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You can lead a horse…


I probably heard the saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” first when I was about five years old or so and struggled to find meaning in it.  My parents explained that you can’t make people do things they don’t want to do – and told me to go tidy my room.  Only joking about the last bit!

It appears to be the oldest English proverb that is still in regular use today. It was recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies:

“Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken” 
[who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?]

Ok – so whoever said that was probably drinking something stronger than water and their mates thought it was profound… happens me and my buddies too any time we go down the pub.

Seriously though, the proverb is essentially to do with motivation and it’s interesting that the oldest recorded English proverb that still use today is about motivating others and why we can’t do it. 

I hear this all the time from leaders and managers who are enthusiastic about the vision that they set for their organisation but their people just don’t “swallow it”.  Their people don’t engage or involve themselves in the company’s vision for the future or their role within it.

Managers that I support on a day to day basis often say to me,

“They just don’t get it – they expect their jobs to be here for them forever, regardless of how our company performs.  How can I get them to see that we need to over-deliver on value-added services in order for us to capitalise upon the potential lifetime value of our customers?”

So do we just quote the Old English proverb and shrug our shoulders or is their an alternative approach?

I have found the following approach to be pretty effective: 

Firstly, you need to ensure that your people understand the fundamental need that’s required by the business.  If we continue to use the analogy of a horse drinking water, this is something that the horse needs to do in order to survive and this analogy works well for businesses, especially in the current challenging economic climate.  The first step is to ensure that your people “get it” and understand that your vision is designed to meet the fundamental need that the business has in order for it to survive, provide employment and to position itself for future growth and development. The reason that this approach works well is that many employees are motivated by the desire to make money and to ensure the security of their positions.

But what approach should be taken with people who are not just motivated by financial rewards?  This is the tricky part and a leader or manager needs to understand what motivates each employee individually in order to maximize impact. 

Here are five tips to bear in mind when exploring how you might best motivate an employee: 

1.      Financial remuneration – if they feel they are undervalued, give them an opportunity to ‘earn their worth’.  What financial incentives can you link to performance deliverables?  Listen to our free podcast at for some ideas on how to involve staff in ‘improvement projects’ that will provide scope for increased financial incentives. 

2.      Do they enjoy the work and do they feel they are making a difference?  We put effort and commitment into the things we enjoy doing and when we feel we’re making a real difference, we try extra hard.  Consider how you might slightly modify individual’s roles to take account of what they feel they excel at and enjoy.   

3.   Promote a sense of ‘belonging’ to the organisation.  Ensure your people are engaged, involved and have ownership of their contribution to the business.  Look for opportunities to build a team-based working approach and encourage your people to share their knowledge and support their colleagues on a day-today basis. 

4.   Recognize your people’s abilities and promote a culture of verbal thanks.  One of the questions I often ask employees is, “When did your boss last thank you for your contribution to the business?”  The results have been phenomenal – EVERYONE  remembers when they were last thanked, even if it was five years ago at the Christmas party when the boss had too much to drink! 

5.   Provide clear and transparent opportunities for your people to expand and develop the scope of their roles within the organisation.  Increasingly, organisations are becoming ‘flatter’ with less rungs in the hierarchical ladder – Consider how you might develop your people on an on-gong basis in line with the needs of the business. 

Bottom line here is as follows, there’s a saying that goes like this,  

“If you can’t change the people, change the people”  

If you have tried the five stage approach outlined above and individuals within your organisation still don’t “swallow” you need to reflect seriously upon whether they are the best people in the best roles to fulfil the needs of your business. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please post your comments if you think there are any better ways of “getting your horses to drink”.

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