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Compassion of the strong

There are times when straight talking by a leader becomes absolutely necessary. This could be when performance is not as expected; deadlines are not being met; or the blame-game is on. People need timely and no-nonsense feedback to help remove their blindness. Ability to confront sticky situations head-on, when no one else in the team is willing to own their personal responsibility, is vital in a leader. However, without a sense of proper timing and approach, direct confrontation by a manager with a colleague can become a liability.

Ability to talk straight is invaluable in leaders and managers, though it is not so easy to deploy. I find an uncomfortably large number of managers who prefer to sit on the fence, instead of being decisive. This could partly be due to a culture of deference to authority encouraged in some organizations, or it may be that the company is risk-averse.

Weak managers would much rather delegate upwards or sideways, than to deal with crucial matters personally. When confronted by their bosses, such managers tend to seek refuge in excuses. They readily offer reasons for why something could not be done. All this may sound familiar to you, but have you ever asked yourself, why you allow this to happen? ”Your problems don’t come because you don’t know how to calculate entropies or to design plates. They come because you don’t know about people. Our best comes out when we have honest discussions. Our worst comes out when we behave like robots or ‘professionals’. You all have the delusion that it’s your business to sell hardware. But every company of the future is going to be in the business of exquisite care – which means quick turnaround time and convenience. To deliver exquisite care, you need an organization that coordinates well and listens well.” Says Fernando Flores. Flores was Chile’s minister of finance — and, later, a political prisoner. Now he teaches companies how to use assessments and commitments to transform the way they do business.

In a conversation with a general manager of a large local distribution company in Pakistan, the issue of poor implementation came up. He said, “Kamran, I am faced with a problem. My managers don’t follow-up on their commitments. I send them reminders; they receive circulars on changes in our pricing and promotional policies periodically, yet it all seems to fall on deaf ears. What should I do? What do you think is the problem here?” I thought for a moment, and said, “I am afraid the problem is not with the people you are describing.” “Then where does the problem lie?!” He anxiously asked, and I remember telling him directly, “With respect, I think, you are the problem!” My blunt remark caused him to momentarily go red in the face. After a few seconds of silence, calm returned and he realized that he was not holding his people accountable.

Holding people to account is tough, particularly, if you are in the habit of pleasing them. Managers seeking popularity to keep their jobs can end up being very costly for any business. Dilly dallying over matters of significance serves no one. When an individual’s performance is below par, timely and effective feedback becomes essential. Good managers do it effectively. They give constructive feedback when it’s needed and in private.

By there very nature performance appraisals suffer from a degree of subjectivity. The problem is compounded when appraisers fail to highlight poor performance while conducting appraisal interviews. Lack of assertion by managers could be due to a multitude of factors, ranging from a lack of competence; fear of ‘rocking the boat’; excessive desire to please; or even lack of time. Weak managers feel threatened by confident and competent subordinates, who can make intelligent arguments to justify their case.

In an article that appeared in Fast Company magazine in 1998 titled The Power of Words by Harriet Rubin. It is about Fernando Flores and his work style. Given below are a few extracts from the article that appeared in Fast Company magazine.  You will find these illuminating:

“Fernando Flores is pissed off. He has had enough of the bullshit. The 55-year-old philosopher has flown halfway around the world, from California to Holland, to transform two executive teams — 32 leaders in all — of a global construction giant. These are people accustomed to building on a grand scale. But right now, building is their problem, not their business: Their world-class reputation for being brilliantly managed, it turns out, consists only of hollow words — words that have little power and less value.”

“Flores knows about words and how they translate directly into deeds. He knows that talk is never cheap — he often charges more than $1 million for his services, a fee that is linked directly to specific promises of increased revenues and savings. He also knows that talk is the source of these executives’ failure. Their words work against them — which is why they can’t get anything to work for them.”

“Talk all you want to, Flores says, but if you want to act powerfully, you need to master “speech acts”: language rituals that build trust between colleagues and customers, word practices that open your eyes to new possibilities. Speech acts are powerful because most of the actions that people engage in — in business, in marriage, in parenting — are carried out through conversation. But most people speak without intention; they simply say whatever comes to mind. Speak with intention, and your actions take on new purpose. Speak with power, and you act with power.”

In another part of the article Flores is quoted as saying, “In the western mind, there are two notions of compassion: one is, I’m going to be a Good Samaritan and help this guy. But that is the compassion of the weak. The compassion of the strong is in waking people up to their blindness. For that, you need to be a warrior. I am tough and sweet. I show you your bullshit, but I’m also infinitely patient with you. Know this; we aren’t aware of the amount of self-deception and self-limitation that we collect in our personalities.” 

What Flores is preaching, flies right in the face of our South Asian culture. We are well known for our politeness and courtesy. It’s a trait we can all be proud of; however, it does not sit well with the need for an honest and open dialogue, which is crucial in any business.

Over the years, we have learned to show respect to our elders or seniors by simply agreeing with whatever they have to say. Boardroom meetings are often seen as places where the chairman, usually overpowering, steers the deliberations. Several heads nod ritualistically in silent agreement as the chair speaks. Ironically, the very people, who choose to stay quiet during the meeting, get busy in back-room chatter about the very issues they should have addressed.

Insecurity often leads to such hypocritical behavior. Anyone found questioning authority is often seen as a rebel and is singled-out as a spoiler in most organizations. Late Agha Hasan Abedi was a victim of such a culture of superficiality. Most of his immediate colleagues were never known to have questioned his decisions directly to his face. Unfortunately, even though Mr Abedi is known to have admired candor, he never quite found this trait amongst his senior colleagues.

Men with the audacity of Flores can make a huge difference in our organizations. They need to be found and encouraged.

Compassion of the strong expresses itself in honesty that is combined with respect while giving feedback on behavior or performance. To lose sight of respect while being brutally honest can turn out to be very expensive!

From an article by Harriet Rubin published in Fast Company Magazine, Dec 1998, titled, “The Power of Words”.

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