Dec. 28, 2017

Do we have meaningful conversations at work?

Ram Agnihotri is the Plant HR head for a large automotive parts company based in Pune and has been in the role for over three years now. He and his boss, Rakesh Agarwal, Chief People Officer based in the HQ at Mumbai, by a strange coincidence, are both good friends of mine. When Rakesh called me about two weeks ago for a general chat, I asked him how Ram was doing. He said, “Well, Ram is not doing too well; it looks like his shelf-life is over and that he is also not building relationships with his team/ business”. This sort of shocked me. Not wanting to delve too deep, I moved the conversation to other subjects and we closed on a pleasant note.

I called up Ram a couple of weeks later and asked how he was doing. Ram was his usual light-hearted self and said he was doing well. As it was close to the half-year, he was happy that many of his KRAs were at an advanced stage of closure and that he was on top of his job. At one level, I felt happy but on deeper reflection, I was unhappy and disappointed.

Different perspectives
Two individuals, working closely together over a considerable period of time, and yet in two distinct worlds! I found this situation between Ram and Rakesh intriguing. They were two mature professionals, trained in people processes and soft-skills ,working in the people space, yet their perceptions of performance and self-worth were vastly different. This could surely result in a lack of congruence with a possible impact on engagement and work performance. The longer-term implications would be many and not positive either.

As I researched deeper and spoke to many other managers across levels , I understood that while many conversations are taking place between the superior and his direct report, meaningful, authentic exchanges, centred on a genuine interest to help one another don’t take place too often. Why so? This was the question I reflected on.

Many thoughts passed my mind and I wondered why we could not be more forthright, caring and open? Is it shyness (I can’t be so open), or a sense of fear (I don’t want to be the messenger of bad news)? Or is it a lack of interest in others? Or a sense that he /she may not be interested in getting to know my feelings and views and, therefore, why venture? It could also be that we do not have the skills to articulate these thoughts and share them candidly. Or that a relationship has turned sour now, so it does not allow for such caring and courageous communication. Perhaps we just don’t enjoy sharing positives as well as areas of concern with our own team members.

Culture and practices
Even today , I vividly recall an experience early in my career. I had made a call to leave the company I was working for and was thinking of joining another, which meant moving out of the city I was born in and grew up to the city of my mother tongue! In those days (1970s and 1980s), we were more open (perhaps denoting higher levels of trust) to sharing the news with our bosses, including details of the company we were joining, the role we were getting into and even the compensation we would be drawing.

My boss heard me out patiently and said he wished to share a few thoughts and was I open to listening? I said ‘Yes, of course’. At the outset, he made it clear that he wished me well; however, he saw some serious challenges, more from a personal point of view of settling down in a company and a culture that I was not very used to — something he felt I may not enjoy and come to terms with. He closed by saying it was still my call and the chat was only to help. He sounded genuinely concerned and every word he spoke rang true.

I reflected on what he had said. His observations on ‘culture and practices’ were indeed what I had experienced during my selection process; that I may be uncomfortable with the change and may find settling in challenging resonated loudly. I decided to stay on, where I was.
It was clear the prime driver for this conversation was his interest in me — to not be disappointed, to help, to guide and at the root of that was ‘caring’. His honesty and authenticity had an impact on me. The whole conversation came across as all of it was for me and not so much for him!

Meaningful intervention
Imagine the impact Rakesh could be making on Ram, if they would only have engaged in an open, candid conversation. It may have influenced Ram to get more aligned with the real world rather than be blindsided at the time of the annual review! Surely, a meaningful intervention would have made a huge difference to Ram, not only in terms of his performance but his worldview of the business, the culture it embraces and the impact on his engagement. And Rakesh would have shown himself in better light as a caring leader.

Unfortunately, the majority of conversations between managers in organisations (there are some exceptions, though) are transactional. There are not many conversations, which are a proper sit-down, anchored on caring and wanting to help and guide. We surely need to do a deep dive and ask ourselves, particularly those at senior levels of leadership, if caring is indeed deeply embedded in our business.

We have enough noise in our organisations; what we need is a sense of purpose in our communication — being courageous and honest. Let us build our abundance in “caring” as that would be the springboard for meaningful and authentic conversations.