Sunday, 21 July 2013

Just Sack The Employee... And Move On - The Right Strategy?


We looked at the numbers game, and the no-emotions approaches; let me start with an example that will. highlight why emotions can and do make perfect business sense, especially when combined with a long-term approach... My normal approach when taking tough calls is to be humane, and give the other person both sufficient time as well as a chance to put his views forward. Additionally, I try everything within my power to retain - retrain, transfer etc. I have always been advised by peers to avoid being gentle, and just kick them out. I never understood why - until this case happened. It was an eye-opener for me.

This incident happened a few years ago when I was heading a large team; on joining, I first took charge by looking at the historical sales performances of the entire team. This was critical, since I was told to cut the laggards. An interesting case came to my attention; I was perusing historical sales data for the team, when I asked for longer term data beyond just the past quarter- as nearly the entire team was of long vintage. I noted a very interesting case of a top performer who had gone down for the past year or so. This person's Area Manager was insistent: he had to go, he was an underperformer with a bad attitude to boot. The bad attitude bit was spot-on; I know that myself. Additionally, the ASM was a top-notch guy, and not just in numbers... he was an excellent resource.

As is my habit, I asked him (The Attitude guy) to tell me about his performance, and analyse himself. His response left me speechless: "you tell me; why has my performance gone down? What has changed in the interim that made a top guy like me go down?". Instead of losing my cool, I asked him to elaborate. On this, he went into the history of the previous incumbent of my chair; about his screaming profanities, about the terror he was held in; about his relentless and reckless follow-ups; about his non-stop pressure. This was true; I had heard it from the back-end staff many times. This guy told me bluntly - I dont take that from anybody. Even if I performed well, and just turned in one bad day, he would be off: what about my daily target etc? That placed me under tremendous pressure.

I knew this guy was speaking the truth; I also saw where this was heading, as well as why no one takes my route: it raises uncomfortable truths, and realities no one wants to confront. People would rather let the junior guy get sacked than confront the shortcomings of a top person, or of the system. This is the reason why exit interviews are either waived or taken in written; why no deep penetrating questions are never raised, why longer term issues are difficult to confront and so on and so forth. But in this case, I could only see how a top resource was destroyed, his career wrecked by a so-called driven person. I could only see the long term repercussions such an approach entailed...

The moment you leave out emotions and the rest; the moment you let yourself into the numbers trap - you are on a one-way  spiral. While this may benefit you personally, the organisation loses out in the end, always and everytime. Look at the case above; and note how a resource has been lost, permanently. Note how a life has been destroyed; note how an attitude has become negative. Note how a human being is on the verge of becoming marked as a person with a bad attitude...

If the employee feels that the boss is not one who will entertain logic, then, to save one's job, or to ensure benefits continue, or to ensnare that elusive promotion, people start taking shortcuts; harmful shortcuts like lying to customers; over- or under-committing to close a sale; pushing goods through the trade; raising inventory to unsustainable levels; giving false commitments to partners; screaming at or sacking employees who resist your unhealthy methods and so on and so forth. This goes beyond the sales function - I have seen it in operation in Customer Care and other functions as well. Pressure begets only trouble; pressure works only in crises. I am not aware of any other situation where pressure is a positive asset.

Each person has a comfort zone in terms of work output; the key is to enable each person to reach that comfort zone. This is different from the old maxim - myth - that each person works best under differing levels of pressure. No one in my experience has ever performed his best under pressure. People perform well when they are in a positive mood, engaged with the job, the company and the task at hand - as well as with the team. If some people perform under pressure, it is because they adjust. An adult is aware of the consequences of his actions; putting pressure is pointless as well as a waste of precious resources. The key is to enable each person to reach his level of competence from within: pressure does that from outside. If a person is performing under pressure; rest assured that he will improve dramatically in his individual comfort zone. The key for the supervisor is to guage where that zone lies; in a simple phrase - Job Satisfaction

It is far easier to simply put pressure, get the job done, cut "laggards" and move on to the next posting either within the same organisation - or elsewhere. Let the next guy handle the fallout! In all this, the cost in terms of organisational resources lost, or lives wrecked, is never thought of. And it is this ultra-competitive emotionless approach that lies at the heart of most problems highlighted in the first article; the pressure to prove yourself, the fear of a loss (be it job or promotion loss), the difficulty and uncertainty being jobless entails - these combine with a lack of social security at least in India, and the overall hypercompetitive atmosphere - and create the shortcuts to disaster like we have seen earlier.

The question is whether it is possible to achieve success by being - shall we say - straighter, more humane, more process-focused? Unequivocally, yes. If that was the case, a good many of the scandals and scams would not have occurred. Furthermore, a more open atmosphere will ensure a 2-way and fearless feedback channel in operation, as competitor moves and market changes get communicated faster.  Not only that, implementation will be easier as well.

You cant avoid screaming or putting pressure 100% of the time; that is not the point of the article. The point is that instead of pressure being a way of corporate life, it should  be reserved only for real emergencies. Before anyone laughs, whether or not you realise it: pressure is there. It can be seen in rising lifestyle diseases; it can be seen in rising psychological cases, it can be seen in rising rate of job-switching; it can be seen in the rising rate of scams and scandals shaking corporate India; it can be seen in the later and later work-hours in prevalence; it can be seen in the lesser frequency of holidays and leaves; it can be seen in the rising divorce rates... it is ubiquitous, and ever-present. And remember: pressure distorts perspective.

Just a tinge of empathy taken with a few tonnes of process orientation is all that is required; employees will still have to be pulled up; they will still have to be sacked; they will still have to be held accountable and so on and so forth. But you can make it process-bound rather than person-centric. This will not lessen the control of the boss; it is not needed for the boss to be a despot. All that is required is that employees understand that they are allowed to make mistakes; that their mistakes will not be held against them; that they have passed the selection process - and are in here for a long term. All that is required is that the employee understands that if he does something horribly wrong, or performs badly due to mistakes of his own, repeatedly made  -  arising out of tasks under his direct influence - he can lose this valued position. In place of this, we hire for the short-term; for the immediate task... with the boss being the be-all and end-all. The boss, then, in place of being a person with superior performance as well as greater knowledge, becomes a thing to be feared; not an advisor to approach in a tight situation; not a controller who will direct you in the right direction when you are going wrong...

And thus we let the organisation and the victimised employees  feel the brunt of the loss; the former over the long term,and the latter over the short term!We are after all, humans - and will  respond positively to positive stimuli. Why should the corporate be any different? In my experience, 70-80% of of my reportees have responded positively; which is a good number to start with. To my mind, a perfect case for a more human and process-centric approach.

And in the hands of someone more skilled and mature than I am, well, that number might even be 90%. And the benefits commensurate with the percentage...

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