April 19, 2013

One hand clapping

Intriguing questions, the ones that dominated my conversation over a one and a half hour drive with a HR guy recently: should rigid shipboard rank oriented structures be tweaked to become more in line with this century’s human resource development concepts?  Are we paying enough attention, in that Alpha-male dominated world at sea, to things like soft skills, mentoring and collaborative decision making? Is the rank based system on ships broke enough to need fixing? 

Evangelical HR guys with their acronymic jargon aside, nobody who knows anything about life at sea will recommend a change of the organisational structure aboard merchant ships. Which was my point too: hostile environments in which decision making must be usually immediate demand rigid hierarchies- autocratic structures, not democracies. Waiting for consensus is perhaps appropriate in boardrooms; it is a luxury at sea. There we need a person- a rank- that will make the decision. He (almost invariably, still ‘he’) will have, hopefully, the experience and the knowledge to make the right decision, and it will be his rear end on the line if something goes wrong. There can be little collective responsibility at sea, so there can be no collective authority. Simple as that.

If we must apply shore HR concepts to sailors, I told him, shouldn’t we be applying the basic ones first before we threaten everybody with the acronyms? Treating sailors with respect would be a good start, as would be removing the endemic corruption that a youngster faces today when he looks for a first job in countries like India. 

What about formalising for them a career path that goes beyond five or ten years? What about addressing issues of job satisfaction, job security, grievance handling and workplace environment (critical when a worker spends months at a time at sea with no respite)? What about their social needs- internet, for one, aboard ships- even (gasp) Wi Fi?

What about simple recognition from the organisation for a job well done, I asked the HR guy? What about not scapegoating him automatically when things go wrong- often to protect those ashore? Isn’t all this HR 101?

But we are talking about stuff aboard ships, he told me, and what needs to change there.  (Typical, I thought. In his world sailors must show all the commitment and get little of it directed at them- except, of course, those ‘our seafarers are our best assets’ kind of statements that simultaneously amuse and annoy. His talking is the sound of one hand clapping.)

That said, what should change at sea is this: Seniors- Masters, officers or crew- must be involved much more with people working under them than they are today. I don’t like the word mentoring for some reason, but it would be wonderful if more people had an attitude that made them pass on some of their knowledge and experience to those younger than them. It is a way of giving what was passed on to us when we were in those young shoes. Unfortunately, too many- especially senior officers- are too distanced from the rest of the crew aboard the multinational ships of today; that is an attitude that is plain dumb. Interpersonal and other soft skills may be considered somewhat unnecessary by many at sea, but they are not. They get things done.

I would have seniors listen to their juniors more. Relax more. Empathise more. Give a pat on the back for a job well done more often. Avoid contributing to an already stressful job by bringing in the human touch - this circus is filled with self-starters and does not need unnecessary ringmasters. 

Most of all, I would have Shipmasters perform a part of their job that too many have forgotten- ensuring the welfare of the crew. This does not just mean just decent food and water and a television in the smoke room. This also means being fair- and being seen to be fair. This means standing up for them when managers or owners want to penny pinch or short-change or treat them unfairly in other ways. This means taking that extra step towards looking after the crew’s basic physical and mental needs. All of which means a genuine concern, from the Captain, for the well-being of all officers and crew. Too many of us do not have this attitude, and it shows in the results.

So, before going overboard with abstruse HR concepts and before being seduced by the jargon at the expense of the substance, managers and senior officers both need to remember a simpler rule that applies to everything in life, which is this: when you want commitment you have to first show it.


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