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"You Can't Understand Someone Until You've Walked in Their Shoes"

"You Can't Understand Someone Until You've Walked in Their Shoes"

Sarbvir Singh, CEO, Policybazaar.com

Photograph by Hardik Chhabra Photograph by Hardik Chhabra

What was the problem you were grappling with?

In my first job with Emerson Electric in Hong Kong, we hired a promising, young MBA. However, our new hire, of Chinese origin, started finding it difficult to blend into our multi-cultural environment. I was struggling to get across to him and his performance was less than acceptable. I despaired that we would have to let him go.

Who did you approach and why?

I spoke to Mark Ng, who was our Director of Sales. Mark was a very thoughtful person who had built a great career and reputation at Emerson. He was of Chinese origin himself and I felt he would be able to provide me with a more nuanced view of the problem.

What was the advice you received?

Mark advised I should take a step back and look at the problem from the employee’s perspective. You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. While he probably came across as aloof and not willing to adjust, the reality was that he was defensive. This defensiveness primarily stemmed from the fact he was not comfortable with communicating in English.

How effective was it in resolving your problem?

Not only was the advice effective in turning around the situation, it has stayed with me. Every time I feel that we are dealing with someone who is promising but not performing or someone who is diffident because she/he comes from a different background, I step back and look at the situation from the person’s perspective. It helps in building truly inclusive organisations.