Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Employee Engagement

Recently I had the opportunity of interacting with some very senior officers of the Indian Railways,while trying to brief them about the journey from IR (industrial relations) to ER (employee relations). The history of Indian Railways is perhaps older than the history of Indudtrial Relations in this country. The oldest legislation governing industrial relations in this country is the Trade Union's Act 1926 and the first legislation which took care of both sides of employment is the Bombay Industrial Relations Act 1946, whereas the first railway was Mumbai to Thane way back in 1853.
The state of affairs in our country is where we always follow a curative pattern in our governance style. Till the problems spring up rampantly and become unmanageable the control factors do not pay any heed to address them whether it is the law or they are the simple administrative measures. Likewise the Railways and its problems too became a subject which was taken for granted. Despite being a service organisation the Central Government preferred to run it on its own by not only creating an additional department but also a Ministry, thereby allocating the 'importance' it deserved, little realising from the blunders that showed up by retaining a major Airlines. Thanks to the private participation in the Airline industry, at least the spirit of competition has been kindled and benchmarks are available for comparision. It may be worth mentioning here that as a trainer and a consultant when I suggested a fairly senior officer a topic such as 'Change Management and Competition', I was specifically retorted with an expected reply, "What good of, is it to us?" Many senior employees of public sector organisations play with this mindset and live in a fool's paradise, which I call the protected syndrome. How can we expect PSUs or the Indian Railways benchmark with the world class performances. Delhi Metro could do it because it eventually detached itself as a separte organisation from the Railways. According to the Economist, the Indian Railways is the eighth largest employer in the world. This organisation is not facing any competition and survives on archaic systems and inflexible attitudes. The decision makers are either impounded by vested political interference or are averse to decision making because of being at the fag end of their careers, when they are more prone to prepare for their post superannuation comforts. With this scenario prevalent in the organisation called Indian Railways, I have a very interesting episode to quote.
A story narrated by a Senior Indian Railway Officer during the interaction mentioned in the first para (it was more on 'Employee Engagement' when we were discussing this): "In one of my earlier postings, I had become an eyesore for my immediate boss and senior, and he kept spreading his negative opinion about me to other seniors and colleagues of mine, which is why I was very frustrated. It so happened that one of my boss's controlling officers visited the town, where I was posted. On getting introduced, this controlling officer's eye fell on me and he seemed to recollect the name. It was evident that my senior had already tried to misrepresent my credentials in an earlier meeting with him. The visiting officer left after a few hours' stay for his headquarters. Days later I received an official invitation to visit this officer and he allowed me to ventilate. He exhibited an immense concern about my appraisals and my career and even explored possibilities about an alternative posting. I was immensely moved with his gestures. The Indian Railways have been successful in running such large operations because of the presence of such empathising and engaging officers!!" 
What is remarkable is that the culture of employee engagement is a farcry in this organisation. Despite the spirit of competition, which is the main driving force for an initiative such as employee engagement is totally absent, there was this occurence. And I am sure that there are many more such incidents and also many more such officers in PSUs who subscribe to the concept, without even being educated about the 'whys', 'whats' and 'hows' of it and that is why they were still surviving!
During my discussions I was trying to push through the 4-Drive Model on Employee Engagement, where 'defending' an organisation comes through only after 'acquiring', 'bonding' and 'challenging' and I found that some of these officers were vehemently 'defending' the values and the cause that Indian Railways stood for!