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Horse sense and teamwork in corrections

Quivering with disdain, she cleared her throat and articulated her opinion to all within earshot. “Brad may have book smarts, but he has no horse sense!” She fixed me with an unwavering stare as she made her announcement. The statement was laden with contempt, literally dripping like snow melting off a metal roof in March.

My immediate question was, “What is horse sense?”

I had heard this expression before, but it still puzzled me. As I wasn’t raised in a rural setting, so my exposure to horses was quite limited. I simply did not understand the idiom. When curiosity prompted me to look, I discovered that horse sense is practical common sense.

Then the thought struck me that on the job, we are like horses. For example, we can think in terms of a team of horses pulling the weight of a very heavy cart. It is a collective effort. If one of the horses is not pulling its weight, the rest of the horses must take up the slack.

Sometimes it is useful to label certain types of behavior for us to cultivate understanding of an individual or group. Awareness of individuals in the team allows us to appreciate the nature of the team as a whole. I’ve listed below seven varieties of horses that exist in our vocational stables.

Workhorse – This is a very productive individual; low key and not in need of many kudos. If you want a sizeable job done well, a workhorse is your best choice. It is very tempting to push them past their limits, but those who overburden them risk transforming workhorses into swaybacks. This pressure may force workhorses to leave the stable before they burnout.

Thoroughbred – Thoroughbreds are naturals at their jobs. They are not necessarily more productive than workhorses, but they are the epitome of conspicuous corrections professionalism. They are high profile and high producing, and usually the stars of the stable. Any product they touch is destined to be regarded as excellent.

Beast of burden – They’ll saddle the weight of the world on their back. They are hard-working. Yet, a beast of burden craves the attention that is normally bestowed on a thoroughbred. However heroic and massive their efforts, all is diminished by their constant braying and vocational martyrdom. Unfortunately, this lack of sincerity seems to cheapen the work efforts. The price is that all will hear how they are the only ones working.

Out to pasture – An out to pasture horse in this anthropomorphic form is not mercifully given light duty by others. Rather, it is self-initiated. Sometimes, colleagues retire many months before they have their last official day of work. This is not reserved solely for those with great seniority. Some younger workers are in retirement mode for decades.

Show horse – For a little positive feedback, this horse puts on quite a show. They are hard workers when someone else is watching. This variety is long on appearance, yet short on accomplishments. This is the prima donna of the horse world.

Wild horse – This group is unpredictable, free-spirited, but not in tune with the general flow of operations. They go where they want, when they want. Colleagues frequently not where they should be at a given time could be regarded as a wild horse.

One-trick pony - We all have our strengths and weaknesses. The one-trick pony, however, has just one strength. Highly specialized, she cannot or will not adapt well to new tasks. In times of flux, the one-trick pony is in distress.

So, we do not operate in the same manner as all of our colleagues. What is the big deal? Shouldn’t we just enjoy the diversity of these types as they combine in a strange circus of interpersonal dynamics?

The truth is, ill effects and dangers do exist. Sometimes conditions are optimal for staff division. This leads to counterproductively, tension, a rise in the use of stress and sick leave, sabotage, and harassment complaints. In corrections, this is particularly dangerous, as enterprising prisoners could manipulate staff against each other. This could lead to more stress and the dangers of setups. Of course, setups can lead to contraband introduction. This makes it dangerous not only for staff and prisoners, but also potentially for the public.

So, maybe we should examine how to apply some horse sense to the notion of teamwork and to our variety of “horse personalities:”

·  Self assess. What kind of horse are you?

·  Consider how we best use our skills to achieve goals on the job.

·  Give credit when credit is due.

·  Look at deeds, not personalities.

·  Change what you can, accept what you cannot.

·  Motivations of others are important. Phrase the goal in terms of what would motivate a certain horse. Do not treat the motivations of all horses as identical.

·  Strike the balance between mentoring and nagging.

·  Foster mission statement mentality. Promote the larger goal to inspire unity between different classifications.

·  Emphasize inclusion and deemphasize the chauvinism of specialized niches.

So, in the opinion of at least one person, perhaps our aforementioned Brad has no horse sense. In corrections, it is important to possess ample horse sense or practical common sense. If we endeavor to think in terms of this equestrian analogy, we will have the tools to create and maintain a stable environment that is based on teamwork. This, in turn, would contribute to our unbridled success.


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joebouchard Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

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