28 years ago Bimal Dhar was my first and best ever teacher of candor, but I didn’t know it at that time. Bimal was a handsome young Kashmiri engineer, educated in Srinagar, and then from Purdue. During his M.S. at Purdue, he wrote a paper which came to be known as the “Dhar effect”. This paper was later used by a major Japanese manufacturing company. We were in awe of Bimal.
I was fresh out of college, a green horn vendor development guy, looking to change the world with a group of young colleagues. In many ways we did change the world. Our company Maruti Udyog Ltd became a catalyst for change so huge that it changed the face of the automobile industry in India. A very large number of today’s senior executives in the automobile sector around India are from Maruti. Maruti established the manufacturing processes, and more importantly the supplier network that can now compete effectively with the rest of the world.
One can go through an entire career and not have a manager like Bimal. However I had the good fortune to have him as my first manager. Over the years I have realized that he was one of the most effective leaders I have ever worked with. The incredible thing about Bimal was how he could embrace conflict, get things done, and come out of every conflict with a stronger relationship. Over the years I have had time to reflect on Bimal’s methods, and relate them to some of the executive coaching and training I do. This post is both a testimony to the effectiveness of the methods I have embraced, as well as my tribute to Bimal.
So how does Bimal do it? Here are five principles he follows.
I never saw Bimal adopt a flight or fight response to a conflict. I never saw him go to silence or violence. He understood that these are sucker’s choices. His reaction to a conflict was always to find ways to engage. Engaging is nothing but getting into and staying in dialogue till the best possible solution is found. I remember occasions when I would be petrified of approaching our Japanese advisers to get a temporary approval for a supplier part that did not meet all of the laid down specifications. Bimal would pick up the part, walk briskly to our Japanese colleague, spit out a loud yet warm greeting, and get down to business.
Bimal never shied away from a conversation, however difficult or uncomfortable it might have appeared to the rest of us. So that is the first lesson from Bimal – learn to engage. The only way to resolve a conflict is dialogue.
Stay with the facts:
It is not enough just to engage in dialogue. The mindset through the engagement is critical. Mere mortals like me can never shake off the baggage of past encounters when we engage with others. Our mindset and views color the interaction, and that affects trust, which in turn leads to a downward spiral in the relationship.
Bimal was different. He would stay with facts, talk about his story, his objective, and make the other party comfortable to share their concerns. All his interactions with our Quality Assurance head were valuable lessons. During those days our QA head was a loud, aggressive sort, and most people around us were afraid to talk to him. What enabled Bimal to have these conversations was that he stayed with facts, not stories or judgments.
Don’t take yourself too seriously:
You cannot overstate the value of genuine humor, especially when the going gets tough. Bimal had the ability to make fun of himself and his own people, even at the hardest of times. This had the effect of draining the tension out of the situation, calming things down, and making everyone more amenable to dialogue. The effect he created was quite astonishing – one could almost feel everyone smile, take a deep breath, and get ready for dialogue. Not taking yourself too seriously also allows you to apologize genuinely, without hurting your ego, in case you find that you were wrong.
Most people tend to do exactly the opposite in stressful situations and difficult conversations. We get so high strung and sensitive, that we transmit that same attitude to the other party, and you know what happens next.
This is such an overused and abused phrase that our first reaction to it is “Yeah, yeah, easier said than done”. Thinking win-win is not about getting a result where both parties get what they started with as their position. It is about finding a path forward where the main objective of both parties is addressed in the most optimal manner under the circumstances. The best indicator of a win-win result is when both parties walk away with dignity, and the feeling that they were heard, and their ideas were considered as part of the final solution. So win-win is not about the result, it is about the process.
Bimal understood this better than anyone I have ever known, and was able to craft a mutual purpose out of situations where things seemed to be completely at odds.
Maintain mutual respect
The lack of mutual respect is the surest way to send a relationship into a downward spiral. A party cannot stay in dialogue and share their feelings and ideas freely if they don’t believe that they are respected. Respect does not mean that you agree with the other person. It just means that you respect and acknowledge their right to have a different opinion or position. That’s all. This simple principle can make it safe for all parties in the conflict to share their feelings and ideas without fear.
Bimal had this remarkable gift to ensure that the other party felt respected and stayed in dialogue. No one ever accused Bimal of being a soft guy who looked to please everyone. As a matter of fact he was the one who could speak candidly with anyone, without fear of jeopardizing the relationship. He was able to do it because he maintained mutual respect at all times.
So these are the five lessons in candor and conflict management from Bimal – Always engage and stay in dialogue, stay with the facts, don’t take yourself too seriously, think win-win, and maintain mutual respect. Now go conquer the world!