
W = Will – What will we do to change “this” and by when?

 

Leading and influencing, providing security and establishing trust

The concept pays special attention to the aspects of “leading and influencing” as well as “providing security and establishing trust.” Through interaction with horses, employees learn to take on the role of lead animal.

Communication is a key element of life in a community. This applies to the workplace as well as the horse herd. Horses communicate through vocalizations, body positions and movements that signal their emotional state – excitement or relaxation. Horses cannot pretend. Just as horses transfer their social feelings to people, they also include people in their communication. They react to a person’s voice, body language and muscle tension or relaxation (Rees). This means horses communicate holistically and authentically. As this is also a crucial element in managing employees, it can applied very well to coaching.

This approach to coaching takes advantage of another trait of horses as well: their honesty. “Horses view us as the leader. They are constantly checking: am I in good hands?” If you don’t give off the right aura, they will refuse to follow you. Horses thus hold up a kind of mirror to us that our fellow human beings can never provide.

The participants learn to take on the role of lead animal, to communicate with the horse and to think about their own (body) language and use it in a deliberate way. Communication between human and horse takes place through the conscious use of posture and voice signals. The more introverted and reserved employees learn to present themselves authentically and self-confidently in a holistic context by greatly improving their body language. Dominant and extroverted managers learn to provide security and establish trust, as this is the only way for employees to be motivated to perform their best and to successfully implement strategies.

This decisively strengthens two important pillars of human resources: introverted and dominant employees. And I am absolutely confident that our four-legged communication experts can support the implementation of your company strategy and help it achieve success.

 

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