A plummeting economy is not the only sickness that corporate India has been battling for some time now. In 2011, a Gallup survey, conducted across millions of employees in 142 countries, revealed that less than 20% of the workforce was actively engaged in their organisations. Over 60% were disengaged and approximately 20% were actually damaging their companies. While that number may not be true for all organisations, specifically, actively engaged employees are routinely outnumbered by disengaged ones in most. Project delays, cost overruns, cumbersome processes and safety violations are all manifestations of the core reason — employee disengagement.
In addition to that, experts point out that an alarming one in six Indians suffer from some form of mental health issue, with a high skew towards urban metros, where most corporates function. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), India will lose $1.03 trillion between 2010 and 2030, because of mental health conditions. Indian corporates and society were inefficient and sick well before this pandemic. But here is why the two “co-morbidities” of disengagement and mental health pose an existential threat to economic recovery.
There are multiple reasons for disengagement and mental health problems, and many of them are common. A lack of a sense of purpose or relevance, hyper-competitive or an intimidating work environment, multiple layers of hierarchy and a sense of helplessness are some reasons for disengagement. Lack of security, apprehensions about the future, loss of agency and overall pessimism are some causes of anxiety and depression. And these are the very aspects exacerbated by the pandemic, the economic decline, its implications and a cynical social narrative.
Until recently, mental health, employee engagement and work-life balance were rolled into one “nice to have” initiative with most leaders paying lip service to it — while they created a dog-eat-dog environment in the workplace. Most organisations manage their employees by controlling their physical presence, rather than their emotional engagement. That is why being late to work is punished but being listless is not even measured. This suboptimal state might have been tolerable during good times. But in a crisis, the morale of the organisation is an existential ingredient. Disengaged and depressed troops are useless, no matter how brilliant the revival plans are. If we have to come out fighting from this economic body blow, leaders must remember that organisations are built and run by humans, not automatons. It is the morale of the employees and their active engagement which will provide the foundation of a revival — not just the latest management fad or technology platform.
Steering through crises and rapidly-changing situations requires agility, the ability to innovate, and creativity. But these qualities need an environment of psychological safety. Corporates, however, have traditionally relied on “punitive” methods which deny a promised compensation, in an eventuality of failure, creating an environment where it is unsafe to fail, take initiative, be innovative or creative. As General Eisenhower famously observed: “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault — not leadership”. Scared troops are demoralised troops and the demoralised cannot innovate, be creative or agile.
Navigating through volatility requires leaders to follow three cardinal principles, the first of which is to have as accurate a picture of the overall situation as possible. That accuracy depends on the level of candour or dissent the leader allows. A vulnerable leader gets more information, opposing views, out-of-the-box ideas and strategies that question convention. A “know-it-all” leader will be told what she wants to hear and, therefore, arrive at an incorrect situation analysis.
The second step is to formulate a plan. Once again, employees operating in a psychologically-safe environment will contribute with ideas, tribal knowledge, collaborative strategies whereas those in an intimidating atmosphere will prioritise their parochial interests rather than organisational ones.
And last, the plan must have the flexibility to deal with volatile changes in the ground situation, which needs a high degree of empowerment, requiring front-line leaders to have a sense of security. They need a mindset of “hope for success”, rather than a “fear of failure”.
These three cardinal steps of leadership during a crisis necessitate the leader to be vulnerable, compassionate and caring. A telling example is the comparison of how countries with empathetic and vulnerable leaders fared during the pandemic compared to those with “strong” leaders.
And that perhaps should be the silver lining emerging from this pandemic. A long-overdue social and professional acknowledgement of the two most debilitating and rapidly growing sicknesses of modern times — disengagement and depression and the realisation that creating an environment of psychological safety and optimism is a fundamental prerequisite to any economic recovery plan.
Raghu Raman is former president, Reliance Industries
The views expressed are personal