Business Standard

R Gopalakrishnan: The next leadership challenge - employee engagement

Worker discontent could be a symptom of a management that no longer listens

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The gruesome episode at Maruti’s is a wake-up call for India Inc. Corporate leaders should not let it just pass; they must address the core issues because something is amiss. There must be deep sociological and organisational causes behind such incidents. It may well be that employee discontent is only going to get tougher from here.

When the vice-president of auto parts maker Pricol was beaten to death in Coimbatore, I had written extensively (“Employee discontent and economic recovery, Business Standard, June 3, 2009), wondering whether worker dissatisfaction is really a manifestation of an unseen leadership challenge. Symptoms of the emerging problem were evident, especially after 2008.

People are increasingly on a short fuse because the human consequences are getting grimmer. Employees feel they are expected to offer loyalty to their employer, but they do not receive an equal commitment from the employer to protect their jobs. Managers are so focused on that they seem to have a limited bandwidth to attend to employees’ sense of injustice. Employees everywhere say they are either “in distress” or “stressed out”.

What perhaps has added to the problem is that we have not been prepared enough to deal with such levels of worker discontent.

After three decades of Reagan-Thatcher super-capitalism, a new generation with no experience of tough labour power is now leading enterprises. Managements have enjoyed exceptional labour relations for three decades. Industrial unrest (strikes and lockouts) during 1992-2007 was drastically lower than in 1977-1992: by 80 per cent in the UK, South Korea, Japan, and 60 per cent in India and the US. And, thus, managements have been able to take employees for granted. The rise of the software industry caused labour issues to recede further from corporate leaders’ agenda.

Why the problem can worsen
The ground is shifting in the labour-management model of super-capitalism that has prevailed for the last 30 years. A new form of “virtually organised” union will emerge because new employees have a different attitude to hierarchy and collectivism. The model will be attracted to the open and spontaneous nature of networking and will operate as a community with a common agenda. This new “union” will emerge as a “super blog master”, which unites workers.

Jennifer Gordon, professor of labour and immigration law at Fordham Law School, has visualised a transnational labour movement as a way to deal with cross-border labour issues in our globalising economy. This could emerge as a new kind of “union” that is as powerful in its advocacy of migrant worker rights as the traditional unions. Technology is shaping not only how and where we work, but also how labour will protect its interests.

In May 2008, a transatlantic merger was announced between United Steelworkers (USW) and Unite, the UK’s largest union representing workers. President Leo Gerard said, “Now we have got globalisation running rampant over workers all over the world, and there is not a counterforce in the labour movement. We want this merger to be something that can deliver for workers.”

Technology, the internet and social media are powerful tools that have further democratised institutions, countries and companies. In IBM in 2007, as many as 1,800 activists from 30 countries demonstrated outside the company’s premises. They were expressing solidarity with Italian IBM workers in dispute with the company. This was a rather unusual protest: it took place on Second Life, the virtual world populated by millions of subscribers, and the demonstrators wearing union T-shirts were Second Life “avatars. Clearly, employees are finding new ways to creatively voice their grievances — and the phenomenon is not restricted to old-sector companies.

How to engage employees
and employee discontent are two sides of the same coin. Management response has been reactive by addressing discontent rather than adopting a positive approach of advancing employees’ engagement.

Here are some pointers for a more engaged workforce:

  • The subject of employee engagement needs to be driven down the company by the CEO. Poor employee engagement, it must be clearly understood, is a precursor to some other problem that is brewing. That is why there is a need for top-level engagement. If enough employees feel disengaged, the consequence will certainly be disruptive. Operating managers have to act. It cannot be left to the HR department. 
     
  • Measuring and tracking employee engagement should be followed by action. Techniques are available and excellent companies already track their employee engagement scores. However, the extent to which such companies act on the results is unclear. I suspect very few companies measure employee engagement, and prefer to get a qualitative feel; so their agenda to respond is also too general. The general approach may have worked in the past, but will not be good enough for the future. 
     
  • Operating managers need a refresher course in empathy and listening skills. A generation of managers has taken up leadership roles without any direct experience in dealing with employee discontent. Listening skills are difficult to develop especially when a manager’s career thus far has not required him to do much of it. 
     
  • There is a need for powerful conversational mechanisms at the operating level, where employees feel they have been heard, even if all their suggestions have not been accepted. The company’s top leadership must institutionalise ways to connect directly with lower-level employees. When it’s time to take tough decisions like downsizing, separating the decision from its manner of implementation is essential to ensure that workers are more receptive to the idea. 
     
  • Industry associations may constitute a task force to understand the industrial relations situation in the country and suggest action, both to companies and the government. The legal framework also needs to be current and relevant since archaic labour laws spell trouble for all stakeholders. We need more forums, conferences, seminars to brainstorm on this issue with the clear purpose of coming up with actionable outcomes.

The author is Director, Tata Sons.
These views are personal

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