Tiffin is a 16.3 hands Irish thoroughbred who had a difficult start in life which means he is learning to trust again.
As it is national story week this week, the following true story is an extract from my book Leading through uncertainty and explains how past experiences can shape our behaviour without us realising it.
Tiffin has an expected meltdown
Tiffin reared up, his eyes wild in fear and his legs flailing high above my head. My heart rate shot up, and I jumped back to avoid being kicked. The rope snapped as Tiffin pulled away from the fence, and he was free. He charged off down the yard towards the gate into the field, his head high, snorting in terror. I followed him cautiously, terrified of being trampled or kicked.
Tiffin stood at the gate, and I took hold of the lead rope. His heart was racing, and mine mirrored his, each of us fearing for our safety. I’m no match for a 600kg horse who has lost all sense of reason, especially when my heart is pounding and I’m in overwhelm too. He danced on his toes, snorting and blowing hard. I couldn’t remove his head collar when he was in this state, so I unclipped the lead rope, opened the gate and let him go. He needed to move his feet and be free, and I needed to bring my heart rate down so I could be more resourceful. Within a few minutes, Tiffin was calm again as the perceived danger and fear subsided. I calmed down too, but I remained cautious in handling him, knowing that the explosion could return another day.
Tiffin learns to trust again
This was the first time Tiffin had behaved in this way. He had been with me for 6 months, and throughout that time he had been sweet, gentle and willing. He was doing amazing work with clients and was engaged with me in between. I’d always thought he was easy to handle until that day when I realised he was more complex. I had tied all the horses up to groom them for a photo shoot. It’s a rare occurrence that my horses are tied up on the yard, and even more rare that they are all tied up in a line. I think it reminded him of his racing days, and he panicked.
In the brief moment that Tiffin reared up, both his trauma of being beaten on a race yard and my trauma of being unsafe with a rearing horse were both invoked. We were wary of each other for the next few months, wanting to trust each other, knowing that deep down we were both kind and meant well, but both terrified for our safety. Tiffin’s size, strength and unpredictability had the potential to seriously injure me if he exploded again. I was sure he wouldn’t hurt me on purpose, but he could do so easily in a moment of panic when he was not thinking clearly. Tiffin had no intention of rearing again any more than I would slap him, but it took a few months of learning to trust that we could be safe together before we could relax again.
Past experiences create behaviour
We are not machines. We have human experiences with emotional highs and lows. We tend to forget this when we continuously strive for end goals in business.
Tiffin’s experience of poor treatment on a former racing yard has left its mark. He takes longer to build trust with people, especially men with strong dominant energy. His workload is therefore lower than the other horses in the herd because he gets stressed more quickly. I pay closer attention to him to ensure he does not get overwhelmed and panic. By understanding him in this way and recognising his limits, he is able to continue working.
Whilst his workload may be lower, his impact certainly is not. He will highlight emotional and physical pain in clients, a role he plays willingly, resulting in profound insights for them that the other horses could not provide. We cannot always measure the input and output of team members with tangible numerical metrics. We must also explore the value that people bring to the team that is unique to them and that nobody else could bring. Whilst Tiffin cannot do the workload of Kalle, he brings something that she cannot. Therein lies his value.
What we can learn from Tiffin
Past experiences influence behaviour. If people in your team struggle to trust or demonstrate behaviours that are out of character, there is probably an ingrained default pattern of behaviour at work. Pay attention to where people derail themselves or the team and pay attention to where you get triggered based on your past experiences.
If you would like to understand more about how past experiences
influence behaviour and leadership,
buy my book Leading through uncertainty on Amazon
or contact me on 07584 248822 to discuss how I can help your team
be more effective under pressure