I was reading with interest an interview with Praful Patel, India’s Civil Aviation Minister and the state of the recent Air India changes (Businessworld, July 27, 2009) and impact on morale of employees.
What stuck to my mind was his statement that ‘change in Air India must come from within. Nothing can change unless people from within change’.
He was pointing to the growing resentment to organizational changes, increased competition and pressure on the airline to be profitable. There seemed to be resistance to adapt to the environment, understand implications of archaic performance management processes and lack of accountability. The recent merger of the two airlines – Indian Airlines and Air India wasn’t as successful as expected.
Other challenges which the case throws up are rumor mills working overtime, unions calling the shots and lack of decision making by leaders and board members.
While the government is a stakeholder, there is only so much intervention from an external party can do to change the circumstances.
I believe there are numerous opportunities that the airline can explore to improve productivity, motivate their employees and grow the brand once more.
The internal communicator has a large role to play in shifting perceptions and mindsets. By keeping all channels of communication open and drawing employees and the leadership in conversations, the communicator can command respect and build change inside out.
The foremost priority for the leaders is to instill a sense of belonging to the current crisis and rally them to overcome it together. From the minister’s articulation, there are many forces tugging at different directions – something which the airline can do without.
There also needs to be a single leader empowered to communicate and take decisive actions – something which Praful describes as a ‘major surgery’. The decisions may not be the most popular but it is important to get a buy-in from employees as to the turnaround plan and how each one can play a role.
That means, sharing the new short term goal, the overall vision and a detailed action plan to get there. This in essence will be the change management format for employees to track and measure their leaders on.
The communicator can role in key change agents from all strata of the organization to be ‘models’ of change and lionize their effort.
Managing rumors is the next step which the communicator can take. Identifying key employees who are respected and believable and tapping this informal channel to route some of the key messages on change.
Keeping relevant stakeholders like unions and the government informed on decisions well ahead of them being known externally is a best practice to quell resentment and resistance.
In the Jet Airways episode, the airline took a hasty decision of removing 2000 of their staff overnight without even informing their stakeholders. It resulted in a severe backlash not just from employees but also from the government and regulatory bodies who forced the airline to take back the sacked people. An example showcasing the importance of managing stakeholders in a change management plan.
That said, Air India’s case is tougher to crack considering the systemic failure over time. Any change management initiative and communication will need to draw on the collective wisdom of communicators and leaders who have not just acumen but the tenacity to stick it through the rough ride.