Demonstrate, Celebrate And Integrate

Demonstrate, Celebrate And Integrate

The boss-subordinate relationship is steeped in a thinly veiled unequal power equation and has a direct impact on one's employment, earning potential and career progression.


The year was 2000. I was on the top of the world. I drove into the gate of the plant and the watchman at the gate presented me with a smart salute. The peon ran up to me to carry my bag to my office. The office itself was pleasantly cool – the air-conditioning had been on for some time before my arrival. The tea, when it arrived, was just the way I liked. The Union leader came to pay his respects as did several of the shop floor managers. I walked through the bustling shop floor and was greeted with reverential glances and half salutes. I was the Plant Manager of our largest plant – I was the King!


There will be many managers/ leaders in India who would identify with this description. A lot of leaders who occupy high positions today have been conditioned with similar, if not the same, worshipful treatment. The Indian culture is hierarchical. Ever since our childhood, we are taught to respect seniority – in age, experience, or expertise. Our public space is crowded with larger-than-life figures – be it politics, business, cricket, or films. An Organisation is a part of this social milieu, and not only does it reflect these traits, but also amplifies them since the boss-subordinate relationship is steeped in a thinly veiled unequal power equation and has a direct impact on one’s employment, earning potential and career progression. Hence, Power Distance remains high, sycophancy is rife, and challenging the boss is often looked upon as a sign of arrogance. In this situation, is it then a surprise that seeking feedback rarely crosses the mind of the boss and giving feedback to one’s superior is sacrilege? In this backdrop, how does one develop an organisational culture that not only encourages but also rewards seeking and delivering feedback?


Before we answer this question, we need to ponder on the “why”. Why is it important to create a feedback culture where one seeks feedback openly and often, and also receives feedback graciously with no defensive behaviours?


Cut to the year 2004. I am managing a plant in Sydney, Australia. I was sent on an expat assignment as a reward against my consistently strong performances in India. It is a Monday morning, and I am struggling to find the energy to get into my car to get to work. I feel as if my ‘bucket is empty’ – like I hardly have the energy to face the challenges of the workplace. I am close to tears – I do not realise, but I am teetering on the brink of depression.


What happened? I carried my work approach from the past to my new workplace and was promptly put in place by the irreverential, tough-as-nails, earnyour-respect-if-you-want-it work environment. I could not handle this, resulting in the deep trough I was experiencing then. Upon reflection, I realised, that as a Plant Manager, I was pampered so much that I had developed a completely unrealistic self-image and also a sense of entitlement. I did not seek any feedback on my behaviour or leadership which resulted in developing glaring blind spots. I began my new assignment in a new workplace and a new country with this major handicap, which resulted in the debacle just described.


Apart from the above, the other major pitfall of an organisational culture that does not encourage feedback, especially bottom to top, is hubris. The organisation tends to become rigid with the decisions of the leader which do not get challenged, and in today’s VUCA world, an organisation sans agility is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, employees do not feel valued, and there is a drop in the engagement levels. The organisation ceases to learn and grow.


Building an organisational culture with feedback as the critical lynchpin is clearly one of the topmost priorities for the leader.


Before going to the question - how does a leader go about doing this? - it must be explored if there are any cultural hindrances to this endeavour. In this regard, one should reflect – how do we accept customer feedback? In most organisations today, customer feedback is given a high level of importance. ‘Customer is King’ is the adage that is a part of any successful company. Hence, the Voice of the Customer gets heard loud and clear. Employee engagement surveys to understand the Voice of the Employee is also taken seriously. However, this in itself is not enough to create the feedback culture we are referring to. To develop this, I recommend this three-step approach that has worked for me –


1. Demonstrate


It all begins at the top. The leader must demonstrate openness and humility to seek and accept feedback. It is generally easy to give feedback from a superior to the employee, but it is also important to demonstrate the opposite. It is not sufficient for the leader to talk about it alone, it must also be demonstrated. We are well aware that people listen to what we talk, but follow what we do. This demonstration of humility to seek feedback, openness to accept it with gratitude and with no display of defence, implement relevant action points and closing the feedback loop diligently – all these go a long way in demonstrating the leader’s commitment towards feedback that the entire organisation will not only absorb but even mirror.


2. Celebrate


It is not enough that the leader demonstrates his willingness to adopt a feedback-based approach to self-development. It is equally important that the leader celebrates and then makes the organisation to celebrate the instances where managers have sought feedback and employees have given feedback fearlessly. This could be done by open referencing in town hall addresses, newsletters, and even special rewards or recognition. Organisations quickly adapt to new habits that are desirable by the leadership. Pavlovian conditioning still works wonders!


3. Integrate


Finally, any change needs to be integrated into the organisation’s systems and procedures for its assimilation into the fabric of daily work life. Specifying feedback seeking, receiving, and actioning should be made a part of review mechanisms like formal performance appraisal processes to ensure that it is internalised. Even its inclusion during the formal one on one review meetings that one conducts with one’s employees would go a long way in meeting this objective.


Feedback is most required when we think we have reached our goal. I recently read this story which puts this in perspective. Steve Jobs was shown a prototype of a model of iPad and he commented that it was too big. When the engineers protested saying that it could get any smaller, Jobs took the iPad to a water tub and dropped it in the water. Looking at the air bubbles that arose from the iPad, he said that the air bubbles show there is space and the iPad could be made smaller. Even though we feel that we are a finished product, there are always air bubbles – the trick is to find a Steve Jobs who can show them to us!


Ashish Pradhan is President, Siegwerk Asia. He comes with over 25 years of experience in the Packaging industry and has worked in Huhtamaki, Positive packaging, Henkel, and International Paper. Ashish is a Mechanical Engineer with a Management Degree and holds a Diploma in International Trade from the Indian Institute of Materials Management and a Diploma in Packaging from the Institute of Packaging, UK.


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