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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Trust Thy Employees

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Debbil is in a crisis. And the crisis is likely to grow. The crisis is not that times are bad or that change is necessary. The crisis is in the way decisions are taken and communicated in the organisation. The crisis is that those responsible for taking decisions at Debbil, are reluctant to take them, and even more reluctant to communicate them.

There is a sense of a Nato roundtable about the Debbil management. The decisions regarding letting people go and whom to let go are not decisions that are arrived at through intuitive brainstorming. These decisions have to be arrived at through predictive measurements. You need to be able to predict the crisis and you need to know what your options will be in the crisis. Once you do such evidence-based, predictive management, you are able to prepare the organisation for difficult times. There is no sense of panic when there is preparedness.

Preparedness comes from two processes — participation and communication.

Participation of the line managers in the decisions regarding their teams is extremely important. Participation of the teams in evolving strategies to cope with the difficult times allows the organisation to have an owned strategy. Such participation generates trust. In Debbil, the implementation of the decision does not have any sense of ownership. As there is no ownership of the difficult decision, no one plans the implementation. No one realises who will lose what. No one empathises with the people.

The cost of a ‘no-empathy' environment is fear and paranoia. When people are afraid, they want to survive. To survive, they feel that they have to bargain, they have to be angry and they have to pay a cost. This decreases the motivation of the whole team and not just for those who get laid off. The cost to the organisation is not just a few bad days. The cost is a culture of watching your back. Guarding against the competition, watching your turf, claiming success and activities for yourself and not your team — a paranoid team is a painful place to work in. It stops achieving, and is only hurtful.

The second process that is deficient at Debbil is that there is no formal process of communication of difficult decisions. Obviously, Debbil is not letting go of people the first time, its managers have done this before. Even small organisations have a process of how to let people know that they are being asked to leave. You do not create a vacuum of information for theories to raise their head. The lack of communication implies that people are second guessing. This guessing leaves everyone helpless. The decisions are then allowed to be ‘inadvertently' let out. The helpless person then personalises. This implies that each person in the organisation, whether they express it or not, for a moment thinks, "Is it me?" Lack of communication leads to an environment of personalising and people cannot help but think the worst. Imagine a whole workforce reflecting on its weaknesses even for a moment.

The effort to create an environment of communication acknowledges the team as mature and as partners in the organisation. The team should live in the belief that we will know. This sense of being assured of things not being hidden cannot be gained by some people knowing and others not. Partisan communication creates pockets of loyalty and security, which create pockets of influence. Pockets of influence create pockets of resistance, which are a cost. No strategy of saving an organisation is going to work if it affects the spirit of the organisation. The time spent to rebuild the spirit of the organisation is going to be so costly that it will
stifle all processes to an unbearable silence.

Now, let us come to the premise that people respond differently to the same situation. Yes, we all do. The way we interact with our context is determined by our experiences and the way we think. The way we think about ourselves, the way we think about the future, and the way we think that the world perceives us. Varmaji knows that he is valued. He knows he is valued not because of the nature of the present communication but for the experiences he has had in the past. His sense of being valued is internalised. When there is internalisation of being valued, you feel you are able to cope with change. Your thoughts for the future are not of panic, but choices. So, Varmaji instead of being helpless is still exercising some choice in the way the events unfold. There is a sense of acceptance. This sense of acceptance comes from the knowledge that "I can survive". His view of his past experiences is not that he has had a difficult life and that no one cares for him. His view of his past experiences is that he has survived the difficult circumstances in his life. He feels that if he has survived the past, he can live the future without panicking. Of course, the fact that there was one-to-one communication, reinforced the belief that he has in himself.

Dr Achal Bhagat is a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Apollo Hospital, Delhi. He is also the founder director of Saarthak, a mental health NGO.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2009)