The hard times are not over - I sure hope that stock market knows something that my clients don’t. But it’s clear that the worst is behind us. The demand destruction means that companies still have some overcapacity but I think the HR community needs to start getting ready for the next high tide. The many personal and corporate tragedies of low tide have blurred our memory of what high tide as like but India’s long term trajectory means that our ability to find skilled people at the right time will again, at some time in the not so distant future, become the binding constraint for company growth and expansion. The Skill crisis has not gone away; it has just been deferred and it is coming to bite us with compound interest.
The question for the HR fraternity to introspect about is do we pass the two tests of Noah? The first one is that predicting rain is not worth anything but building the ark is all that counts. The second is that the best time to build the ark is when it is not raining. In other words, have we taken any specific actions to build our supply chain? Have we used low tide to prepare for the next high tide? Timing is everything in life and things that are possible in low tide seem impossible in high tide.
I agree that there is probably no viable, sustainable and scalable business model for Corporate India to manufacture its own employees; it is very hard to get clear financial returns on training investments at entry level skills. Even if a company invests the money there are three holes in the bucket; the first is when candidate goes through training but does not qualify for the job, the second is when the candidate get training, get the job but is not productive and the third is when the candidate goes through training, gets the jobs, is productive but leaves. So I think the privatization of skill development may largely refer to private delivery but we will have to find other solutions to funding. There have been a lot of public policy initiatives in skill development; Modular Employment, National Skill Development Corporation, ITI PPPs, National Skill Co-ordination Board, etc but these have taken longer than we thought for them to show up in outcomes where the rubber meets the road. But there is nothing more powerful than idea whose time has come and education and employability reform are ideas whose time has come.
Our ability to get the right person at the right time in the right place became the speed limit to taking advantage of high tide last time. India is getting ready for its next next high tide and this will be broader, deeper and more ferocious than last time. The global crisis has made India more attractive and what is happening in India is not once in a decade or once in a millennium but once in the lifetime of a country. Those in the HR fraternity that will take the time and attention to build an sustainable and scalable people supply chain will be putting themselves at the heart of their companies corporate strategy. Because if strategy is defined as the art of creating an unfair advantage, there will no unfair advantage for companies in India like a people supply chain that is able to match qualified candidates, repair last mile candidates and prepare their pipeline candidates.
Possessing requisite competency is the key to success in any job. But one seldom expects these competencies to change very rapidly, especially with the shift in economic scenario. Not too long ago communication with employees at large and conversations with employees at individual level revolved
around growth, expansion and diversification. All these have changed in last one year. With many organisations facing the inevitable reality of taking hard decisions a competency, rarely sought after earlier, has now become a business imperative. The competency of having difficult conversations with employees.
In many organisations managers are faced with the challenge of maintaining productivity and morale while meeting seemingly impossible business goals with reduced resources. Whether the topic is delivering difficult news, giving tough performance feedback, or change in a policy, large numbers of managers feel reluctant about having that ‘difficult conversation’ with peers or employees.
Conversations become tough when employees feel threatened with the possible outcome of the conversation or when perception varies and also when emotions are high. In all such circumstances, an
inevitable conflict occurs. Thus handling all such conversations sensitively calls for a set of competency for both line as well as HR leaders.
Successfully handling difficult conversations requires considerable amount of planning. It calls for analysing the situation from both, organisational as well as individual perspectives and understanding the impact on both, of the expected results at the end of that conversation.
It is therefore, important to anticipate the expected outcome from this conversation. The starting point therefore becomes articulation of the main problem itself. It is often tempting to gloss over issues or to use vague language. However, it is critical to be clear and candid about the main issue or
problem. And the staring point in such preparation is gathering of facts and data rather than rely on assumptions. Effective managers rely on gathering or alternatively verifying these facts directly rather than depend upon indirect sources of information. At the time of conversation, this helps considerably in conveying the message with conviction and increases its effectiveness many folds.
Many managers go off the track while conducting a difficult conversation when they describe a situation or an issue in a generic term or assign a label instead of speaking objectively about the situation. For example - ‘You are not a team player…’; ‘You do not have a sense of urgency…’ Without specific details, comments like ‘more of a team player’, ‘more service oriented’ or ’show more initiative’ mean nothing to the concerned employee. On the contrary the employee feels highly defensive. Labels without supporting evidence or examples leave employee feeling helpless about
making changes because they do not comprehend what changes are being expected from them or even what the problem is, or what needs to be different. A manager therefore needs to gather specific
facts, observations, and behaviours that needs to be addressed and also illustrations of what impact the current situation is having on the organisation. Asking employees to change their attitudes or thinking is ambiguous. Pointing out to the employee what behaviours need to change and why is specific and measurable.
One of the most important requisite of conducting a difficult conversation is the ability to listen actively. When employees feel heard, their minds are open and they are ready to hear what the manager has to say. Many managers are too eager in such a situation to express their viewpoint and
start justifying the same thinking that it will convince the employees better. They try and persuade the employee to accept their viewpoint. The truth is employees can not or will not listen when what they need is to talk. An interactive session interspersed with silence, for reflection, is the ideal situation that a manager should strive for. This is not a selling game. It is an exercise to convey
facts and ensuring that desired results are achieved.
Douglas Stone in his book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” puts it simply in stating that there are three deeper conversations in any difficult conversation. The ‘what happened?’ conversation usually involves disagreement over what happened, ‘what should happen?’
and ‘who is accountable?’ Stone identifies common errors that people make in these sorts of conversations. The key to having effective, productive conversations is to recognize the presence of these deeper conversations, avoid the common errors, and turn difficult conversations into learning
conversations. Most conversations fail because people begin by describing the problem from their own perspective, which implies a judgment about the other person and thus elicits a defensive response.
Instead, what works better is to start conversations from the perspective of a third party that describes or at least acknowledges the difference between the conversing partners from a neutral term. An effective difficult conversation starts with an invitation to join in a dialogue seeking mutual
understanding or joint problem solving and without compromising the dignity of the individuals.
Managers need to keep in mind that in a situation of conflict it is always safer to aim for improving the situation and not focus only on identifying problems. Simply identifying problems - highlighting what is not working - is only part of an issue. More important is to identify solutions to tackle those problems.
A manager who embarks on a difficult conversation, with the intent to win at the other person’s expense risks further conflict and loss of credibility. In contrast, an approach that takes into consideration a joint exploration of what could be a pragmatic solution yields better results. Such an
approach may take more time but is more enduring and sustainable.
In a difficult conversation, one may be tempted to spend energy telling. Telling the other person what they did wrong. Telling them what impact it created. Telling them what you would like them to do differently. While some of this may be important for them to hear, it is an error to begin with this
approach. The concerned employee may have lot to tell and if the dialogue is not balanced, it is likely to be ineffective. One has to also recognise role of emotion in such a dialogue. All difficult conversations tend to have a high degree of emotions. As long as a manager is careful not to let emotion overrun reason, the conversation will stay on the right track.
Effective communication skills are arguably among the most important traits a manager can possess. From empathetic understanding to assertive delegation, a manager must adopt the whole arsenal of
communication techniques to elicit the best performance from their team. Giving consistent, honest feedback and having difficult conversations at work is one of the most challenging tasks of the leader’s role. Many managers avoid difficult conversations with employees, hoping that the problem will
solve itself but in that manner, the problem only gets worse.
It makes good business sense and also enhances transparency in a system if a respectful yet effective difficult conversation is held in a timely manner. Avoiding difficult conversations is only postponing the pain not curing the illness.
Every manager is required to do Performance Appraisals. Generally, the season for this is once a year. The employees keenly look forward to this, because they are expecting a ‘good grade’ after a year of hard work and more importantly, their compensation increase would be based on this. The managers, usually, do not look forward to this season. During this time, all the ‘work’ stops and only this ‘HR activity’ happens. The 3rd party in this season is the HR team. This is their time, and they push the whole system to get the ‘job’ done. The ‘policy’ already exists, and all clarifications and questions generally are answered with the ‘policy statements’. All departments are required to meet the ‘normal’ distribution of the ratings.
So why do managers generally detest this? There is this huge emotional dialogue and debate with the team members. They get upset. Managers get emotionally overdrawn. Each review lasts for a couple of hours, without seeming to reach a closure (you thought you closed it and pop…there is an email in your inbox from the employee raising some or same points again!). A few even ask for group change and occasionally some even leave citing bad review! Who likes this anyway?
The more important question is – How to do this right? Let’s start with the expected outcome. The employee must feel good after the review and look forward to doing more in future with the manager and the company. The manager is very hopeful for employee’s growth and performance.
A manager has to play the judge and deliver a verdict about the performance of the employee. As a Judge, you carefully look at all the data, and make a judgment taking into account the law (in this case the policy). The big difference here is that the Judge is himself or herself involved – they provide the relevant data and then judge it too, and the employee is judging the Judge too (is my manager being fair to me?). Hence there is an inherent conflict of interest here. If the employee’s expectations are not met, then he/she gets frustrated.
In order to accomplish the goal, the manager, perhaps needs to become the coach of the employee. A coach is also making judgments. But there is a difference. A successful coach earns the trust of his team. The team knows that the coach is working towards their success. This is all the job of the coach is. Hence they listen to the coach. The coach gets to know the ‘game’ and the ‘capability’ of each of the members, and then helps each of them to make a plan to make this better. Trust means that the team does not doubt the agenda of the coach. The agenda is obvious – the team wins and this can happen only when each of the members gets better, and this is what the coach is working on. The coach is helping on a regular basis. He/she is giving pointed feedback, and then asking how the team member plans to improve. The coach gives his/her own suggestions too. A good coach is very demanding, much more than managers. But his/her team listens because they have unwavering trust in the coach – that he/she has their success in mind, and that he/she is competent.
A manager despite competence finds it hard to become as effective as a coach. The team members may not be sure whose success the manager is interested in – theirs or his/her own. Most of the time the manager spends time reviewing the task and not connect to the employee. Employee thinks that manager is focussed on the project success (i.e., his own success) and does not care about employee’s interests. It is hard to have a trusting relationship in this situation. Sometimes, there is also lack of clarity on the overall goal. And hence the feedback looks like a judgment, and team members could feel violated because they consider the manager as an outsider rather than aas one of them. To top it all, most managers do not give feedback for improvement until the ‘season’, that is once a year, through the review. The employee gets a surprise, and we all know that unpleasant surprises of this type do not build trust.
Perhaps we as managers must see ourselves as coaches who are able to demand high performance from their team because the team trusts them completely. The right way to measure the success of a review is that a manager mails the review document to his team members in advance and asks for a meeting. Many employees say they are willing to sign it off without the meeting. The meetings last for 30 to 45 minutes and are focussed on discussing the future, and not arguing about the past. And, the team wants to retain the same coach!
Irrespective of the strengths or limitations of the Performance Appraisal Policy of their company, good managers earn the trust of their team and are able to drive their performance, and make them successful. They are able to Make A Difference to their team. Everyone wants to work with these managers. And the HR team can perhaps focus on how to enable managers to be coaches.
Question 1: In your experience, what determines the success of a Performance Appraisal System?
Question 2: What is the main reason for failure?
Your thoughts and questions will be a learning opportunity for everyone. Won’t you like to (be) M.A.D.?
Why does this idea of writing on HRTalks– a space created for all human resource professionals – on this Independence Day remind me of an article from The Atlantic Monthly which was published in 1959?The article was titled “India’s Masses: The Public that Can’t be Reached” and was a first-hand account by the author Arthur Bonner of his stay in India during the ‘50s. It starts with a revealing episode:
“I first began thinking about India’s communication difficulties three years ago… I stopped at a post office and saw, in a corner, a short spear with two little bells attached to the shaft near the head. I recognized it, from descriptions in books, as a spear carried by dak (mail) runners. I thought it was a relic of the days when the mail was delivered by runners who needed the spear to protect themselves from robbers and wild animals… as they jogged along jungle trails. But the postmaster assured me that he still delivered some of his mail by runners who took three days going out along one route and three days coming back by another. “
He went on to describe the mammoth efforts that went into reaching out to India’s masses, and connecting and uniting them around a common identity of a newly-formed nation– a nation
62years into freedom, India is intact, and even though we may have differences, we “know” that we are all Indians… clearly, the efforts of that era to “reach the public that can’t be reached” succeeded
So why did I recall this article?
… perhaps because, Independence Day is not just a time to remember those who made it possible, but to also ask the same questions which they must have asked themselves… I mean, whether one is building a nation or an organization, the critical questions remain the same across time - but every era has to find its own unique answers and pointers…
And so, as a human resource professional, I asked the question:
How do we reach the public that can’t be reached?
…what, for instance, would have this 15th August – the Independence Day – meant, as a day-to-day living experience, for:
Do we, as HR professionals, need to redefine the boundaries “human resources” and reach out, considering that this segment also accounts for: