Just this month I learned something about horses that I didn’t know, when a friend of mine was working in a stable. She told me that when new horses are brought to be boarded, there is a method of introducing them to the herd that eases the transition and makes it safe for all the horses. As a leadership Coach, I have facilitated many “assimilation” meetings for arriving leaders and team members. While this intervention really helps, I realized that stable managers – and horses – can teach us a few things about welcoming new people onto the team.
Consider the “pecking order”.
Herds have an established dominance hierarchy as part of their social order. This means that some horses are more dominant than others, and there could be one or more natural leaders. Teams also have one or more informal leaders. These are the people who influence how changes are accepted, or rejected, by the team. Generally, these people have personal attributes of self-confidence, expertise and charisma – traits that draw people to them. Often, they don’t like to be crossed. Leaders are wise to be aware of the power dynamics in their team, as they bring new members onside.
Start with a quarantine period.
New horses are first kept isolated from the herd. This gives them a chance to adjust to the change in scenery and get oriented. I know that by the time the new hire arrives, both the manager and team are eager to off-load what they’ve been covering during the vacancy. Even so, it’s a good idea to “quarantine” the new team member for a week. Let them get set up in the new office and give them general reading and less urgent, routine work to do. Ask your team members not to deluge them or draw them into the intricacies of the business just yet. Have them bring their questions to you. An incubation period allows natural stress levels to even out, and with less anxiety they won’t make an honest, but costly, mistake. They are also less likely to feel a need to “show off” if what you ask them to do is just “show up” and get acclimatized. The rest of the team can observe the newcomer from a distance, and get used to having someone new in their space.
Join into the team slowly
Then, the new horse is put in a paddock with the most dominant herd member. Here, they are observed to see if they can interact in healthy ways. It may take days or weeks for harmony to emerge, but you don’t interfere unless there is a safety issue. Once the new member is comfortable, it’s time to partner them with someone on the team who has informal leadership. Perhaps there is a committee meeting they can attend together, perhaps a project they can deliver together. Sit down with both to express your expectations for good outcomes, and your confidence that they will work well together. Speak and treat them as equal partners. This isn’t a test to see if the new-comer will submit. Just like horses, people demonstrate both dominant and submissive behaviours in daily interactions. It’s more of case of learning what the give-and-take will be like.
Avoid obvious collisions.
On the farm, changing the herd means you might have to put up some new fences, or take some down. Be aware of where confrontations between horses occur and act ahead of time to help manage them. You should plan ahead to prevent the newcomer from being inadvertently caught or pinned to a wall. Adding a new team member changes the dynamics of the group, even more so if there’s been a restructure or the job itself is new. Be available and accessible to chat with individuals and groups about unforeseen role conflicts. Make it okay to talk about the work and service delivery, but not okay to talk about people. Stop any kind of gossipy criticisms. Proactively identify where sensitivities might occur, such as transferring work from one member to another. Focus everyone on sources of tension and facilitate the whole group through it without allowing anyone to make it personal.
Like people, horses are sensitive and social creatures, apt to act both rationally and surprisingly. Thanks go to Elise for the inspirational new way of thinking of teams, and to Dr. Sue Stuska, Ed.D for her knowledgeable writing on horses.