How to Eat an Elephant

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This story, which I would like to share with you, dates back to the days when I lived in Mumbai. Those were the relatively early years of my career when I was working for a major industrial house as Chief Personal Manager of one of their businesses.

Although my office was located in the south Mumbai, one day I decided to visit the factory, which was situated about sixty-five kilometers away. I did visit the factory fairly often, but rarely as instinctively as I did on that day. As the driver entered the factory gates and started to drive towards the Administrative block, I sensed that something seemed strangely different. The usually busy gates were unduly quiet.

We reached the Administrative block within a few minutes, and I saw to my shock a crowd of about four hundred people, shouting and hurling abuse. Those were the times when cell phones didn’t exist, and I hadn’t been informed about the trouble brewing there. So, it was literally left to my gut feelings to figure out and take a change of the situation without any prior information as to what the commotion was all about!

Call it the presence of mind or intuition, I decided not to approach anyone in the crowd without getting some background information first. I walked to the Administration block where the management people informed me that the workers had called a flash strike and were met. Right about then, I heard a shrill shout from outside: ‘We want to talk to the management, come out!’ Obviously, the workers were agitated and upset that I hadn’t first listened to their side of the story. I sent an envoy urging them to go back to work immediately, before doing anything else, but no amount of convincing helped.

Thought I didn’t feel the need to call the police to intervene, I still wanted to ensure that they were informed in case the situation turned ugly. So I hurried to make a quick phone call but as luck would have it, the phone lines were down that day. That didn’t deter us from talking the precautionary measures needed; I worked out an alternative and sent one person through the back gate to inform the police. Meanwhile, I quickly brainstormed with my team on all available options to address the issue at hand. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time since the workers were getting restive, so we decided that someone from the management team had to be sent to talk to the employees. I took on that responsibility, and one of my team members joined me.

My previous encounter taught me when addressing angry crowds that the first task was to make the crowd disperse. Now it would be a challenge.

I till recall my moment of truth as I walked towards the agitated worker. They were shouting abusive slogans as I moved closer to them. I immediately realized that I had to ensure that they saw a move as a sign of recognition of the issue and my willingness to resolve it. I faced the crowd and fearlessly looked into the eyes of the men standing in the front row and signaled that I wanted to talk and communicate, fully leveraging my kinesthetic quotient! Then came a crucial moment when I initiated the dialogue, asking them to voice their problem, I figured out that very gesture of our willingness to listen to their problem appealed to the reasonable members of the crowd.

The workers shouted that they wanted to settle their “charter of demands” immediately and had a long list of about 50 applications. They noted that, although these issues had been pursued, the Department was interested in responding, which had led to the impasse.

I’m sure I’m a cloud to take control of the situation, “she said,” I’ve given the administration an opportunity to work on your demands … I want to have a productive conversation with you and I’m willing to solve your problem. “I do not think it’s practical to talk to many people at once.

You have chosen four or five employees to represent you. I will not dictate who these officers should be, a question about your choice of representatives. But I certainly can not have a meaningful conversation with so many people. If you want a solution, decide your spokesman and tell us who they are. I’ll be waiting for them in the management block. “However, I went back and headed toward the office.

We were eagerly waiting for their message, while they were trying to figure out who those representatives should be. One faction amongst them was adamant to have everyone join the negotiations. After a few hours, I sent them another message inviting them for a dialogue but reiterating that we would Not talk to the entire crowd!

After the turbulent wait, finally, some leadership came out of the block. About fifteen employees showed up at the Admin office – another indication that I would be able to turn the situation around completely. After greeting them, I restated my stand that we would speak with not more than six representatives. I knew I had to provide some face-saving device to them and yet stay firm in our position; I, therefore, worked out a compromise that these fifteen people could nominate about six members, While the others would remain seated in an adjacent room, and be available for any consultation that may arise.

The plan worked. We have had a meaningful discussion and can resolve all their concerns to find a mutually acceptable solution concerning the principles and timeframes that will be followed in the settlement of their request. It was a lengthy meeting that went on for a long time.

Once on the same page, I suggested that we leave the administrative building as one group, and they agreed. The scene of the administration and the representative of the employee symbolizing together indicate that an agreement has been reached. The crowd realized that we had come to a win-win solution and, literally, the next moment they all commenced work. We kept our word and eventually signed a formal settlement of their charter of demands.

I learned some valuable lessons that day;

First of all, break every problem in controllable parts. Do not try to come across a big problem as a single piece, if you want to eat an elephant, you’ll have to make smaller pieces and chew them – just one at a time!

Secondly, the seemingly difficult complication in human relations can be resolved through effective communication. And invariably, ‘constructive confrontation’ is a power-packed formula that leads to long-lasting results.

And finally, people can figure out if you are sincere in your efforts and will deliver on commitment – a must for forging any trust-based relationship.


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