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CEOS, watch out: your staff could kill you…

Nov 07, 2008 Business Daily, Leadership

“A chief executive was beaten to death as he tried to pacify a group of workers sacked from his manufacturing plant, Indian police said today.
Lalit Kishore Choudhary, 47, bled to death inside the car parts factory yesterday after being attacked by more than 130 men.
Police have arrested 63 former employees of Graziano Transmissioni India in connection with his death. Another 73 are facing charges of disturbing the peace.
…the men had been called in to settle a dispute that led to the dismissal of more than 100 staff in recent months.
The meeting turned sour and the unemployed men began vandalising the machinery, turning on Choudhary when he tried to reason with them.”

The Guardian, 23 September 2008

At first I had no idea what to make of this story. A mob of workers attacking their own CEO with metal rods and killing him? What barbarism is this? To be killed by gangsters is somehow understandable, but by your own staff during a meeting?

Yet there is a lot to ponder here. In the corporate world (and in most aspects of our lives) we try to be logical and rational. We impose structures, lines of command, hierarchies, rules of engagement. We create a system that produces a good or a service, and we expect all parts of that system to play their role, as planned.

But this approach to business life is fallacious, as CEO Choudhary discovered in the most awful way in India. The truth is, human beings do not stop being creatures of intense emotion merely because they are placed in a system and asked to become agents of production. They are still prone to the full gamut of human feeling, every moment of every day. Their hearts swell when they are praised and appreciated. They work harder when they feel they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. They feel a warm glow when they experience personal growth and advancement.

Equally, employees get dispirited when they see no connection between hard work and performance, or between performance and reward. They get very angry when they feel unfairly treated. And when that feeling resonates amongst a throng of workers all feeling a pronounced sense of injustice, anything can happen. And does.

I have no idea whether the unfortunate Mr Choudhary was a good leader or not. But his passing should make us all take stock. Are we in danger of reducing employees to mere statistics, rather than complex individuals subject to a maelstrom of conflicting emotions? Do we understand the leader’s role as primally a manager of emotions, not systems?

Outstanding leaders have a very sensitive antenna when it comes to reading the emotional climate of their organisations. They are able to calm the waters when needed, or churn them up when necessary. Leaders have immense power to define the prevailing emotion, and must use this power wisely and responsibly. The brash and unfeeling leader who dismisses the feelings of workers casually is often creating a pool of ill-will that may well overwhelm him.

Still, there is no excusing the brutal taking of a life. I hope India’s judicial system metes out the severest punishment to that mob.

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