By Priya Rajkumar

This blog is part of INTRAC’s season on shifting the power through organisational development. The season is part of our celebrations of INTRAC’s 30th anniversary.

I am both an OD consultant working with NGOs and faith groups and also a university lecturer/researcher in Psychology. What drives my work in these dual roles is my fascination with the dynamics of human behaviour. As an Indian woman, it has been an unexpected and challenging journey which has taught me many things about organisational change and development. Most of all, I have learnt the value of intentionally bringing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of human behaviour into my work on OD, even if it does not guarantee success every time!

Responding to the call

20 years ago I’d just finished my MBA and joined the corporate sector. Very quickly I realised I did not enjoy the restrictive culture. I felt fearful and inferior, but also unfulfilled in the corporate world. I was looking for somewhere more meaningful that would motivate me and channel my energies. Spurred on by my faith and an inner sense of purpose, I joined a newly formed Indian consultancy as a trainee. Rainbow had been formed by a group of Christian professionals with expertise in law, management, and public health, who were keen to offer services to groups unable to pay OD professionals. They were inspired to reach out to people and offer quality services without making  their own convenience a priority.

Turning research and evaluation into OD

Since that time, I have had the privilege of serving a variety of large and small organisations, mostly in India and Nepal. These have been a mix of local and international, faith-based and non-faith based. Initially I have often been asked to conduct a project evaluation or to do research, but have increasingly got involved in strategic planning. A core part of most of the evaluations I have done, has been also helping clients develop a strategy for the future. After all, most evaluations are about change. They often bring up sensitivities, differences and sometimes conflicts within the individual and also in the way people relate to each other. Evaluations can naturally lead into OD. Often the in-depth interviews with people at different levels in the organization can help them identify priority areas for organisational growth, stimulate new ideas and motivate change. All of these are part of OD.

Learning from OD in India

So what have I learned about OD in India? Obviously the secrets of success differ across organisations, but I have found these three are critical in my context:

Understand their reality

You have to get a really good hold on the context a client is working in. You have to understand the big picture and get into their shoes. Initially this means simply listening and observing. Often, especially at the initial stages, we mostly listen and say little.   We try to understand the internal power dynamics. Every organisation has their own stated hierarchy but also their informal leadership working within . A lot of things are left unsaid about who really controls things and how they want things to go. You need to appreciate these informal hierarchies and respect everyone’s opinion. . Over a period of time when we understand the dynamics of the situation, it becomes easier to work together with people and facilitate change. It is all about understanding people’s perspectives and appreciating them for what they are.

Earn trust of leaders

Leaders make a lot of difference and so in OD you have to work closely with them. I have tried  to make myself as acceptable and unthreatening as possible so that  leaders remain more open and accepting to change. Building trust is important everywhere, but perhaps even more so in India where organisations prefer to have consultants whom they know. They do not want to make themselves vulnerable to people who will put them in a bad light.

As an Indian woman, being accepted as a consultant in male-dominated organisations has been a challenge but also a huge learning opportunity. At times it has been hard to be heard because they could not see me as anything but a woman. People would try to speak for me. But I have found that if you handle certain conflict points in a mature, respectful way they settle down. Also in India, professional competence and qualifications matter a great deal. This is why I followed up my MBA with a PhD in Public Administration and then another in Psychology.

Focus on human behaviour

Being a psychologist in OD has not only helped me be more credible with clients, but has given me a deeper knowledge of human behaviour. Interestingly, my psychology training has often helped create trust with staff, who often come to me in the evenings after a training to discuss particular challenges in their personal lives. My own spiritual faith has inspired me to reach out as well as understand more about human behaviour in work settings

The psychological dimension has been particularly apparent in the work I have done with founder leaders struggling to let go. Change is much more likely if you can develop meaningful relationships with leaders in transition. One needs to understand and work with their inner hopes, fears and insecurity.. Helping them work around those fears and insecurities is essential for them to become more comfortable and approach transition in a phased manner. But psychology and OD are not some magic formulae. At times the techniques of psychology and OD will not help. We have close relationships with some leaders who still do not want to let go – like the female leader of a large health institution in Nepal. The day after her retirement party, she still turned up to her office and sat behind her desk wanting to continue working! She remained in complete denial about the need for her to move on.

Applying learning elsewhere

My personal journey as an Indian woman psychologist working as an OD consultant, largely with Christian organisations, is highly specific. But I believe the lessons I have picked up about human change have broader relevance. To support change in people and their organisations, it helps to intentionally work with a deeper understanding of the dynamics of human behaviour in their own contexts. In that sense, OD and psychology are inextricably linked.