A new year often brings good news. It was, for me, the invitation to write a column for ‘Corporate Notepad’ the new magazine of ITM. Association with an institution of repute is the best thing that happens to a person, and I am happy.
January is an interesting month. You make New Year resolutions. If you are MBA student you look for placement in an organization of your choice. A working professional looks forward, with some expectation [and trepidation] to the performance appraisal! In other words, January is all about the future in mind. But the trouble with future is that it arrives before we are ready for it.
In the corporate world, future brings competition often from unexpected quarters. A CEO is acutely aware of this factor. Moreover he is also aware that future might hold surprises, not always pleasant ones, from the environment. Government policies can change, international scenario might change impacting the future of the organization – aren’t we reading about Brexit, listening to Trump and worrying about their impact? What is the ‘insurance’ against vagaries of future for the organization? What helps an organization sail through this difficult period? The answer is obvious: it is the organization’s culture.
Fortunately, there is a lot of talk about organization’s culture. The flip side is that people within an organization seem to think that culture can be changed overnight, or within a short period. A tree while growing up taller everyday sends its roots deeper down the earth. Similarly, while achieving greater heights of excellence [or otherwise!] all organizations shape their culture. Some do it consciously, but mostly otherwise. And the person whose actions matter most is the leader. When I say leader, I do not mean the CEO necessarily; it could be the factory head or sales head. Sometimes a nucleus of change can emerge anywhere.
The real strength of culture comes to light, and I say this because very often people within an organization discover such aspect, when there is a conflict on hand. When Vanaz Engineering, a very successful company in Pune faced a sudden terrible downturn, the CEO suggested pay cut to the employees. They refused when he handed over the organization to the employees to run! Not as a gimmick, but as a genuine offer. The employees soon understood the reality and went back to CEO accepting his conditions to run the show. Note the trust shown by both the parties. The employees then borrowed money from banks as a personal loan and handed it over to the CEO to augment the working capital. He managed to turn it around, made Vanaz profitable again and repaid employees with interest.
The Vanaz story which I have captured in few words is a subject of a detailed case study. It holds many lessons. Creating a culture of mutual trust is the obvious lesson. In our society where lack of trust is prevalent everywhere, the casualty is meaningful and deep conversations. Our political leaders do not have it with their constituency, parents rarely have meaningful conversation with their children, and bosses do not engage in it with their team members. Conversation and communication has been reduced to a check list! We have to appreciate that it was meaningful, call it tough or difficult, conversation that marks the Vanaz story. The CEO did not hesitate to put forth the picture of reality without assigning blame. And the employees did not hesitate to say ‘We goofed up, please come back, we need you, and let us work together to make this organization profitable again’ to the CEO. They succeeded because they had a ‘heart to heart’ chat.
‘Having a heart to heart chat’ is such a beautiful expression! You can’t have such a conversation without your heart in it, and also without listening to other’s heart-felt messages. This is ‘empathetic listening!’ Ask any HR honcho.
Believe it or not empathetic listening is a skill which people pay too little attention to.
Actually it paves the road to success as we saw in the Vanaz case. Skills are developed by conscious practice. Hearing is involuntary, but listening is always intentional. What I mean is we have to listen to the other’s view point attentively and simultaneously holding our views in abeyance. This is not difficult at all, it just requires practice.
Communications which are ‘heart to heart’, or communications in which parties empathetically listen to each other shape the culture of organizations. Do trusting relationships create meaningful conversations or do meaningful conversations create trusting relationships? I would say both are true. One factor creates or strengthens the other. So we can start with empathetic listening and meaningful conversation.
We are living in times when, unfortunately, communication has been sacrificed at the altar of political or personal gains. We see this happening in national debate on any subject. We see it happening on the issue of labour law reforms. We see it happening between managements and unions. Things are so bad that it is time to start a national movement to practice Stephen Covey’s fifth habit ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’
Does it sound unnecessary? Remember Bernard Shaw? He said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” How true!
Can we not practise empathetic listening and meaningful conversation at our home, at our office, in our own work group? The nucleus of change can be created anywhere, right?
Kya bolte ho tum?
Vivek S Patwardhan