What One Horse and an Open Sleigh Taught Me About Change Management

Too many managers seem to think that people ought to let them drive the corporate strategy based on what really amounts to blind trust. “I know what I’m doing. I have a vision. Just focus on the future and where we are heading. Trust me.”

I learned the painful consequences of this approach early in life from an experience with one horse and an open sleigh. As a kid, I was the proud owner of a Welsh pony unimaginatively named Flicka. We got along well in general. She was tolerant and I was enthusiastic. She was comfortable with a saddle or pulling a two-wheel cart, but I had this image in my head (encouraged by my Mom and the popular Christmas song) of a one-horse open sleigh skimming along the snow-covered hills. So when a small sleigh came up for sale at a farm auction nearby, we bought it.

Photo Credit: pmarkham via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: pmarkham via Compfight cc

Now in retrospect (and I use that word purposely as you will see), I think my big mistake was not understanding how blinders (also sometimes called blinkers) actually work. Blinders are those flat or slightly cupped leather flaps you see on the bridle of racing and driving horses which prevent them from looking behind them.

Horses, like other grazing animals, have eyes in the sides of their heads which is a good adaptation if you want to avoid predators sneaking up behind you. Blinders were invented to keep horses focused forward and keep them from seeing distractions that might spook them.

What I didn’t fully grasp at the time, was that blinders only work if the horse trusts the driver. Flicka likely had enough horse sense to question whether I really knew what I was doing with this new contraption to which she had been hitched. In my eagerness to go “dashing through the snow” I had not carefully introduced her to the sleigh and she didn’t trust it or me.

In the lexicon of management consultants, I had not made sure that Flicka had “bought into” this enterprise of “dashing through the snow” and hence I was not “laughing all the way.” I was under the delusion that if I supplied blinders, she wouldn’t care what I loaded up behind her to pull. I figured she couldn’t see it anyway. Let’s face it, she literally didn’t share my vision. More importantly, as it turned out, I didn’t share hers. I probably should have paid more attention to the other verses of the song.

So much of what passes for “change management” these days is really just a thinly veiled effort (how appropriate is that image?) to get people to wear blinders so they are not distracted by potentially inconvenient information. But if people can tell that something has changed that affects them, especially if you think you have hidden it, they are not going to trust you and for good reasons.

As a manager, you may be driving the sleigh (or its equivalent), but you are not the one pulling it. If you don’t have the trust of the people pulling it, you will find yourself in trouble sooner or later. If as a manager, you find yourself starting a lot of your sentences with “I did this” and “I did that,”  you will not have the trust of the people pulling the sleigh. In fact, odds are you never had it. Beware that “perpendicular pronoun.”

If you want people to focus on where you are driving the business, listen to them. Don’t pretend that major changes are simply distractions they should avoid looking at. And don’t pretend you can do it all on your own or you soon will be doing it all on your own and failing at it. A clear vision for the company is great if it is shared. When it is shared and people trust “the driver,” they will happily ignore the distractions in favor of “dashing” ahead.