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Difficult conversations – No easy way out

By Sashi Mukundan 

President, bp India and senior vice president, bp group

Recent events have caused me to reflect on difficult conversations both in terms of layoff discussions and other kinds of “hardtalk”. Difficult conversations at work… they’re awkward, sometimes unpleasant but, ultimately, inevitable in any workplace dynamic. What must be done…must eventually be done. No amount of sugarcoating can change the fact that when you’re discussing an exit with a team member you are changing their lives with every word you speak. You can’t make their worries disappear, but you can worry right alongside them and not let them feel alone in all of this.

 

There are only two tenets available, that can center and focus your mind somewhat, at this time. Conviction that what is being done is the right thing in the larger scheme of events and empathy for the people impacted. 

 

The greater good

 

You must really believe in the cause. You must know without a shadow of doubt that you are doing the right thing. Nobody ever said it would be easy. It’s not easy to be a leader, holding the responsibility for thousands of careers and consequently thousands of livelihoods in your hands. 

 

But that is your job and you must do it.

 

So, let’s dig a little deeper. What’s the cause here?

 

The cause begins with a vision, with a well-intentioned and deeply socially responsible desire to transform a company into one that can join the sprint towards the future - do so responsibly and with complete integrity. In the process we are building a company that can help the world through a specific transition – one that consequently helps improve people’s lives. 

 

It is for the greater good.

 

Seemingly abstract, the idea of a shared destiny is actually very familiar. Colloquially, we know this as the greater good or its synonyms: the public good or common good. Media reports and other collective conversations show that all over the world, people at large are deeply concerned about the state of the world that our children will inherit and on occasion even have reservations regarding global leaders’ stewardship of the same.

 

As we grapple with complex challenges, it is crucial that we understand how these challenges, and our responses to them, affect the greater good of the present and that of the world which will be bequeathed to future generations.

 

So, reinventing a company for the greater good, demand’s difficult conversations, even more difficult sacrifices and sometimes life-changing situations for the people involved.

 

How does one even begin to do something like that?

 

With empathy

 

When we are anxious about having a difficult conversation, we often try to rush through it, or we avoid it altogether. Alternatively, we just go in guns blazing with an urgency and a need to fix it.

 

What’s missing in this picture?

 

Empathy.

 

What is empathy (really)?

 

It’s seeing things from the other person’s point of view, feeling what they feel, and finally, being ready to act and help.

 

And now, in these times, we’re having to do everything from afar.

 

Remote leadership calls for a high degree of emotional intelligence and right now empathy, understanding and compassion are key. Get these right and you will be rewarded many times over. Get them wrong and you’ll find people have very long memories!

 

Difficult conversations are usually with frightened, angry or sad people. The frightened person really needs help and reassurance to stop them fleeing, emotionally or physically. The angry person needs to see that something needs to change, and the sad person needs some consolation.

 

How we act in hard times and easier ones, how we listen and connect, how we give and receive support, how we care for others — those are not just commitments. They’re skill sets. 

 

The willingness to really see other people, and be seen by them, doesn’t get in the way of our leadership, it IS leadership.

 

Views expressed here are personal.