Whether you’re a leader or a follower, to achieve optimal performance, it all begins with TRUST. But what does that really mean? Universally, to trust someone is to have confidence in them. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. This is true for both horses and people, but why is it so important?

Horses are prey animals, meaning they spend their lives working really hard  NOT to be eaten by a predator. And, not unlike humans, horses have a built in ‘fight or flight’ response to any perceived danger. But which horse do they follow when they perceive danger? They follow the herd leader – the horse they TRUST the most, the one at the top of the pecking order. All species that live in groups thrive on a pecking order, and so does your work environment and your household.

Consider for a minute, who is at the top of the pecking order (the leader) in your household? In other words, who in your family is trusted to consistently provide food, shelter, leadership, education, and mental/emotional/spiritual support? Who is entrusted to provide a majority of the decision making? Who is respected for their leadership?  Note: leadership is more than a title and many times the most influential people in an organization are informal leaders who are respected and trusted by everyone.

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How do you build trust?

Forming a relationship with an employee or a horse is not something that happens overnight. It takes time to build meaningful, mutual relationships. Building trust begins with a series of intentional actions designed to demonstrate trustworthiness. One of the best things about building trust is that you don’t need any special equipment or even special training. All you need is a sincere desire to be trustworthy.

Invest in Quality Time Together

The foundations of any good relationship start by spending time with the other person or horse – and not just when you want something. Take time to get to know each other on both a personal and professional level.  Remember trust is not something that is ‘on’ or ‘off’, rather it develops and strengthens slowly over time. When you can instill confidence in your employees that they are safe under your leadership, that confidence will extend to both good times and bad times.

Get Your Groom On

Grooming a horse is about more than just brushing the dirt off of their coat. Grooming gives you the opportunity to build a relationship with your horse and learn all their “special spots.”

Likewise, getting to know your employees provides you the opportunity to learn what motivates them so you can customize your leadership approach to best suit their unique needs and wants.This customized leadership approach helps further establish the bond of trust and enhances the opportunity for high performance.

Be Consistent

We build trust with people and horses by being consistent with our actions and reactions. As leaders our employees look to us for reinforcement of their performance and behavior both positive and negative. We can’t just change our response based on our mood. Our employees (and our horses) require consistency to perform at an optimal level and it is our job as a leader to provide that consistency.

When Trust is Broken

In any relationship, it takes a long time to build trust and only an instant to lose it. One way to prevent a loss of trust is to never put your employees in a situation where they don’t trust you.  However, this is not always possible. So what do you do if trust has been fractured?

First, look at yourself before assigning blame to others. In other words, did your own lack of skill, consistency or confidence cause others to lose confidence in you? Sometimes it’s our own fears that cause others to lose trust. If you’re at fault, admit it – openly – and then seek ways to move forward.

Second, remember trust is not a unitary phenomenon, it’s not all or nothing – thank goodness!. Even when trust has been violated, there are still elements of trust that remain. When faced with broken trust, don’t focus on the negative issue, rather pay attention to those mutual areas where trust is still in tact and build on those for the future.

Trust and Optimal Performance

When you build a relationship based on trust with your employees or your horse the possibilities are endless. Employees, like horses, that trust their leader will do anything for them. With patience, tenacity and purpose, you can build a lasting relationship that drives optimal performance. Remember, herd leaders don’t just happen, it’s a status that’s earned.

*Horse-ism – Using good ‘ole horse sense to become an extraordinary leader!