Building Winning Teams

Young rubber saplings

In my Leadership Development Consulting practice, one of the things I teach is team-building. Little do people know that what I teach is what I learnt on the ground in Guyana in the bauxite mines and in India in the tea plantations. As my favorite Western novel writer Louis L’Amour puts it, “If I tell you about a stream, it is there, and the water is good to drink.” I can say that anything that I teach about leadership and team-building; I have tried it and it works.

As my dear friend and fellow planter Sundeep Singh put it, The learning in the initial years was amazing, covering a wide gamut of activities, labour management, construction, stores, budgeted finances, work planning and allocation, farming, production etiquette and outlook to name just a few. Here I must add, the inputs for each of us were generally the same except that each was responsible for his own growth, learning from lessons and accepting the truth. Further, the challenges of loneliness and channelization of focus and energy, as life outside of work was a relative void.’ That is why I tell people, ‘If I can do it, so can you. Provided you are willing to try.’

My greatest gains in Ambadi were to do with conceptualizing learnings, about the importance of mentoring to empower front-line staff to take decisions and ownership. The results that we achieved had directly to do with our success in both areas. We took a group of discordant individuals and built them into a highly synchronized team that functioned as one person. We enabled people to see their strengths, to believe in themselves, to own responsibility, and to actively seek accountability. We took people who always played doubly safe and converted them into risk takers who were not afraid to take initiative. And we did all this in a period of less than one year.

If I reflect on what the key initiatives were, I can think of two major ones.

  1. The importance of making mistakes

I managed to convince my team of the importance of making mistakes. I remember the looks of puzzled surprise at this term when I first mentioned it. Mistakes were things you tried to avoid. If ever you did make one you tried to hide it or to blame it on someone else. And eventually if all else failed you resigned yourself to bearing whatever punishment that mistake attracted.

But here was Mr. Baig, saying that it was important to make mistakes. Obviously, this was a trap. So, we will do what all sensible people do: silently wait and watch. That was my biggest challenge; to get people to change their mindset. Once I had announced the importance of making mistakes, I watched for the first person who made a mistake. Naturally, everyone being human, it happened sooner than later. Then I called the person and told him to give me a written statement of what happened, why he believed it happened and what must be done to prevent that particular thing from ever happening again.

Suresh, Arun, me, Roshan, Sunil – My team in Ambadi

I started weekly Staff Meetings and these statements would be discussed in the staff meeting where others would add comment on the incident and the recommendations of the individual involved. The incident was treated as a normal case study. Not as something that needed to be punished. Then once the lessons were clear to all, the matter would be closed. Nothing more to be done on the issue, except that I would silently monitor it and the individual for a while to ensure compliance with whatever had been agreed.

No punishment. Not even a verbal reprimand. In contrast, if the analysis was particularly well done and the solution was a good one, the maker of the mistake would be appreciated. Sometimes I would pull his leg and ask him what he had done with all this intelligence at the time of making the mistake. Or I would say something like, “Thank you very much for teaching us this lesson.” The person would look a little sheepish but that was all. The lesson was learnt, not only by the one who made the mistake but by everyone. So, the learning was actually very cheap because the same mistake need not be made multiple times for others to learn. The only caveat was that you could not repeat a mistake. If that happened, then there would be a reprimand because you had demonstrated that you had not learnt from the previous time. And that was not acceptable. In fact, that almost never happened. People are intelligent and nobody likes to look like a fool.

As I mentioned, once people started seeing for themselves that making a mistake was not necessarily bad, their risk averseness decreased. As long as you made a genuine mistake and not a deliberate misdemeanor, and as long as you could demonstrate your learning and create a system where it would not be repeated, there was no pain associated with the mistake. I encouraged other good practices like maintaining a diary. This was useful when we needed to recall some action or incident and memories were foggy. Another one was to write down a plan of action before you actually take the action so that if something went wrong you know exactly what happened and are not trying to recall what you had done or intended to do. Prior planning as well as documentation encourages deeper thought and reflection which can only be beneficial. To ensure that we did not get bogged down by too many planners, I made a rule that you had to put a deadline to everything. So, any time anyone submitted a plan we asked for a deadline if it wasn’t there. We also made the weekly meeting the place to initiate all these actions. The idea being that before you launched off something, you brought it before an assembly of peers who helped you to evaluate your plan. This also ensured more rigor in the whole exercise because people knew that if they submitted something that was half-baked it would be pulled apart in the meeting.

My role in all these meetings was mostly to listen and watch and sometimes to ask questions. Once people grew comfortable with speaking before others and asking and answering questions there was no holding them back. Sometimes there would be so much participation that it would be difficult for me to get my point across. I considered that to be an indication of interest and commitment and encouraged it. Another trend that took off was that the individuals who intended to present something at the staff meeting would do a little pre-show to their colleagues who had specialized knowledge. For example, they would run some of the numbers by the accountant to make sure they had done their sums right. I encouraged all this informal communication and collaboration because it is a wonderful team building process. The whole essence of team building is to help people see how they need the other person to succeed. And when this started happening, I knew we were on the right track.

Having said all the above, let me also say that the most difficult part is to sit in silence and see a mistake happen. All because you want to turn it into a learning situation. But there is no alternative to this patience. Naturally, one does not need to self-destruct in the process, and it is possible to contain the magnitude of the mistakes so that the learning takes place at a manageable cost. The crux of the matter is that you need to allow subordinates to make mistakes and then guide the learning. This anxiety is compensated by the pleasure of seeing fewer and fewer mistakes happen over time as people get more and more proficient in their roles. The practice of sharing learnings and Best Practices ensures that the learning gets maximum leverage. Also, people are not ashamed or afraid of making mistakes as they know that there is no punishment, provided they use their heads and can share their learning. As a result, people generally exercise more care and the number of mistakes decreases. Finally, the biggest benefit of this method is the exposure and appreciation that people get when they share their learning and best practices and have a platform to talk about their gains. This encourages them to share information and creates organizational learning as distinct from individual learning. In my view this one benefit is worth more than anything else.

  • Mentoring

The second learning that I gained in Ambadi has to do with mentoring and people development. The current ‘lack of loyalty’ of millennials to organizations that employ them is a problem that some managers of my generation find exceedingly difficult to understand or accept. For most of us (and even more so for our parents’ generation) we joined one company and worked there until we retired. Where we changed jobs, we made perhaps one or two changes in our entire careers.

Loyalty was a major virtue and changing jobs too often was considered to be an indication of disloyalty, exceeded in villainy only by thievery. Being conscious of your own gain was selfishness, yet no one questioned the ‘selfishness’ of organizations and employers who after retirement, in most cases, did not even send you a birthday card or show any concern for someone who gave forty years of their life for them.  For young people today, an organization gives them the freedom to express themselves, it is a place where they can experiment with their knowledge, from which they expect a challenging environment and a reward in proportion to their contribution.

The key thing here is that they decide what is challenging, what freedom is, and what a reasonable reward is. And if they do not get it, they move on. Attrition is a given in today’s world. And within limits, it is a good thing. I have always believed that it is the role of the leader to create the inspiration for others to work for him. If leaders cannot inspire people to work for them, then there is no good blaming the people for leaving.

I remember doing a leadership development workshop for the middle managers of one of my clients, a large BPO. Attrition was a major problem that they were continuously wrestling with, without success. I gave them an exercise. I said to them, “Please write down three things that differentiate this company from every other company in the market. Things that anyone leaving this company would lose. Things that they can never hope to get anywhere else.” “That,” I said to them, “is the solution to your attrition. If you are clear about why you work here and why this workplace is unique, then you can inspire those who work with you.” Interestingly at the end of half an hour, nobody could make the list.

To try and find answers in our past of how to deal with these attitudes is futile. To react to them from our value system brings about a reaction of ‘punishing’ and ‘getting back’ at such ‘disloyalty’ and only results in more negativity.

It is in this context that mentoring comes into its own. There is no better process for building a robust leadership fabric. Stacks of cordwood that can be pulled in as needed during the cold blizzards of business life. Leadership nurtured from within. Homegrown leaders who push you to excel and to provide them challenges that stretch them and give them the satisfaction of real achievement.

The Mentoring process consists of the following four steps:

  1. Setting Mutually Acceptable Goals
  2. Identifying Development and Support Needs for Goal Achievement
  3. Coaching & Mentoring: Monitoring Progress and prompt Feedback
  4. Conducting the Evaluation Interview

Setting mutually acceptable goals

Goal setting is the first and most important step to manage performance. The essential thing is to ensure that you only facilitate the process, and help the protégés to set their own goals. Successful goal setting encourages the protégé to move out of the safety of the known, into the realm of the ‘Stretch Goal’. I define ‘Stretch Goal’ as a goal that scares the living daylights out of you, but which also energizes you with great expectation of achievement. If a stretch goal is not scary, it is not a stretch goal. The critical challenge of the mentor is to ensure that he/she builds enough trust in the environment for the protégé to venture to set challenging goals. My own experience and that of other people who I have seen, talked to, and taught during my three decades plus in organizations, tells me that the real challenge is for the mentor himself to not get scared of the ‘Stretch Goal’.

Psychologically speaking, the mentor’s belief in the subordinate ‘comes true’.  This is the ‘Self-fulfilling Prophesy’, which is when you unconsciously act to bring to life, the belief you started off with. This can be seen any number of times in leadership situations. If done well, this step is the most energizing experience for the protégé and develops real commitment to the goal. The caveat is that it works both ways. Negative prophesies also self-fulfill.

Identifying development & support needs for goal achievement

Identifying and committing to provide development and support inputs is critical to the Mentor-Protégé relationship and to successful performance. This is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ and you contract to provide the material, guidance, and training that the protégé needs to fulfill the task. This is where psychologically, you are saying, “We are in this thing together. Your success is my success and your failure is also mine.” If you stop to think how true this really is, in any leadership situation, you will understand the importance of doing this step correctly. The caveat in this stage is the enthusiasm that the goal setting phase can generate for both parties. It is sometimes possible to over-commit to giving support and developing competencies that may not be realistically possible. I am not suggesting that you undo the good of the stretch goals here. I am merely saying that it is important to be clear about what you are promising to do in terms of the inputs that the protégé needs and what that you can realistically give. This is not only about willingness but also cost, time, and resources that you will have to think of, some of which may involve other people as well as yourself. Remember that the disillusionment of promising but not delivering is something that you don’t need, and which will undo all the good that you did in building the relationship.

Mentoring: monitoring progress & prompt feedback

Mentoring is a factor of how we choose to look at ourselves and our roles. It has nothing to do with our expected lifespan in the organization. It has to do with a desire to build and to develop others. A desire to share. A desire to extend ourselves for the sake of others. A desire to influence. A positive need for power (not politicking) understanding that it is only through persuading others to share our values that we have our greatest hope of exercising the most influential power…the power over minds.

The leader as mentor is not someone who imposes the “right” way, or someone who seeks to change the way people think to align with their own thinking. Mentoring is about helping the other individual recognize their potential by providing the challenge necessary for them to realize it. Very often this means becoming a mirror for the protégé but ensuring that like a mirror, you don’t judge. Talking mirrors exist only in fairy tales, not real life. Your job is to merely reflect the image with integrity and leave the protégé to decide to act on his own. This can sometimes be very difficult indeed, but any attempt to force the issue by ‘suggesting’ what they should do or how they should act is counterproductive as it creates dependency and does not build the decision making capacity that is essential if the individual is to sustain their growth.

There is always a great danger in mentoring, of becoming the proverbial ‘Guru’, who has a stake in keeping the protégé dependent on him. This happens when the mentor becomes the de facto decision maker in the person’s life and tells them what is ‘good for them’. Interestingly, my computer underlined the word ‘de facto’ as a spelling mistake and suggested ‘defecate’ as the alternative. Maybe that is the unconscious expression of the reality about such guru-ship. This seductive process is also aided and abetted by the protégé (who another friend calls, ‘the demented’ – defined as one who accepts a mentor) to listen to this wise counsel and accept the gyan (knowledge) as gospel truth about himself. This is especially ‘useful’ for the individual who does not want to take the trouble of thinking for himself and holding himself accountable for results. Somewhere the unconscious belief seems to be that, ‘If I don’t decide what I should do in my own life and go by the advice of my mentor, then I will not be ‘held’ responsible for the (possible) unpleasant consequences. It will be the mentor’s fault, if I fail.’ It is a vicious cycle which both the mentor and the ‘demented’ collude in.

Mentoring in a truly developmental way has two major challenges from the perspective of the mentor. The first is to continue to mirror and reflect what the protégé projects, so as to help him see the real issues which are either hurdles to his development or sources of strength that he can call upon to propel himself onward. Bringing to the interaction all the benefit of your life experience, yet not allowing any of it to become an imposition on the direction the protégé should take, is a great challenge. In my own experience as a mentor, what helps is the humility to remember that my experience is after all, just that…my experience. And that my future and my potential are quite different from those of the protégé.

The second great challenge in mentoring – and this is especially true where the protégé is a subordinate in the organization – is to recognize greater talent and ability, greater potential for development than your own and to nurture it. Not to get threatened by it or to try to suppress it. This is often an insidious, unconscious process that we succumb to and then seek to destroy the individual who we choose to see as a ‘threat’. I remember encountering such ‘mentors’ early in my career as a consultant. I was perplexed and anguished at experiencing tremendous aggression and hostility under the surface from the very people who I had accepted as mentors. I could not understand it at all and spent many days agonizing over what ‘I’d done wrong!’

Even when I shared my confusion and anguish, it was denied and cast aside, and feelings of guilt were projected on me for my alleged lack of loyalty. “How can you even think this about us?” It was only when I shared this experience with another friend and mentor, that I saw the real issues at hand. He said, “You are not a threat. You are a challenge to their competence. They choose to view that as a threat. They can also choose to view it as an additional resource and build on it. The choice is theirs. Your choice is to decide how much energy you want to invest in coping with this hostility.”

My greatest learning in this was the fact that I still had to make the choice of what I would do in the circumstances. My friend had merely clarified the issues that faced me without attempting to tell me what I should do or what he would have done in my place. In this case it was the choice of having the ‘support’ of these individuals in my life as a fledgling consultant or to risk the danger of solo flight when I was still uncertain of my wing-power.

I chose the latter, as I felt that coping was taking up too much of my energy which I could put to productive use in building my own business. Subsequent events proved me right and added to my learning. It is a very painful decision indeed for a protégé to take, to give up a mentor who is not adding to his/her learning and even more painful for the mentor to accept this fact. However, this extreme step may be needed if the relationship becomes a net energy drain instead of a source of encouragement.

I am reminded of my classical Hindustani sangeet (singing) teacher’s words. “Artists are made up there,” she said pointing to the sky. “We only teach people how to sing. So, after a time the teaching ends. The learning however, never ends. Every discovery that we make about ourselves and our ability is a new lesson in how far we can go.” It is only when we try to exceed our ‘limit’ that we learn more about how far we can really go. Each attempt has the potential to show us that we can do more than we had thought possible. It is the role of the mentor to enable that leap of faith for the protégé. And that can only be done if the mentor does not project or impose his own fears on the protégé. The essence of mentorship is to remember this and to always try to facilitate this journey of self-discovery without imposing our own insecurities and fears or even our life lessons on the protégé.

My own experience in being a mentor as well as having had many mentors is that once we decide to face the challenge of our own growth that the protégé unconsciously demands of us, then we set up this very fruitful and rewarding relationship where the mentor and the protégé fuel each other’s learning. One challenges the other and mutually they create an environment that demands growth and supports it. This is what I call relatedness. It is the ability to continue to relate and build the relationship through changed circumstances and changed phases of life. It is when this ability fails that the so-called generation gap develops. But when you can continue to relate to the protégé through his journey of growth by constantly challenging yourself and growing with him then your relatedness becomes the greatest advantage of mentoring and its real pay-off.

One final thing which helps team-building and that is the importance of shared life experiences. I don’t mean work related but others, fun things. Among those was a trek to Manjolai, the BBTC tea estates on the mountains, that Arun, Roshan and I did. As Wiki tells us: Located between elevations ranging from 1000 to 1500 metres, the Manjolai area is set deep in the Western Ghats within the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tirunelveli District. Located on top of the Manimuthar Dam and the Manimuthar Water Falls, the Manjolai area comprises tea plantations and small settlements around them; Upper Kodaiyar Dam; and a windy viewpoint called Kuthiravetti.The tea plantations and the whole of Manjolai estates are operated by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd on forest lands leased by the government of Tamil Nadu.  

Kanyakumari district where Ambadi is located is in the plains in which the feet of the Western Ghats are grounded. But if you climb up from the plains, straight up the side of the mountain, about 4500 feet later, you will stand on top with the plains at your feet. There is a more normal and far easier way to get to Manjolai by driving up the mountain from Thirunelveli. But satisfaction is directly proportionate to difficulty and so we decided to trek up the mountain.

Manjolai trek – Halfway stop. Arun and Suryaprasad. Roshan took this picture

One Sunday morning we started at daybreak. Arun, Roshan and I.  When my friend Suryaprasad, the ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Police), Thuckalay, heard that I was planning to go he told me that he would like to come along and would inspect the Police Station at the top of the mountain in Manjolai. I asked him if there was much crime in that area. He told me that in the past year there had been two thefts. Safe place, you would say. The trail was narrow and very steep. In places we had to slash our way through undergrowth. The trail existed to service a ‘ropeway’ (winch powered car going up the mountainside) that was used to take supplies for Irrigation Department officials in Manimuttar Dam. The track was hardly ever used and was uneven, deeply scored with gullies made by rainwater runoff and had long grass with serrated leaves which tried their best to flay the skin off your bones as you walked. Yet, we climbed.

As we climbed, the sun rose higher in the sky. There was no shade as there are no large trees on the mountainside. Kanyakumari is a hot and humid place and climbing mountains is not the most comfortable activity. Add to it scratches from thorns, insect bites, sweat pouring out from every pore and snaking is way down your back, along your legs into the scratches and very soon you start to question your sanity. This is where the ego comes into its own. It is almost the only positive use of one’s ego. It keeps you going. It is a good thing that in such situations, people are short of breath and hellbent on keeping up the pretense of toughness, perseverance, tenacity, and grit. That makes them keep their mouths shut. If one of us had simply said, “How many of you think that this was a bad idea?” We would have been going back downhill in a jiffy. But that did not happen. We continued to climb.

After about two hours of grueling effort, calves and thighs on fire, chests heaving like bellows, we reached a halfway point. It was a bench of rock that we could rest on for a while. One thing about halfway points when climbing mountains; they are also the point of no return. After that you can only go one way; up. Going down from the halfway point is even tougher because the descent is always more taxing on the knees and thigh muscles than climbing. We drank a little water. Can’t drink too much or you get cramps. Then back to the climb. “This had better be worth it”, I am saying to myself. Then as we climbed higher the air started to get cooler and the climbing became easier as we got our second wind.

Eventually as in every climb, if you do it long enough, you get to the top. So, did we. We turned around to look at where we had come from. And what did we see? A rich carpet of many shades of green, with huge splashes of quicksilver. Rice fields in various stages of growth with ponds of lotus and lilies. Too far to see the flowers but the water shone like mercury in the sun. Raise your sights a tad and it turns blue, first hazy, and then clearer and then way out in the distance a deep blue which looks like the sky but isn’t. That is the mist rising from the rice paddies, the sky at the horizon and the blue of the Indian Ocean. Then up the mountain comes a breeze. So cool and refreshing that I can still feel it in 2020, knowing that the coolness of the breeze is in proportion to the effort made to get to this place. The harder the climb, the hotter the sun, the more we sweat, the cooler and more refreshing, the breeze. That is life itself, isn’t it?

With Surya Prasad and Arun

The story does not end here. Our climb had ended but not our trek. We still had about 8 miles to go to get to the Manjolai Club where we planned to rest and get something to eat. So onward we marched. The lovely surprise was that when we reached Manjolai Club I found my good friend Ricky Muthanna, the General Manager of BBTC, the company that owned the tea estates there and the club. We got a hero’s welcome and great food after which Ricky insisted that his car would take us back home.

In conclusion of this chapter of my life, let me share with you some other learning about organizational life and career management. Your career is, in fact, in your own hands and the sooner you learn how to manage it, the better off you will be.

Political skill is essential for survival and growth in organizations. I learnt that political skill does not necessarily mean that one must lie and cheat or compromise one’s integrity. I learnt that being frank, open, and honest must be tempered with wisdom and social skill. It is essential to speak the truth. But one has the liberty to decide when, where, and how to speak out. It is wise to think a little about what one wants to say, how exactly to say it, and the ultimate result that one wants to achieve. As they say, ‘It is knowledge that a tomato is a fruit but wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad.’ I learnt that it is not always necessary to take issue or respond to everything. I learnt that cynicism is detrimental to health and spirit. And success often hides in an unknown place behind disappointment. Fear of failure prevents us from leaving the safety of the known for the uncertainty of the unknown. But without it, there can be no progress.

I learnt that one’s sense of achievement and self-esteem is not rooted only in one’s work or employment. One can find self-fulfillment in areas outside one’s formal employment. I found the joy of writing and reading, but primarily writing. Writing opens the possibility of communication across boundaries of geography and time. I learnt that in the corporate world, and indeed in all of life, you do not always get what you deserve. It is essential to have a clear goal, a roadmap to get there, and a strategy to take you on that road. I learnt that if you make even a small effort in this direction, you will win, because far too many people are simply sitting and waiting for ‘good luck’ to happen to them. Good luck, I learnt is where opportunity meets preparation. When one is not prepared, then all opportunities are ‘difficulties’ and can’t be leveraged.

I learnt the importance of other people in corporate life. I learnt that success depends on our ability to inspire others to pull in the same direction as us. And that, this is a matter of trust. How much do people believe that they will win and achieve their own goals if they follow your lead? For in the end, people work for themselves, not for others. They work for others who they believe can help them achieve their own goals. I do not mean to sound cynical. This is the reality as I experienced it and something that shows us what we need to do to influence others. Show them how they can win by working with you and you will have all the followers you need. Everyone listens to the channel, WiiFM (What’s in it for me?)

I learnt that I am responsible for my results. I have the power to decide what I want to do with my career. Nobody can make or break my career unless I help them to do so. I have the choice to help them to do either. I learnt that it is not necessary to break relationships in order to assert your own rights and that people respect you more if you stand for the right things, even if in doing so, you have to go against them. I learnt that the way to do this is to show that you are not opposing them, but that you are asserting something that is legitimately your right. And that this conflict apart, in which you are on the opposite side of the table from them, you are willing and able to help them in all other things. This ensures that the conflict never degenerates into a personality clash and the issue and the people involved remain separate. I learnt that when one is faced with unreasonable behavior, the stronger person is the one more in control of himself. That the one who can control his anger is stronger than the one who loses his temper. I learnt in the end that the strongest is the one who can forgive the wrongs that have been done to him for that truly takes courage and character. As they say, most people can stand adversity. If you want to test a man’s character, give him power. As I end this chapter, I hope that when I am judged, I will not be found wanting and that in the balance, my shortcomings will be outweighed by my contribution to the lives of others.

Two remarkable incidents from the Ambadi days come to mind in this context. Just a few days before we had the strike and lockout which I mentioned earlier, I had gone to Nagercoil to meet our corporate lawyer, Mr. Narayanan Nair. He was a wonderful elderly man who Arun introduced me to, when I first landed in Ambadi. There were several cases that he was handling related to land acquisition, so I used to meet him almost every week. We would discuss what needed to be done and then he would invite me to have lunch with him and his wife. Arun, who was almost always with me on these trips, and I would then eat some lovely vegetarian food and return to the estate. On this day, Arun was not with me. I decided, after meeting Mr. Narayanan Nair, to meet the Labor Officer whose office was also in Nagercoil. I had an excellent relationship with him as with all government officials and usually when I went to visit any of them, I would be invited into the office immediately and offered tea and so on.

That day it was different. The Labor Officer’s office had a large waiting room with benches for any workers who came to meet him. Then there was a door leading into his office. Off to one side was a door leading into the office of his secretary. I entered the waiting room, headed towards the Labor Officer’s office, when his secretary scurried out of his den and said to me, ‘Sir, please wait here. I will tell him that you have come.’ I found that strange because normally I had direct access to him. Also, given our highly feudal society, to make someone of higher status, wait in a general waiting room was an insult. I realized that something was wrong but could not imagine what that could be. I could have simply turned around and left, but was curious to know what, if anything had happened, so I sat on one of the benches and waited. After about 15 – 20 minutes, when I was just about reaching the end of my patience, the secretary came out and said to me, ‘Please go in. He is waiting.’

The Labor Officer’s room had his desk at the far end from the entrance door. He sat behind a large wooden table in a high-backed chair which had a white bath towel draped over its back. Don’t ask me to explain why government officials like to sit on bath towels this but it is the norm in all government offices in most of India. Maybe it is good to have a towel handy to wash your hands of responsibility. Then perpendicular to his desk was a long table stretching the length of the room, on either side of which were chairs. This was to facilitate meetings, where both parties could sit on either side of the table with the Labor Officer at the head barricaded behind his desk. Social protocol was that normally the Labor Officer would remain seated and depending on who it was, he could do any of the following:

  1. Pretend to be working, looking down at papers on his desk and ignore you for a while. Then he would look up and wave you to a chair.
  2. Pretend to be working, looking down at papers on his desk and ignore you for a while. Then he would look up and start talking, without offering you a chair.
  3. Wave to you, smile at you, fold his hands in greeting, stand up to greet you and shake hands, ask his peon to pull a chair out of the formal arrangement and put it next to his and invite you to sit with him and ask for tea to be brought. This is how he used to greet me normally. Very friendly and cordial.

That day he did none of the above. The minute I stepped into his room, he started shouting at me, ‘You managers think you own the world. You are arrogant. You have no respect for us. You come to us only when you need us. Otherwise you are not willing to help us in any way. I thought you were different. But you are like all of them.’ He went on in this vein for a while.

I was shocked, insulted and very angry. But I did not show any of that. I simply stood there and let him rant. Eventually he ran out of breath and words and waved me to a chair and said, ‘So what do you want?’

It was very difficult, but I kept my cool. I took two or three deep breaths and then said to him, ‘Nothing. I don’t want anything. I have no idea why you are angry. Let me come back another day after you have cooled off. I only came to greet you as I was in Nagercoil. But it looks like today is not a good day for that. Vanakkam (Tamil greeting).’ And I turned around and started to walk out of the room. He then called out to me, ‘Baig Saar, please don’t go. Please come.’

I turned around and walked up to his desk. I still didn’t sit though he once again offered me a chair. I asked him, ‘Tell me, what is the problem? What is it that you think I did? Why are you angry?’

He asked me to sit, ‘Please sit down.’

‘I won’t sit until you tell me why you are so angry with me.’ I said.

He said, ‘I had requested you for a donation for our Annual Workers’ Sports Day. You promised to do it as you always do. But when my man went to Ambadi to take the amount, he was told that it had already been paid and he returned empty handed. I was put to a lot of embarrassment thanks to this. How can you do this? How can you go back on your word?’

I said to him, ‘In all the time that you have known me, did I ever go back on my word? Did I ever lie to you?’

He said, ‘No. You never did.’

‘Why then did you believe that I lied to you, so easily?’ He looked very sheepish. I then asked him, ‘Can I use your phone to call the estate office?’

I called my office and asked my accountant about the matter. He said to me, ‘Sir, a man came from the Labor Officer’s office and we gave him the donation. Then another man came, and we told him that someone had already taken the money and he went away.’ The mystery deepened. I asked my accountant if he had kept a record of who had collected the donation. He had. It turned out that it was someone from the Factory Officer’s office who had come. He had come to ask for a donation. But when my accountant saw him, he assumed that he had come from the Labor Officer’s office and asked him, ‘Did you come for the donation?’ The man, in all good faith, said, ‘Yes’. The money was given to him. He signed for it and left. It was really a comedy of errors. But though I had to bear the brunt of it, it turned out well for me.

When all this had been clarified, the Labor Officer was very apologetic. He apologized to me profusely for his outburst and plied me with tea and sweets and snacks. And we parted on good terms. His guilt stayed with him and in the events leading to and after the lockout, he went out of his way to be helpful. Guilt is a good motivator.

I was elected the President of the Kanyakumari District Planter’s Association because of which I was the Chairman of the Wage Negotiation Committee. It was the year in which the wage agreement was coming to an end and we had to negotiate a new agreement. Tensions were building up. The wage agreement was for three years. The history of the district was that the signing of the new agreement would take between 9 to 12 months during which the union would instigate multiple work stoppages, go slow and use other means of agitation to put pressure on the KDPA to agree to their demands. This resulted in loss of production. Eventually when the new wage agreement was signed, there would be arrears of wages to be paid which meant a strain on cash flows. And by the time all this was over, you barely got a year of peaceful normal work before the next wage agreement would loom over the horizon. I decided that it was time to break this cycle. Everyone agreed that it was necessary but highly skeptical that it could be done. The usual excuse was, ‘This is how it has always been. Nobody could do this before’.

My standard response, ‘Did you try to do it earlier?’


‘Then how do we know it can’t be done?’ Anyway, I was the one trying to do it and the others were happy to watch from the sidelines. After all, if I succeeded, they would all benefit. And if I failed, ‘Well! We told you it couldn’t be done, but you wouldn’t listen.’ This is one of the most common things that you are going to face if you want to lead. People support only those who look like they are sure to win. Confidence is critical. So is wisdom.

The current agreement was going to expire on December 31. We were in late September. I called a meeting of the union and asked them to give me their charter of demands. The CITU President, Hemachandran Nair said to me, ‘There is still so much time. Why are you in a hurry?’ I told him, ‘I want us to complete our negotiation and sign the new agreement before December 31 so that the new agreement can go into force from January 1. That way there will be no tension, and everyone will be happy.’ I didn’t tell him that we wouldn’t have to pay wage arrears and so our finance people would also be happy. He said, ‘That has never been done before and it can’t be done.’

I said, ‘At least all my KDPA members and you, agree on one thing.’ We both had a big laugh.

I then said to him, ‘But you know what? You and I are going to prove them all wrong.’

He didn’t like the sound of that. For him, mentioning himself and me in the same sentence was not Halal. But he didn’t say anything. He just looked serious and didn’t seem to be convinced but agreed to bring the charter of demands the following week.

We met the following week. Hemachandran came with his demands to my office. Some of his followers were with him. I read the demands and said, ‘Great’ I agree to all of these.’ He was so shocked that involuntarily he blurted out, ‘Ath ennane sadhikkum?’ (How is that possible?)

I said to him, ‘Even you, know it is not possible for me to accept these demands. Then why do you want to waste your and my time by demanding things you know we cannot accept? I suggest therefore that you take this back and come with something that is possible for me to accept. That way we save time and energy. To help you, I will give you an accountant who will work with you. I will tell you what is non-negotiable with me in terms of productivity and cost of production. If those goals are met, I am happy to accept anything reasonable that you want. After all, your members are my workers.’

‘Mr. Hemachandran’, I said. ‘Tell me, whose benefit are you working for?’


‘Who do you think I am working for?’

‘Management,’ he replied.

‘Right. But tell me, if my workers are unhappy, angry, deprived of what is rightfully theirs, can they be productive and interested in their work? And if they are not, how can I get the productivity and quality that I need to please my management? So, their satisfaction is even more important for me. I am not their enemy and you know this.’

‘Yes, we trust you. We know you are not their enemy,’ he said. This is where my relationship with them always worked in my favor. Trust always helps you in times of stress.

It may seem like spoon-feeding, but sometimes or even lots of times, things which should be obvious to people are not, and must be pointed out to them. Do that politely and pleasantly and even subtly but do it.

The long and short of this was that the union brought their demands and we had a few negotiation meetings and signed the wage agreement well before December 31 and the new wages were paid from January.

In this context, let me tell you also about a tool that I used very effectively in these negotiation meetings. That tool is Active Listening.

Active Listening is when the listener shares with the speaker his own understanding of what was said, before responding. It is not merely repeating the words, but saying to the speaker, “I understand you to be saying that……” When the speaker agrees and only when the speaker agrees, is the listener allowed to respond. This may sound a bit cumbersome but let me tell you that especially when negotiating or in resolving conflicts and in many other situations, this saves both parties a lot of time. But in my view the major benefit of this method is that it ‘enforces’ understanding. I put that in parenthesis because this is a particularly good example of using structure to guarantee results. What happens when you are forced to paraphrase (share your understanding), is that you are forced to look at the matter from the perspective of the other person.

In most, if not all, negotiation or conflict resolution situations, there is a win-lose mentality. I must win and the other person must lose. Even if you do not say, ‘The other person must lose’, you are not concerned about whether they also win or not. The other person is also in the same frame of mind and the result is enhanced tension and often, even if there is a resolution, it is at the cost of the relationship and comes with ill feeling. When you use Active Listening, you will find that it builds genuine understanding between people. I have had situations where after paraphrasing said, ‘If that is what you mean, then there is no conflict.’ Effectively the conflict is over because it had arisen because the two parties involved didn’t really understand what each wanted.

For those who are still doubtful, I want to say that even if you want to totally disagree with someone and destroy their arguments, you first need to know what they are saying or believe in. The better you understand their position, the better you will be able to counter it. Nobody will argue that it is necessary to understand the position of the adversary in order to counter it. How can you do that best? With a face to face conversation where both of you practice Active Listening. Please try it and tell me how it works for you. I have used this technique in highly conflictful situations in several countries and cultures and in several languages and can tell you that it works beautifully.

Finally, another thing I started was that we all went to lunch together. Eating together is a very powerful symbol in the Indian culture. The norm was the opposite. Management staff would go to the district club for lunch and the union team would go to some local restaurant. It was funny when I first invited everyone to go to lunch with me and my team. The union was in a quandary because to refuse the invitation would have been very rude but they were not sure how it would look like if they ate with us, politically speaking. But Hemachandran and Perumal (General Secretary) came with me and everyone followed. In this case we all went together to a restaurant to eat. By tacit agreement, we didn’t talk shop while eating. Eating, after the first time which was a bit stiff, was always good fun and we would return to the negotiation table in a good mood.

Sentient systems are excellent facilitators for successful negotiations. Do whatever works for you in your culture. There is no magic formula. But do something that creates a space for you to meet outside the work context.

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