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Tough Conversations: Don’t be afraid to have them

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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!



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Opinion

Dinesh Gunawardena’s call

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The call by Dinesh Gunawardena, son of that famous Left Leader Philip Gunawardena, who stood steadfast to protect his ideals for the sake of the poor downtrodden, has said ‘stakeholders must protect the government’.

We elect our representatives to Parliament, based on promises they make during election times, and if the government fails or introduces laws not announced at election meetings, then the responsibility of our representatives is to criticise such action; if the government does not heed their voice, our representatives should be prepared to cross over or resign.

The duty of an MP is to stand by the voter, and not the party he belongs to or is aligned to. Were the voters informed that dual citizens would be elected or appointed to Parliament?

Let me conclude by reproducing the last verse in an apt poem by Sir Walter Scott titled:

“LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL [MY NATIVE LAND]”

Despite those titles, and pelf

The wretch, concentered all in self

Living shall forfeit fair renown

And doubly, dying shall go down

To the vile dust, from whence he sprung

UNWEPT, UNHONOURED AND UNSUNG”

GADS

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Opinion

People’s wishes

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People try to wish away the following: the pandemic, especially the impact aggravated by unwise actions of those in charge; ever increasing cost of living, driven by product shortages and excessive money printing; gas explosions, due to unauthorised changes in gas composition and mismanagement; having to stay in long queues to collect gas, milk powder, rice, sugar, kerosene; lack of fertiliser and agrochemicals, by pursuing organic agriculture goals, leading to crop failures and possible food shortages; Inability to attend schools and universities, and the lack of e-learning tools and internet facilities; unauthorised and illegal land grabbing, deforestation, sand/gem mining and human-elephant conflict; unannounced power cuts, due to lack of petroleum and malfunctioning power plants; failing to uphold the rule of law and justice systems, suppressing democratic rights, and inconsistent policy and administration, with several gazettes and frequent revocations; extremely high levels of perceived corruption, wastage, money laundering, nepotism and cronyism; sale of national assets and grant of long term concessions, without best practice valuations; misallocation of scarce natural resources, lack of fiscal discipline, pursuing egoistic/high commissions linked projects, ignoring the priority needs of the poor and vulnerable segments; mismanagement of the external sector, unprofessional external debt management sans debt restructure, channelling short term high cost borrowed funds to pay long term external debt, overvalued rupee, export sector being distressed by disincentives:

Unwise and ineffective foreign relations, failure to optimise networking options with international agencies, especially the IMF and the UNHRC politicisation and ineffectiveness of key independent public institutions, law and good governance, accountability, empowered ministries and departments.

All these appear to originate due to unprofessional, arrogant, egoistic, childish and rent-seeking governance by the regime in control of the executive; and will deter value adding FDI flows, low growth, high twin deficits, rating downgrades, and possibly excessive stress on the citizens of a country heading towards a failed state.

With the voice of advocacy of the caring professionals and civil society mostly dulled, the business chambers placing all blame on the pandemic, and saying the governance action could not have been any better; the executive and leadership in governance promising to fulfil all remaining actions leading to ‘splendour and prosperity’ over the next three years; the legislative opposition overshadowed by the two-third majority of the party in power; activists and social media harassed, and the traditional media divided, with the few who correctly report and bring to surface bad governance, breakdown in law and order, corruption and engaging in investigative journalism pressurised; all eyes, ears and attention with hope is to the Judiciary, as the only saviours of democracy, rule of law and good governance.

The Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution excludes socio-economic rights, and Sri Lanka is not a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the above context “Suo Moto” epistles are an essential need in the current governance environment?

“A Suo Moto cognizance is a Latin term which means ‘an action taken by a government agency, court or other central authority on their own apprehension’. A court takes a Suo Moto cognizance of a legal matter, when it receives information about the violation of rights or breach of duty through media or a third party’s notification.

In India, the Constitution lays down the provisions for filing Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court and High Courts, respectively. This has given rise to the court’s power to initiate legal action on their cognisance of a matter. Suo Moto’s actions by Indian courts are a reflection of activism by the judiciary, and captivated the general public with the speedy delivery of justice by the courts. Suo Moto cases in India are generally taken up by the Supreme Court. The Indian Judiciary has been undoubtedly holding the baton for democracy for the past few years. In numerous instances, different High Courts and the Supreme Court have risen to the occasion, by taking cognisance of a legal issue on their own, and providing swift justice. Various courts in India have initiated legal proceedings on their own, based on media reports, telegrams and letters received by aggrieved people, taking a Suo Moto cognisance of the issue.”

1. The Supreme Court of India has during 1990-2021 taken up 46 cases ‘suo moto’ without any petition being filed, or interest being brought before them.

2. The best recent example of the judiciary entering in to protect and promote the interests of the citizens also comes from India; where “The Supreme Court of India slammed the Centre and state governments for their inability to present a crystal-clear way forward to combat the menace of air pollution in the national capital. A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, and comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant, after hearing submissions of counsel of the Delhi government and Central government, said it needs clear answers on steps to curb air pollution in the capital, which has become a yearly phenomenon for the past several years.

Justice Kant told Delhi government counsel that nobody understands the plight of farmers and under what circumstances they are forced to burn stubble. “People sitting in 5-star and 7-star facilities in Delhi keep accusing the farmers (contribute four percent and 30 or 40 percent to pollution). If you have a scientific alternative (a resolution) … let us look at it, rather than blaming farmers…”, said Justice Kant. The Chief Justice pointed out that according to an IIT Kanpur study, stubble burning and firecrackers are not main contributors for pollution. The bench pulled up the government and bureaucracy for not doing enough to curb air pollution. The bench said the bureaucracy has gone into inertia and they don’t want to do anything. “Bureaucracy developed paralysis…all these things we have to say — how to use sprinklers, how to stop vehicles…they do not want to take any decision”, said the bench, slamming the attitude of bureaucracy. The bench emphasised that somebody has to take responsibility and everything cannot be done through judicial order. It pointed out that firecrackers were burnt in Delhi despite a ban.

Citizens and civil society believe that the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), currently under a forward looking, courageous leadership, demonstrating by its advocacy that it cares for common citizens and is ready to step in to protect citizens impacted by bad governance, must now seek strategic ways and means of promoting “Epistolary Jurisdiction”; which involves “Invoking writ jurisdiction by a court itself on the basis of any letter or information or any news published in newspapers “which ? can ensure enjoyment of some the very basic fundamental rights by the poor and lay man such as: right to protection of law, enforcement of fundamental rights and equality before law. On this point, this jurisdiction is pro-bono publico in nature. On the other hand, some critics think that it may invite judicial activism in the administration of justice, which should not be in a strict sense. Some think that judicial activism should not lead the judges to transgress the limits of judicial functions nor attract them to intervene into executive policy decisions unless any act of the executive is violative of any provision of law or the Constitution”.

BASL must actively pursue options for getting the judiciary to follow some good practices adopted in yesteryears, by judges such as Justices Mark Fernando and Ranjit Amerasinghe, in showing the way with ‘suo moto judgements” and engaging in judicial activism.

CHANDRA JAYARATNE

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Opinion

Govt. stubborn on organic manure from China

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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

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