By Yukthi K.Gunasekera
“When you avoid tough conversations, you trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction”, said leader, speaker, and coach Peter Bromberg.
The purpose of this article is to help you have tough conversations (TCs) with ease, confidence, and comfort, so that you not only avoid dysfunction but build robust and successful organisations and teams.
I believe that TCs help organisations and relationships develop and thrive. In my coaching practice where TC role plays are a staple, I come across many leaders who are uncomfortable, shy, nervous, or embarrassed when confronted with a TC, like giving negative feedback to one of their subordinates. This should not be the case, because having TCs unlocks pent up potential and possibilities for you and your organisation. If you are still doubtful about the value of having TCs, try to maintain a relationship or run a team at optimum efficiency when you have deep-seated concerns or negative thoughts about the other person. It just doesn’t work.
So, here is a road map you can follow to have tough conversations (TCs).
First, you have to decide whether to have a TC or not. Are you happy to live with the status quo or do you want to change it?
Second, if you want to change the status quo and go ahead with the TC, then you have to examine your current emotional state. If you cannot bring a calm, balanced, neutral, and helpful emotional state to the TC, then you are not yet prepared to have the TC. Because the aim of having a TC is not to belittle, demoralise, insult, or hurt the other person. The aim of a TC is to bring about positive behavioural change, or get buy-in from the other party to your point of view.
Third, the TC must be held in a private setting that allows for undisturbed, two-way communication. TCs can be held via online platforms like zoom where you can see each other face-to-face virtually, but you must never have TCs via email or any other written communication.
Fourth, you and the other person must have sufficient time for the TC – this means you should not schedule a TC in the midst of an unusually hectic day, where you have to run off to another meeting, say in 15 minutes. A good time to have a TC is at the end of the day, when things are calmer and quieter in office.
Fifth, you should start the conversation by putting the other person at ease (get her something to drink, or ask “How are things?”), emphasise her value to your team or organisation in one (1) sentence, and then describe the facts. Note the word “facts” here. This is not about your judgment on the facts. For example, if your TC is about correcting an employee who is coming habitually late to work, your opening question should not be, “Why the heck can’t you come to work on time? Don’t you know we start work here at 8:30?” Rather, your line of questioning can be: “In the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed you getting into office around 9/9:30. Is everything ok with you?” You would have noticed that the first two questions are accusatory and judgmental, whereas the third question is curious, supportive, and looks for a cause for the behaviour. Therefore, the third type of question will help you resolve the issue – and not make the matter worse.
Although your questions may be neutral, non-judgmental, and non-threatening, you must be mentally prepared for emotional reactions from the other person. In fact, you should prepare in advance how to handle such emotional outbursts.
Sixth, once you and the other person have discussed the issue and come up with a solution or put an action plan in place, then you should set up dates and times for the follow-up meetings. A common drawback in TCs is the failure to set up follow-up meeting dates and times. Follow-up meetings help you to hold the other person accountable for his or her course corrections. This also shows the other person that you are very serious about the TC and its outcomes.
Seventh, you should document your TC, deliverables, and follow-up meeting dates and times in an email (not a text or WhatsApp), and send to the other person. This is to ensure that both of you are on the same page – and to show your serious intent.
Eighth, you should hold the follow-up meetings with the other party until the problem is solved or the behaviour is changed. Never forget former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner’s advice: “People don’t do what you expect but what you inspect.”
Ninth, if the issue cannot be resolved, then it might be time to let the other person go. As legendary business leader Jack Welch put it, “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds too.” You too may have to pull out some weeds – that’s your job as a leader. Don’t shy away from it – you are doing yourself, the other person, and your organisation a favour by doing so.
Tenth, do a post-mortem on your TC. How did you handle it? What went well? What can you improve for next time? Use the learnings from your post mortem to hold a better TC next time.
In closing, I want to leave you with an inspirational thought from poet, writer, and philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater, “He who, when called upon to speak a disagreeable truth, tells it boldly and has done, is both bolder and milder than he who nibbles in a low voice and never ceases nibbling.“
I wish you successful Tough Conversations!
Govt. stubborn on organic manure from China
According to media reports, it is evident that the Government is hell-bent on importing organic manure from the same company that supplied the first shipment, rejected by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). We are aware that US$ 6.9 million of Valuable Foreign Exchange (VFE) has been paid to this company (when the country is hard pressed for foreign currency) as compensation for the manure rejected due to obvious reasons viz. contamination with harmful microorganisms.
This VFE thus paid as compensation could otherwise have been used to import the much-needed chemical fertiliser. for which the farmers are rightfully clamouring. It was also reported that the Minister of Agriculture is planning to get a new SLSI Standard established, to facilitate this importation.
First things first, and it will be best for the authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Government, to sit for a while and study the Plant Protection Act No.35 of 1999, without losing time – better late than never. According to provisions and regulations under this Act, commercial quantities of organic manure cannot be imported to Sri Lanka. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture, who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land.
As a retired officer, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, I am aware that no amendments have since been brought to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above, and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought, since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised on the whims and fancies of Governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements, as health issues pertaining to plant, animal and human life are involved.
Whatever standard that the SLSI establishes for organic manure imports, as per the request of the Minister of Agriculture, will have to comply with the aforesaid provisions of the Plant Protection Act. The so-called fresh shipment, if it is called organic fertiliser/manure, will necessarily contain a concoction of microorganisms, coming in bulk from a foreign environment to that of ours, and this itself could be disastrous, That is exactly why Plant Quarantine Services, the world over ( including Sri Lanka), are so strict in adhering to the relevant regulations. ( In this regard, we are all aware of the havoc created by the tiny Corona virus that, in fact, originated in China.)
In the event a fresh shipment comes, and if the Plant Quarantine officials act in the same manner as they acted when the first shipment came, strictly on scientific principles and in keeping with the regulations, the new shipment should get rejected if the material is really organic manure. So once again are we going to pay a massive compensation and lose VFE once more at this critical juncture; when we are in dire need of the same, to meet basic requirements? It is felt the Government should even at this late stage reconsider its policy on importing commercial quantities of organic manure/fertiliser, which no farmers ever wanted, and hence stop it forthwith, without getting this country into a further muddle.
The best is to produce organic manure/fertiliser on-farms as much as possible, due to the hassle of transporting over large distances, the way it was practiced by some farmers earlier, too, and use it as a soil re-conditioner; along with chemical fertiliser, which will give the much-needed plant nutrients in appreciable quantities, to achieve the required yield levels which will be sufficient to meet the national targets. Organic farming per se has been and can be practiced in Sri Lanka in niches over the years; it is nothing new and is known to give low/moderate yields at high cost, for special markets. Organic farming can never cater to our total national need, and the Government needs to understand this fact and reconsider its policy.
A.B. EDGAR PERERA
Retired Director/Agricultural Development
Ministry of Agriculture
Power Cuts: Engineers kept in the dark
The above news item says even senior engineers of the CEB were kept in the dark about the power cut on Thursday, 13th Jan, despite Minister Gamini Lokuge assuring the country of uninterrupted supply. This gives the impression that there is no proper coordination among the engineers within the bCEB and the Ministry for Power. Added to this catastrophic situation, now enters another player, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] making matters worse, where it insists approval for power cuts, according to a schedule, should be obtained from them.
The present power cut may be that the CEB has given the correct picture to PUCSL, and the information to the Minister may be by a section of engineers who play politics. The Minister should take the advice and information from the General Manager, and he should be held responsible for any false or incorrect information. It must also be said that there could be unexpected or unforeseen failures, which could alter the plans, and in such circumstances the GM, CEB could be excused. It is very unfortunate there is no unity among the engineers in the CEB, which has caused this unpleasant situation, embarrassing the Minister, the government, and placing consumers in a state of despair.
This difference in opinions among engineers in the CEB, reminds me of a similar situation in the 1980s, when the hydro reservoirs were running dry due to a severe drought. One section of engineers, to please the Minister, advocated running the turbines, expecting rains any time; while the other section advocated a power cut, saying it is dangerous and makes matters worse as the turbines could be damaged with dead wood and other objects dragging in with the flow.
This matter was brought before the Ministry, and the then Secretary to the Ministry for Power and Energy, the late James H Lanerolle, advised the Minister to approve a power cut which was turned down. Not being satisfied and being national minded, and in keeping with the responsibilities placed on him by the President who appoints Secretaries to Ministries to advise and guide Ministers, with the permission of the Minister made representations to the then President J.R.Jayewardene. A meeting with the President was arranged with engineers of both parties. On giving a patient hearing and understanding the gravity, the President turned to the Secretary and said [I can yet remember clearly as I too attended this meeting] “James, carry out your decision to shed power”. This should be a lesson to the present Secretaries of Ministries, not to play politics, and serve the President who had appointed them for the purpose mentioned above.
If there was no PUCSL to interfere, then the CEB would have briefed the Minister and the Secretary to the Ministry, and taken a correct decision. As the CEB has to serve two masters – PUCSL and Ministry – the two factions of engineers in the CEB act differently, one seeking PUCSL and the other the Minister.
I recall here the plea made by former Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to remove PUCSL from interfering with the CEB, which the President on understanding the difficulties of the Minister to carry out his duties efficiently, safeguarding the government, rightly agreed and issued instructions accordingly. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the Finance Minister, overruled the President’s order and allowed the same procedure to follow.
It will be advisable for the present Minister for Finance, Basil Rajapaksa, to review, under the present confusing situation, which has brought Minister Lokuge to a questionable situation, and also the public having no faith in the promises made by government
G. A. D. SIRIMAL
Beginning of all things auspicious
Happy Thai Pongal!
Cosmic phenomena have baffled mankind since the beginning of time. ‘Sun worshipping’ or ‘Heliolatry’ was one of the most widespread forms of worship in ancient times. Historical evidence suggests that sun-worship was practised not only by Indians but by Africans, Egyptians, Chinese and Indonesians. In fact, a remnant of sun-worship, one time-tested ritual survives to-date. Thai Pongal, celebrated today by Tamils the world over irrespective of region, caste or creed, is the only form of Sun worship in existence today.
Thai Pongal is the Hindu version of Thanksgiving, performed by offering the first portion of the harvest to the Sun God, Surya. The festival has more than just religious significance. Especially in the tropics, where the sun shines throughout the year, it is an abundant source of power. Consequently, for millennia the sun has been the driving force of agriculture. In fact, in the tropics any cultivation thrives on just sunlight and rain. In short the tropics owe its plenitude to the sun.
Thai Pongal marks the Indic solstice when the sun enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Capricorn. The ‘Thai’ in ‘Thai Pongal’ represents the month of January (the 10th month of the Tamil Calendar), which marks the beginning of the harvesting season for Hindus. ‘Pongal’, rice from the first harvest, cooked in milk and sweetened with jaggery, is an offering to the Sun God, Surya. Pongal also translates to ‘boiling over’ or ‘overflow’.
Thai Pongal is celebrated with great enthusiasm and eagerness by Tamils the world over. Indicative of the bumper harvest, celebrations are more pronounced in the tropics. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu, where Thai Pongal is said to have originated, it is celebrated for four days. The first day, January 14 this year, marks the beginning of multiple festivals, characterised by a scurry of activities, just as before Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Houses and yards are cleaned and trash from the previous year is burnt. In fact, so much burning takes place that Tamil Nadu pilots have complained of navigation difficulties due to smoke! The burning of trash is also figurative. It signifies unburdening of past year’s mental encumbrances and the expression of gratitude.
On the morning of the first day of celebrations Hindu women decorate the floor of their houses with Kolam, intricate patterns made from coloured rice flour. Rather than mere artistic expression or decoration, Kolam symbolises happiness and prosperity. Kolam is also used to demarcate the sacred area where the Pongal is prepared. Milk is heated until it boils over and rice and jaggery are added afterwards. The boiling over of milk symbolises abundance. Prepared within the parameters of the Kolam, in a clay pot using fire wood, Pongal is offered first to the senior most members of the family on banana leaves, after the prayers.
‘Mattu Pongal’, the third day of celebrations is dedicated to paying respect to cattle. Much like the Sun, cows are an integral part of tropical agriculture, not to mention Hindu culture. The cows work the fields year round, helping the farmer reap a plentiful harvest, by pulling the plough. In fact, before the advent of commerce, much of the early Hindu economy was based on milk trade. During the festive season cattle are garlanded, kumkum applied on their foreheads, horns painted and fed a mixture of jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits, referred to as venn pongal.
On the first three days most Hindus restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet. But on the fourth day, hill country Tamils of Sri Lanka start eating meat. The third day is spent visiting relatives. Bull fights, referred to as Jallikattu, are the main attraction in India on the second, third and fourth days. These take place out in the open and is considered an extremely dangerous and gruesome sport. Consequently, those who participate are considered gallant. The season consists of many other games and festivities such as bullock cart races, harvesting dances, music and festivities at temples.
Thai Pongal signifies prosperity and abundance in the new year. Hindus reap their first harvest in the month of ‘Thai’. As such, it is a financially beneficial and prosperous month. Hindus make wedding plans, plan to buy new property and assets and start new jobs during this month. The Tamil saying ‘Thai piranthal wali pirakkum’ means ‘with the beginning of January a new pathway is also paved’. This is the essence of Thai Pongal, which marks the beginning of all things auspicious for the Hindus.
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