Communication Lessons from Zenyatta

So who is Zenyatta, you ask? Quite simply, she is one of the greatest racehorses of all time, compiling an astounding record of 19 victories in 20 starts against some of the best equine athletes in the world. Her lone defeat was suffered in her final race, last year’s running of the Breeder’s Cup Classic, one of the most prestigious races on the calendar. Zenyatta retired after the race to a quiet life in rural Kentucky, but while she may have retreated from the limelight, she’ll never be forgotten.

Recently the television news magazine 60 Minutes aired a segment on Zenyatta, chronicling her historic career, highlighting her achievements and repeatedly noting her iridescent personality. The interviewer asked her trainer, John Shirreffs, about his style around the barn, wondering if any of his managerial traits could have an impact on the success of his equine charges. Shirreff’s response was very revealing, and I believe quite relevant for organizations as well. “There can’t be any stress in the barn,” the trainer emphasized. “Horses have enough stress with their training, so we don’t need to add to it.”

To ensure low levels of stress he highlighted the importance of communication in running a successful horse operation. For communication to flow freely through all levels of the organization – in this case from the groom who bathes the horses all the way up to the trainer and owner who make strategic decisions – people have to feel comfortable in sharing information and working together. Shirreffs and his team work hard to put in place the conditions that lead to open sharing of information and honest communication, thereby lowering the stress of everyone involved, including the horses.
Think about your organization. Do you foster an environment of open communication, one in which stress is minimized because people feel comfortable sharing their opinions and views, even when those views may differ from your own portrait of reality? To varying degrees, we all carry a certain amount of stress as we go about our daily tasks. And some stress is actually beneficial, for example, that extra boost we feel when completing an important task just before the deadline. But for many people stress has become toxic, literally poisoning their ability to effectively do their jobs. To combat this organizational venom take a page from John Shirreffs’ book and put in place practices and conditions that promote communication, allowing everyone to share their thoughts in an environment not of judgment, but learning.
A good starting point is to simply identify and objectively challenge your assumptions on important aspects of your organization. If an employee doesn’t agree with your stance on a key plank of the company’s strategy, for example, put yourself in his shoes and attempt to genuinely understand his point of view before steamrolling him with your own conclusions, thus reinforcing the old stereotype that only those in power yield any influence. Listen to your team, and instead of nodding your head as if to say “I hear you,” subject yourself to the more demanding test of stating their case for them. If you can clearly articulate your team’s argument, using your own language and not simply parroting their words, you’ll demonstrate that you’re able to see things from their point of view. Then, even if you must choose a different course, you can confidently explain why your direction is necessary. Your employees may not initially agree with your stance but they will respect you for having the integrity of understanding their point of view.

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