Vaccination protects a human being from invisible diseases. Corporations also suffer the ravages of invisible diseases arising from deficient people power and employee negativity. If you had access to the right vaccine, it must be possible to strengthen corporate immunology. Corporate crises demonstrate that, like humans, organisations also need to guard against invisible attacks. We cannot assure thriving human or organisational health by ignoring invisible attackers.
I recommend a very effective vaccine to neutralise an invisible attack on companies. This vaccine is called People Shield. It deploys the DNA of people power against infection from invisible attackers.
Reflective executives should plan their future agenda. The focus on unleashing people power can appear to be a soft remedy, centering around passion, culture and positivity. But engaged people are the best immunity as long-life companies like Godrej, Bajaj, Unilever and Tata have demonstrated.
Collaborating with academics from Bhavan’s SPJIMR, Mumbai, I have just completed a three-year applied research project on “Shapers of Institutions”. We formulated a model that we call the 3*5 Mindset-Behaviour-Action Grid. This means shapers of institutions, as distinct from good leaders of good firms, consistently practise three Mindset-Behaviour-Actions and judiciously choose some of the five other MBAs. The most important and visible feature of the compulsory three is People MBA, followed by Thinking MBA and Vision MBA.
The research findings and the company narratives of HDFC Group, Kotak Bank, Marico, L&T, Biocon and TCS have been captured in six books published in 2020/21.
A company is prone to virus-like attacks like employee disengagement, inconsistent leadership behaviour, festering grievances and negativity in the workplace. For too many years, managers have been emphasising efficiency at the expense of human empathy.
To connect immunology with a company, I studied the writings of Prof Michael Watkins, an immunologist-turned-management academic and I was inspired by his writings. The human immune system is an active communication network among a complex set of cells, antibodies and signalling mechanisms. These elements are arranged in three layers: the outermost is the physical layer, like our skin and the mucous system; the second is the innate layer, which is the protective layer of cells that we are born with; finally, there is the adaptive layer, which refers to the mechanisms that recognise and respond to an attack.
What are the equivalents for a company? Corporate immunity is provided by engaged and responsive people, arranged in three layers: 1) The physical layer, people’s visible passion. 2) The innate layer, taken-for-granted organisational culture. 3) The adaptive layer, positivity exceeding negativity.
Physical layer—visible passion: A highly engaged workforce is the physical layer of company immunisation. Engaged employees care for the company deeply, recommend it to non-employees, work collaboratively and emotionally guard the firm against attackers. Data for the last decade and a half shows that in most companies, employee engagement has steadily declined. This is an unfavourable trend.
As an example of engaged employees in action, recall the fabulous response of Taj Hotel employees during the terrorist attack of 26/11.
Innate layer—culture: The human immune system works by recognising what is ‘self’ and ‘non-self’, and by maintaining an equilibrium between over-reaction and under-reaction. Every organisation has a political system and culture, which defines what is perceived as ‘self.’ Culture acts as the innate layer of the immune system, by preventing destructive thinking from invading the company.
Every company has an articulated or implicit corporate purpose, which is the basis for the employees’ concept of ‘self’. For example, in normal times, technologists and infrastructure-oriented managers scoff at consumer marketers and makers of soap or toilet cleaners. During Covid times, employees in Unilever got a sense of renewed purpose, just as hospitals and medical professionals did.
Adaptive layer—positivity: Psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson is a thought leader in positive psychology. When the ratio of positivity to negativity exceeds three, then employees are positive and build resilience to adversity. According to her, in the case of 80% of employees in the US, the ratio is less than three; I wonder about Indian employees. She has developed a technique to measure positivity and negativity. In my experience, when leaders visibly practice good listening and empathy, positivity rises.
Humans fight invasive threats through an adaptive mechanism—the brain and the senses, analogous to top leadership and the far ends of the organisation respectively. The signals of external attack are first sensed at the periphery, that is, front-line salesmen and the factory workers. Organisations must sharpen their listening and response mechanisms; they must welcome diverse expert opinions. That is how the management can secure employee engagement and positivity, just as WHO recommends community involvement as the most important response to Covid.
Managers of the future should reflect on how to administer three jabs of People Shield to their employees and ecosystem—visible passion, purposeful culture and huge positivity. It is worthwhile for managers and agents of change in all realms to reflect on what they should do about this. Leaving it as a top leadership agenda is a mistake.
Bestselling author and corporate advisor
(The author’s latest book, Pivots for Career Success: Unleashing People Power, has just been published. He was Director, Tata Sons and Vice Chairman, Hindustan Unilever)