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Corporate culture, humane or not?

Deadlines, pressures, one meeting at the heel of another, unforgiving targets, coupled with the constant need to prove one’s self…Welcome to life in the corporate world.

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Corporate culture, humane or not?

The money is good. The future is promising. But the pressures are incessant. Pakistan’s corporate sector is teeming with newbie 20-somethings who feel once they have entered the big bad corporate world, they have it all figured out and their future is secure.

Yet, the irksome nitty gritty of corporate culture and the price one eventually pays is something they may not have anticipated. Experts and senior management grapple with how to create a healthy workplace culture. Counselling sessions with experts of organisational psychology help.

Yet, in organisations where the silos mentality, red-tapism, closed-door policies and put-me-down attitudes exist, the culture is far from healthy. Life in the corporate world is a tight-rope walk. If you make it to the other side intact, you must have played your cards right or you are plain lucky.

Experts differ on how and if the goal of healthy organisational culture may be achieved.

“When an employer hires someone freshly out of school, the business has to be humane enough to recognise that. We have to understand that the purpose of a business is to improve the quality of life of all stakeholders. So you need to ask your employee ‘what are your dreams and how can we can help you fulfil them’. It’s not about manipulating; it’s about enabling,” says Maqsood Babri, better known as Max, a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist who facilitates healing of individuals and organisations.

Enabling is the opposite of being exploitative, but more often than not, employees fall into the rut of being exploitative due to the number games like Key Performance Indicators (KPI). “Targets are the worst thing; they push a person towards achieving numbers instead of quality,” adds Max. Numbers come at a cost; often, the cost is the well-being of the employee and the organisation.

At the end, there isn’t much in the employees’ control. At the most, what can be mitigated is negativity and interpersonal friction through counselling. “However the counselling need not be mandatory,” says Max, adding that the management needs to work on creating a congenial and inclusive workplace environment – both physical and psycho-social.

“There are people and there are people,” explains Sarfaraz Rehman, in light of his experience both as a former CEO and a present-day consultant and executive coach. Talking of those at the top, he divides them into kinds. “You will always find those who are adept at delegating and so spread the work pressure. Then there are others who are very political and find ways to spread the blame of performance; this is a significant percentage. That is one way of dealing with pressure. There are also those leaders who are bold and iconic. They do not take the pressure of unreal expectations and keep a balance, but also reach for the stars.”

However, the price must be paid. Sometimes one’s inner self, at other times one’s family, and often both suffer at the hands of the demanding work whirlpool. In Sarfaraz Rehman’s opinion, what suffers most is one’s family. “In most CEOs’ case, they are the biggest affectees. Travel is a killer. Years spent at airports and in hotels — it damages health. The children and the spouse take the brunt,” he says.

Known for his leadership skills, Rehman is one for building teams. “I have disliked parts of corporate culture all my life. But I have been blessed with the understanding of people. I know how to make them gel and tick and be inspired and driven. Long ago, I left the need to do things myself, and built teams around me, who, for whatever reason, have been ready to die for a cause I have put in front of them. That has helped in allaying work stress.”

The key, then, lies in the leadership giving employees a sense of ownership, and for that they have to be treated as allies and not target-oriented humanoids who lose their unique abilities. 

Pressed for time all the time is a good way to describe life in the corporate world. The deadlines, pressures, one meeting at the heel of another, and unforgiving targets, coupled with the constant need to prove one’s self, is no mean game.

“The stresses start affecting you once you have a family. Till you are single, the effect doesn’t really kick in. In the corporate world, there are no short cuts. In any good company, it is given that the magnitude of work is a lot, and they will take the work of four people from two,” says Kahkashan Sayied, an HR Consultant with three decades of experience, who describes herself as someone who wants it all, and is willing to work hard for it. Her association with the corporate sector has been worth it she says “because there have been challenges but also rewards”.

The pressure, she explains, increases as you climb up the rungs of the corporate ladder. “People think the involvement is just 9 to 5. It is not.” However, she has made it work. She says that one can balance work life [with personal life], but the key is to be very, very organised and follow a routine at every. “The stations of your life also keep changing with time. You needn’t be regimental, but spontaneity can be afforded only on the weekends, and surprises are not welcome.”

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However, the price must be paid. Sometimes one’s inner self, at other times one’s family, and often both suffer at the hands of the demanding work whirlpool. In Rehman’s opinion, what suffers most is one’s family. “In most CEOs’ case, they are the biggest affectees. Travel is a killer. Years spent at airports and in hotels — it damages health and also takes the edge off living. The children and the spouse take the brunt,” he says.

He adds that this leads to loneliness, which may lead to infidelity. “But executives won’t talk about it. Many are very lonely in travel and this leads to untoward actions in far-off hotel rooms in strange cities. Those who don’t, have learnt to bear this pain and loneliness, and reconcile to a life on the road. It takes a huge toll and it isn’t worth it. Years later, your body in its cry for help will tell you that you have misused it,” he says.

With a lopsided focus on work, the incentive of reward can lead to greed. “If an employee is offered 10 per cent of the salary on their trip, that is what the focus will become. In that process, you miss out on the childhood of your children. It means your spouse has to take care of the home front while you are gone. The freedom that you are gaining is coming at the cost of someone being imprisoned,” says Max.

The quality of life is the time we get for ourselves and our families. It is something one has to be constantly cognisant of. But the plump pay cheque and the buzz of the corporate world that makes one feel indispensable blurs the lines and clouds the vision.

In Max’s opinion, this is one reason why there needs to be more than one breadwinner per family in a country like Pakistan where unemployment is common, so that no one has to do overtime, which consequently affects quality of life.

The impact is not just on the family but also on one’s own well-being. Yumna Usmani, a counsellor and trainer, says that some employees show signs of stress through symptoms like general unhappiness, easy and frequent agitation, bouts of anger, isolation, low energy, and a lack of interest in challenging tasks. In her opinion, the reasons for this “are usually a lack of control over the job, being overly pressed for time, not being able to consult, poor relationship with a colleague, or personal and professional insecurities”.

“The role of a psychologist at such a point is to provide counselling to the overwhelmed individual. Through counselling you can clear the clouded senses, calm the agitation, and revive the energy,” says Usmani.

However, many, over time, learn how to balance the elements. “Pressure in itself is not necessarily bad. It can help us to excel. But being in a constantly stressful situation can be unhealthy and counterproductive,” says Amin Hashwani, businessman, social activist, and author of the visual poetry book Untouched Octaves.

Hashwani feels it is essential to have the ability to step back from a situation to take a 30,000 feet view and to put things in a broader context. “Meditating regularly since early age has helped me tremendously to cope with stressful situations and always view the positive side of life. It prevents me from being reactive or judgemental and help me realise that everything happens for the better.”

Taking out time for one’s self is profoundly important. “During counselling, I highlight the importance of time for self: regular breaks, making friends, breaking of projects into small steps and not withholding seeking help when needed,” says Usmani.

Sayied still finds time for political activism and dog-earing books as avid readers do every night, and advises that one must not forget to focus on one’s own happiness and well-being. “You have to monitor your food pattern, exercise regularly, sleep adequately and stay happy if you want to survive. But by happiness I don’t mean euphoria. I mean contentment.”

Hashwani echoes her sentiment and says, “Sports and exercise help remove the emotional toxicity we normally build up during the course of a day and get the positive chemicals running in our streams”.

The world has begun to wake up to the damages of emotionally and physically burnt-out employees. Thus, newer concepts like flexible hours and agile working have caught up, as has the idea of lesser working hours and a definite two-day weekend at least.

“I don’t see anything wrong with your life revolving around your work. But you have to love your work,” says Saiyed. 

With most people working in the corporate sector spending 12 to 14 hours every day at work, the ambience is extremely important – both physically as well as in terms of the culture and values of the organisation. Jargonised conversation, presentation-after-presentation and incessant meetings may help give a pretentious semblance of a conducive environment, but may actually breed a culture of selfishness where everyone is just watching out for their own interests. These attitudes often trickle down from the top.

Sunlit spaces with ventilation affect efficiency positively. Max even gauges the health of a business environment through what he calls a cliché. “If the toilets in an office are not wonderfully maintained, it means the organisation is not doing well. It shows that you have not been able to educate or motivate your employees enough.”

If walls are broken down, synergies can actually work between individuals and departments. “I laugh a lot deliberately. Many would think it’s frivolous but it’s a defensive wall. It leads me to feel that failure is not that big a deal. So I laugh, I share and I act casual — it makes the world lighter and easier during failure,” says Rehman, explaining how he created a comfortable and positive work environment as a team leader.

“No one thinks I am a Sahib or a big deal. This carefully nurtured image of Sarfaraz Rehman, the humble, laughing, caring friend, helps create ordinariness which in turn reduces expectations and stress,” he concludes.

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