Reining in the horses

In Biblical terms, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were Pestilence, Famine, War and Death.  An American psychologist, Dr John Gottman, who researches divorce and its causation, identifies four new horse riders that he names Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. The adverse impact of these behaviours apply in organisational leadership just as much as marital relationships.

Misplaced optimism?

Recent works by the likes of Steven Pinker about Optimism, see, suggest the biblical horses are now lame and less able to gallop and wreak their havoc across humankind.  However, others including the late Steven Hawkins predict that pestilence is gathering pace again as bacteria develop stronger antibiotic resistance, see

Famine remains rife in war-torn countries like Yemen and those with acute autocracies such as North Korea.  The most lurid fear mongering in the Brexit “war of words” suggests severe food shortages will afflict the UK post its departure from the EU at the end of March. However, let’s not be drawn into that hornets’ nest apart from considering the pertinence of Gottman’s nomenclature to the manner and tone of debate about Brexit and the general ebb of manners and civility from so much of discourse and engagement in contemporary organisations.

The old nags

Criticism is rife, it is popularised in mass “entertainment” as representing smart, tough, decisive, determined, objective, even “manly” leadership.  It is personalised, “You are this [bad]”, “You are not this [good]”, “You’re weak [not strong]”.  The issue at hand is put to one side at the expense of the person; their dignity no longer matters so long as they are cowed into submission. 

In management, the differentiation between accountability and responsibility is lost sight of.  Never forget that as a leader or manager, you are accountable for the performance of those who report to you.  The causation of that “wazzock” you have harshly condemned for not performing sufficiently well is likely your failure to nurture their ability.  Throwing someone in the deep end is often sold as the “career break” opportunity, yet never discount the risk that you might as well tie a brick to your ankle as well as the novice team-member because if they sink so will you.  Your leadership judgement and discretion deserve to be criticised, but not you as a person, however.    

Defensiveness is everywhere; the reluctance to assume and accept accountability and/or responsibility is a modern pestilence.  In being asked to do something new, there is no shame in seeking clarity about how to undertake that task.  There is a personal responsibility to ensure you know what you are doing and, more importantly, why. 

While as a parent or grandparent it is tiring when one’s child or grandchild asks “Why” for the umpteenth time. Yet by doing so, that infant learns things at the quickest rate in their life.  Keeping hold of a thread of a childlike inquisitiveness that prompts questions to be asked may cause a revival in the old quality mantras of “Do it right, first time every time” or “Once and done”.  How may that aid productivity, service excellence and employee engagement?  How might the sapping, financial affliction of the “cost of re-work” be avoided?

Contempt in the form of making scathing remarks, sarcastic put-downs, belittling others are other features of “management as entertainment”.  The biggest show in town is Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.  A crude synonym for this is “big swinging dick” behaviour which, sadly, applies across the genders.  Dale Carnegie’s counsel “to praise in public, admonish in private” has been discarded.  Open admonishment is the contemporary version of the medieval public stocks. 

Dismissing the hand of those who seek to counsel and coach a more mature and rounded behaviour can see those helping hands withdrawn when some “fast tracker” comes unexpectedly unstuck and slips.   When you jab at someone with your finger, remember that three are pointing back at you. 

Stonewalling, not being interested (as opposed to acting as a disinterested mediator or moderator), procrastination, prevarication or, in an old-fashioned word, “dithering” stall progress towards resolving issues.  The risk averse or overly-affable manager avoids confronting an issue when it is a mere pimple; when it has erupted into an enormous boil, lancing it is a far messier business. 

Many consider a clever negotiation technique to be drawing out the discussion until the other party must acquiesce to gain what they need, without which the consequences are dire.  (Many Brexit commentators suggest this is PM May’s tactic in stalling a parliamentary vote until such time as one must be held and conceded otherwise the UK faces a no-deal exit.) 

The lack of fact and evidence, or duplicitous masking of it, fuels stonewalling.  Why can’t truth prevail; let each side be open and honest with each other and strenuously avoid failing under the hooves of the horse of personal criticism?  Honesty often sits as a keystone of corporate values statements yet, in essence, remain little more than stencilled words on glass partition walls. 

The new runners and riders

As we enter 2019, what will you do to avoid riding these four behavioural horses?  Yes, they may appear to be chomping at the bit, highly energised steeds.  Before long that impatience to get out of the starting gate turns to foam and, at the first difficult fence, the horse jumps askew, lands clumsily, breaks its leg and, what is now a useless nag, is “carted off to the glue factory”. 

What are the better fancied behavioural runners?  Here’s my alliterative starter for four:

  • Assessment instead of Criticism – try some traditional coaching approaches, ask the other person to assess their own skills and behaviours and describe real situations.
  • Assertiveness (not aggression) instead of Defensiveness – if you’ve cocked-up, own up and commit to put things right.  Don’t wait for the leaking tap to be a burst gushing water main.  The cost of such defensiveness is high, and often not just for the person who has kept schtum.
  • Admiration instead of Contempt – let’s accentuate the positives and through provision of sound learning and development, help people manage those negative aspects of their personality traits that inform how they naturally behave. 
  • Accommodate instead of Stonewalling – create rapport to enable others to share their thoughts and opinions without fear of being belittled and taken advantage of.  Seek a mutually beneficial outcome rather than the I win, you lose, because at some point you will lose.  Enduring relationships beat impersonal transactions. 

By riding these pedigree mares, 2019 can be a year of peace, health and happiness, which I wish to you for the forthcoming 12 months.

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