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Coaching Cultures

An empathetic culture can enable employees overcome internal and external challenges

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This case raises four important issues, all germane to our times (think Google, BBC, and Uber ): 1) Does exponential growth excuse bad conduct? 2) Role of leaders in building a culture that both maximises company growth and individual well-being; 3) Is a manager also a coach? 4) Gender stereotypes at work.

In the pressure to grow top and bottomlines and bolster share prices (often linked to individual compensation), companies suffer from a short-term focus.

Concomitantly, aggression is seen as essential, “winning” becomes an euphemism for trampling on others and the tolerance for bad behaviour is irrationally high.

This is a recipe for disaster leading to losses for all stakeholders. The departure of  “high-pots” and the difficulty of attracting fresh external talent because of a “rough” reputation, impacts results soon enough, which nullifies all that ‘winning’ aggression. So, it is more prudent to promote a culture that ensures a sense of well-being while incentivising performance for the longer term.

Coming to the second issue of culture, Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist says, “Corporate culture is what ends up determining how hard your employees work, how far they will go out of their way to help a co-worker in trouble, what lengths they will go […] to satisfy customers. This culture ... is transmitted in a thousand little interactions that show more than they tell...”

Likewise, in their essay ‘Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate’ in the Harvard Business Review, Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule say, “Culture is like the wind. It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt.”

Clearly, the following are four tasks top leadership must focus on: 1) Defining a value system and behaviours that will ensure adherence to the code; 2) Leading by example and sharing stories of  how they lived up to that code, and constantly dialoguing with employees new and old; 3) Celebrating the “heroes” who lived up to those values and coaching those who didn’t; 4) Linking a part of compensation to behaviour, adherence to values. A discussion during appraisal on these topics helps confront behavioural challenges and prickly issues.

A habit of constructive and enabling conversations that improve behaviour and performance, play a big role. This also implies that senior leaders are trained to have such conversations and handle bad behaviour/ performance. People tend to remember even decades later, how their bosses made them feel. A friend who worked at Asian Paints recalls with fondness a boss who made it a point to celebrate success in public but chastise it in private. The challenge is remembering this when under intense pressure to deliver through others.

So, what was Taarika’s boss’s role in coaching her? Even if HR head Prateik was uncomfortable handling a “trophy manager”, Taarika’s boss needed to have sensitised her to the impact of her behaviour through appreciative enquiry, much like Fr. Bon went through with Malhar. This would help Taarika adopt a coaching style with her direct reports.

So, to answer the third point above, yes, every manager is a coach, the shepherd of his flock. A line boss can achieve much more by being empathetic, respectful and responsive than any HR manager can.

As for gender at work, the bottomline is that performance and growth are as gender-neutral as the need to be civil and respectful!

As Deven says, a leader should lead. An empathetic, values-based culture can enable men and women alike to overcome internal and external challenges to personal growth. Is it tougher for women? Of course it is, for all the reasons summarised in the case. Thankfully, “tougher for women” does not translate to “impossible for women. They must look for cheerleaders and supporters among colleagues who can defuse tension and help keep morale high when the going is tough.  Hanging in there can be very fulfilling and rewarding and make for great stories to share with our children too!  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Hema Hattangady

The writer is an independent Director and thought leader in the energy efficiency space. She co-owned and ran Conzerv Systems in energy management products and services until she sold to Schneider Electric in 2009. Her story is a case that has been taught at the AMP at Harvard Business School

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