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The only way to deal with conflict is to listen to one another and empathise: Thomas J DeLong

Interview with Philip J Stomberg Professor of Management Practice, Harvard Business School

Saumya Prakash 

Anxiety is possibly the single largest inhibitor of growth both for an individual and for a corporation, says Thomas J DeLong, Philip J Stomberg Professor of Practice, He says the best way to deal with workplace anxiety is to accept failure and treat it as an unavoidable aspect of being creative and successful. In this interview to Saumya Prakash, DeLong shares some insights on the role of HR professionals in managing anxiety and conflict in an organisation as well as in dealing with redundancy.

What are the typical reasons that give rise to workplace anxiety? Has the recent recession exacerbated the problem?
For the particular individual that I am researching they have been anxious for years. The cyclical nature of the markets might create more anxiety. But in general, this group is so obsessed with achieving and crossing things off their list that they hardly slow down enough to do anything but achieve. It’s a personality type. 2011 wasn’t the best year for India and that may create overall anxiety. But they are obsessed in task accomplishment which can cause secondary challenges.

Too much anxiety kills performance. Yet anxiety is often ignored in the workplace or considered a sign of weakness that needs to be swept under the desk. So what is the role of managers in this regard?
One of the worries I have is that we haven’t trained our managers how to be effective so they don’t know how to deal with the human components. For example, when I have a problem or a challenge with a subordinate, rather than confronting it, the manager hires a coach and hopes the coach solves the problem rather than solving it himself. One of the things that causes satisfaction and extraordinary commitment at work is having the faith in who your leaders are. And one of the worries that I have particularly in developing economies is that many individuals who are really young are being promoted into managerial positions when they do not have enough wisdom on how to deal with human issues.

So, I believe that we can deal with anxiety in a fundamental way by stepping back and saying what are the expectations we have of our managers. The CEO of any organisation is head of the HR. So I think we need to be more mindful. I think in the rush to grow our businesses, in the rush to be entrepreneurial, in the rush to make lot of money, we forget that along the way humans pay the price. I am concerned about the quality of the manager and how they abdicate their roles as mentors, coaches and teachers.

When mergers and acquisitions bring people across cultures together, a sense of instability pervades any organisation. What is the role of HR in cultural integration?

I think the HR professionals should not play the most significant role, but the senior team should. I believe that many organisations get into trouble during some transition. During mergers and acquistions, people may not know each other. I believe you need to have the line managers as well as HR involved. They should be the one in coaching the managers on how to create mergers and acquisitions. I would also say that I have not seen many mergers served customers better. Leaders often initiate mergers for the wrong reasons.

Many changes have been made in employee evaluation and merit review processes in the past decade or so. What are some of the most significant problems that still remain?
First, Often professionals don’t trust how the data will be used, so they don’t respond honestly. Second, too often managers don’t have honest conversations real time because they procrastinate and wait to give the feedback at the end of the year.

Taking off from the turmoil in the aviation sector in India and the increasing number of lay-offs, how best can an HR manager handle redundancy notification or termination? What are the things an organisation needs to do right away to avoid serious problems later on?
My feeling is that every person you need to say “you are redundant”, “we don’t need you anymore”, kills a little bit of the organisation. The leaders of the airline industry, as an example, became so enamoured with themselves that they didn’t understand how you grow organisations. They didn’t learn from history about what happens when organisations grow too fast, at some point somebody is going to pay the price.

I think terminating an individual is one of the most delicate and most traumatic experiences that individuals have. For me, telling another person that they are not valuable, the organisation don’t need them and that the organisation can do fine without them, is something that will have a lasting impact on that person. In my working life with Morgan Stanley, I laid off many individuals and I still remember each experience. But I do believe that the line manager should be involved in the process and not just HR. I think that organisations today also need to extend financial support to help people find other jobs in any case of lay offs.

McKinsey spends two-and-a-half times more than any other organisation to help people who want to leave or are asked to leave. And what happens is that rather than being angry at McKinsey, people are more loyal to McKinsey and when they join another company, they hire McKinsey as consultant. I think we should engage more resources to help people. When the airline business for economic reasons start making money and it becomes very desirous, my worry is they may do the same thing all over again.

We have seen too many industrial dispute situations in India in recent years, the most recent being the one at Maruti. How can leaders prevent and manage conflict? How does one proactively identify the issues before they escalate into a full-blown conflict situation?
Transparency is required on both the sides. The only way you solve problems is through conversations and interactions. The only way to deal with conflict is to come together and listen to one another and empathise.

Empathy is the key for great leadership. Often conflict comes up between people, between unions and organisations, when you don’t trust the other person or use your power to take advantage of the other person. If a subordinate doesn’t believe that the manager cares about him, he may act out. Managers are expected to create a level plain field where both sides value each other and trust each other. There should be a contribution from both sides to achieve this synergy. However, it is the responsibility of the manager or to show more maturity and initiate a model of transparency that can win trust in their subordinates. There has to be a structure. It is the responsibility of the to devise the communication pattern.

To identify issues before they escalate into a big fight, first create a situation wherein all parties can have an honest conversation. Rather than waiting until the last moment, get into a conversation. Keep problems small and don’t let issues build up. Good managers and employees engage in conversations long before there are any problems. Again, to achieve this, there has to be a structure in place. When you have the set-up, the one question that remains is: how honest are you?

How would you sum up the role of HR in risk
The role of HR is to help the organisation improve and be in alignment. But it is not the role of HR to be mediators. HR experts should be teaching people how to have an honest conversation but not to having the conversations for the managers. I strongly believe that most of what HR professionals do is clean up the messes of the bad managers. HR professionals should have the courage to be teachers and help develop better managers and it’s not about doing it yourself.

What are the key success factors with regard to developing a sound succession processes?
Number one, early communication is important. Number two, be slow to judge other people. This is how we know humans work — when I am judging you, I judge you on what I see but I judge myself on what I am thinking and feeling in my heart. And so great succession planning should not be categorising; instead saying “I know exactly how you feel” etc. So it takes a mature person to stand up and really try to understand how the other person is. So don’t jump to conclusions and make assumptions about people. And three, beware that leaders don’t just choose professionals that are exactly like them.

In one of your articles, you have mentioned how most professionals tend to be reluctant to try something new. How important it is to do the right thing, even if poorly?
If you don’t have the courage to try something different, then it will be a disaster for the organisation and the individual. As a manager, you have to have the trust in me and know that I care about you that if you mess up, I am going to be there to grab you by the hand and help you through with that. But I have seen too many individuals spending all their time managing their image — how they look and trying to convince people how smart they are without being honest to themselves about the things that they don’t know. Again, managers are responsible for creating situations where all can try different things — we can mess up, support one another, be honest, get angry with each other, have trust in one another.

If something is going right for the professional or the organisation, is it necessary to look out for changes?
One should ask oneself all the time, why can’t I do something different? What I suggest here is, while we should make the most from things going good — as an individual or organisation — we should also be open to changes, always.

This is because the markets and consumer preferences are always changing.

First Published: Mon, January 23 2012. 00:50 IST