21 Jan 2021 22:00 IST

Why should anyone listen to you?

Leadership is a conversation; show up in every setting you encounter at work with that awareness

One of the primary tasks of a leader is having a conversation. One can argue that leading is having a conversation. Any time I’m leading, I am really having a conversation. Sometimes this conversation is had by speaking, sometimes by listening, sometimes by writing, sometimes by doing something, and sometimes by even not doing something. Think of Gandhi fasting, think of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners, think of Rahane’s gesture of handing a signed T-shirt to Nathan Lyon at the trophy ceremony. Having effective and ‘influencing’ conversations becomes a leader’s most important skill. But how does a leader ensure his team listens to him. Let’s look at a few conversations that have not been working out so well.

Walk the talk

Let’s start with the business example. WhatsApp recently announced an upcoming change to its privacy policy and what started as a spark, is now a blazing inferno with people getting off WhatsApp in droves and signing up on rival platforms such as Telegram and Signal. WhatsApp’s communication about the policy was absent at first — a hint of arrogance that we’re too big for any user to even think about not accepting. Then when the exodus started, they went into overdrive — but with little impact on the crowds heading for the exit.

Next let’s look at the farmer agitation. In fact, when you read both sides of the argument, there is perhaps some merit in the laws and some element of genuine reform. Why then are the farmers up in arms? Why is there so much distrust to the point where even sharing a meal has become almost impossible, let alone arriving at an agreement on a way forward?

Finally, two vaccines are approved, but people are hesitant especially about the one that was approved without efficacy data. In all probability, it could turn out to be safe and effective, but the conversations to get people to take it, have not worked or at best have been patchy. There is suspicion and fear. Having to sign a consent form has raised further red flags. In each of these cases there is a credibility quotient missing that prevents impactful and effective conversations.

Credibility is a combination of whether people believe you have the competence for what you’re talking about and whether they believe you care about them and what you’re conversing about. They must know that you have a track record of demonstrating the skills and experience that matter. And where you don’t — you are honest about it and willing to rely on another team member to cover for that. They must know that you are willing to walk the talk — to back up your words with consistent action, willing to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly, and that you are prepared to show up when it matters. The credibility quotient is rarely built in the conversation — it’s built outside it, from a track record of trustworthiness and reliability, of competence and caring.

Basis of trust

WhatsApp may have the competence but they absolutely fail on the second condition for credibility because of the poor record of their owner-company — Facebook. Facebook is notorious for using, abusing, manipulating, sharing user data with the primary agenda of profit. Unlike WhatsApp’s original founders who were committed to the privacy of users (For example they were against corrupting the WhatsApp experience through ads of any sort), Facebook has exploited their user base to the maximum and user privacy has suffered. Their latest update announcement reinforced for users why they couldn’t trust Facebook. As one of the punchline quotes in the Netflix Documentary, The Social Dilemma goes: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” Facebook has no track record to give their conversations credibility — not because they lack the competence, but because people doubt their intent and agenda.

A similar theme seems to have cropped up in the farmer negotiations. A majority Government that was used to steam-rolling things through Parliament, courtesy of an absent and ineffective opposition, suddenly found opposition coming from an unexpected quarter — the very people their laws would impact. In many ways, the farmers were just enraged by being taken for granted. They felt they were not consulted, not listened to. They felt they were not respected. When negotiations actually began — the Government followed a two-pronged strategy. Engage with the farmer leaders inside the meeting rooms, but on the outside discredit them and divide them. Hence the comments by different Government proxies, alleging that the farmers were manipulated by the Opposition parties, that they were terrorists or had links with terrorists and more along those lines. The distrust created by the conversations ‘outside the room’ ensured a climate of distrust ‘inside the room’.

Leaders face the same challenge. A factory boss goes into a union negotiation. The trust in those negotiations, depends more on what she has said and done ‘outside the room.’ If she has a record of competence, of genuinely caring about her workers, then that trust will be the foundation of a constructive conversation — even if both sides begin with several disagreements.

Strategic communication

With the vaccine communication, the quality of the vaccines again was pushed into the background, because the process of having the conversation was opaque. Logic and reason are completely impotent, when they come up against emotion. Think of a little baby trying to push against a 15-tonne truck and it will still be an imperfect representation of the lop-sided contest in our brains when logic and emotion collide. The conversation that all the Government agencies had, lacked credibility. One, because of the track record of chasing sound bites over what is real. People suspected that the chase for the chest-thumping moment, was overriding their own interests. And secondly the conversations were logic driven, neglecting the emotional denominator of the issue.

On the flip side we had former NDTV media specialist, Nidhi Razdan very courageously admitting she had been conned through an elaborate phishing scam. The promised Assistant Professor job at Harvard was just an illusion, held out to get her hooked, and to steal her data. Here, because she thought she was having a conversation with Harvard, she listened, because she thought the credibility quotient was above board.

Earlier this week, I saw the power of a leadership conversation powered by credibility in action. I was helping out a friend’s company doing a consulting session with the C-Suite of their Canadian client. It was inspiring to see and hear the CEO of the family run business and the passion and energy with which he outlined the priorities for the future. I could see how his leadership team listened to him, because his credibility quotient was hitting the roof. His competence, his conviction, his passion for the company and its people — all shone so obviously through. His ‘outside the room’ track record of credibility gave his conversation ‘in the room’ influence and impact. A lesson all of us can learn.