Category Archives: Case Studies

Business World – 18 Jan 2010/01 Feb 2010 – Back To The 30s: Silent Media/ An Educational Chernobyl

Case Study: Back To The 30s: Silent Media

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” — Hosea 4:6

Meera Seth

Jeev Thimappa felt rewarded. By 5 a.m. he had knitted together the story on ‘pure’ juices, questioning Medit Juices’ ‘other natural flavours’ as taking away from the ‘pure’ claim. The cue had come from a health trainer who had challenged Medit with, “I have gluten intolerance. How do I know ‘other flavours’ does not contain gluten?”

But the rewards kept flowing in as Ram Sahukar was to give him a new story at 6 a.m. as he worked his shins at Joggers’ Park. “I say Jeev, I believe some obnoxious Japanese computer game has entered Indian markets! The success objective of this game is to rape a woman and her two daughters. I was shaken and shocked and demolished! How come your paper did not carry this news?”

Jeev: Problems must have solutions, kaka, if not they will cause more panic.

Sahukar: (Angry) Do you have a solution for swine flu? For AIDS? Aren’t you exerting to gather intelligence on hidden terrorists? H1N1, Headley, etc., are huge, but this game did not confront your sense of threat? What RDX are you guys slaving over? The one that will destroy humans and buildings and cities? That is okay! People will die and it will end there. But this Japanese game? That is the real RDX! The one that will destroy our minds and culture forever!”

Sahukar was an ardent writer of letters to the editor since 1992, when he was also the MD of an Indian bank. In the wake of liberalisation and the ensuing chaos in the business world, Sahukar fed NewsIndia with debates and doubts over the correctness of India succumbing to the IMF pressure. And Sahukar was a fiery man — then as MD and now as a consumer of everything, including NewsIndia.

“Times are changing, Jeev,” he said, “With television and internet getting active and aggressive, newspapers have to go beyond ordinary reporting. Even today, newspaper reading is a pleasant habit. Verandahs are built to enhance the joy of reading a newspaper. And, mind you, these are 100-year-old habits, not easily replaced. While advantage is yet on your side, you must redefine your profile. “

Next day, Jeev mentioned the Japanese game to Bhrigu Pant, deputy editor of NewsIndia.

Bhrigu: Yes, my son’s school principal too called, and made an interesting point. “That which is sensational sells… it is only a matter of finding the first toehold… a country where it is not illegal. Then you cannot stop it. Do you see that they have seen India as a sitting duck?”

Jeev: Absolutely! In India many things are not illegal, or regulated by the law — but the fact that something which is not illegal but can be wrong, is exactly what we are stubbornly resisting, Bhrigu. That is why when the Yamuna waters are reclaimed to build a games village, the debate hinged on ‘is not illegal, so can build’. That is why companies use big print to sell and small print to save their posteriors, because ‘making claims’ is not illegal in India.

News has to add value too. There is a difference between data and information. When data is processed and value is added to it, it becomes information. A mere communication that says ‘Japanese Rape game in India’ is like saying ‘Mary had a little lamb’. It does not tell you how to deal with it. Then why bother? The Internet is there, who needs newspapers?

Bhrigu: How do you mean?

Jeev: Read this mail from Advait Khemka, a principal — “Anything that is known to have entered a country illegally needs to be immediately addressed and systems built around it. Is that not what we did for AIDS? But entertainment in the form of sexual assault on women? How come newspapers are not moved?  Having read about this ‘game’, what should I do with the news? You tell me…”

Khemka had more angst. He had just read about the amendment to the Delhi Excise Bill that allowed 21-year-olds to serve liquor, even though the legal drinking age remains 25. What stunned him was the corollary to the news from the media: “Bartending then may just become a cool new career opportunity for those fresh out of campus.” Khemka had written again two days ago: “Just look at what you guys publish. It seems to reflect unformed minds. The other day I was at a five-star hotel with my wife. A young comely girl came up to our table — dressed in all black, a very tiny skirt, fishnet stockings and a starkly made up face. She was no more than 18 or 19. She was promoting a foreign brand of liquor that promised us an elegant nail cutter if we bought a drink from her! How dare we do this to our children! Who is auditing this?”

Jeev said, “He has a point, Bhrigu. Do you just give data but not the means to deal with it?”

Bhrigu: A newspaper’s core task is to report events, not run campaigns against bin Laden and other perceived demons like computer viruses, money laundering, match fixing, etc. Reporting on them is adequate. Reporting on the Japanese game is adequate without doing reader surveys, clinical studies on how the game has affected society, etc.

Jeev: The point here is the potent risk of communication through silence, Bhrigu. When the media publishes a news item about a Japanese game that aids and abets perversion and undesirable attitudes among the people — especially when recent research points to the idea of the adolescent brain and how it is still growing until age 23 — and does n-o-t-h-i-n-g about it, it is according the news the same tone and tenor that it did to ‘two people found dead’, ‘Parliamentarians throw chairs at each other’. I thought newspaper was about being the collective voice of a people and compelling the government to pay attention. I believe journalism is about intelligence, not data entry!”

Bhrigu called in Antara Bakshi, another senior correspondent. “Did you hear about the Japanese game thing?”

Antara: I have! Where no one takes responsibility because responsibility cannot be assigned, the ones to be hit badly are the young who are wading in the murk.  Somewhere we need to see this as market dynamics too. Don’t think publisher-reader, think marketer-consumer. Today reading has rivals in television, podcasts and mobile radio. Your consumer today is way ahead of what he was in 1940. The only thing we have to show for 70 years is colour printing. I believe our product is communication, not news, and this is how I want to redefine our role. When a newspaper reports in a deadpan way, and does not follow up, it is not communicating.

Parenting and teaching is about communication! And that is what the consumers are asking for: a new product that will communicate. They are saying, come out in the open and discuss. Talk to our children. Make them a part of the newspaper. They want a product that becomes a part of their lives, which places things on the table, and carries all families together towards a brave new world, a safe new world.

These games are just products of the times. They will rise and fall. Fleeting fantasies.

Jeev: I am also a product of today’s desperate times, Bhrigu, with a mission to create order for those who seek it.

Bhrigu: And how, just how does underground gaming become media’s responsibility?

Jeev: Not responsibility; it is opportunity. Autism has always been there in India; yet it took an Aamir Khan to make Taare Zameen Par to place it in the open and invite people to look at it and deal with it. And then suddenly there is a spate of movies and tele-serials on autism —there is Antara, Paa, My Name is Khan. The movie industry has helped people become comfortable with what they did not want to face. But I am sure now when they face it, they are dealing with it better. That is the role of media. The opportunity to communicate and draw people to yourself, tell them this ‘happens’ but ‘this’ can be dealt with… and this is how… then it ceases to be a bogey man. Aamir need not have made that movie. He could have made a ha-ha-hee-hee one, like our news.

That evening Antara stopped at Jeev’s cubicle and said, “I do feel our life should be applied to improving, bettering, enabling. That I am able bodied, and have the right opportunities, yet I apply these for self glory has begun to rankle. To be known as a writer is only an ability to flash a premium Press card. All I am doing is earning money, not applying life!”

Jeev: Bhrigu is not wrong, but he’s not right either. Convince him why NewsIndia must have a different vision.

At the school carnival at 8 p.m., Antara hobnobbed with some parents of her children’s friends. As she paid for her coupons and bought her first coffee, Atul Divakar, a senior manager father was telling a bunch of parents: “Is the media ruled by people who worship power, wealth and fame? Of course! It is primarily money that motivates. Coverage can be paid for and had. Content is driven by advertiser agendas, and I know because I myself have engineered this at times…”

Antara winced and squirmed unhappily. Stepping into the fray as if propelled by some force, she said, “A bit unfair to use the same brush to tar the entire media, Atul. Writing about NASA does not get every journalist a free ride on the next shuttle, now does it? The paper’s target audience determines the advertising. Yes, editorial coverage can and does affect the decision on where advertising rupees are parked, but you have to be within the right target group anyway. So, some degree of natural selection is involved — a filter of sorts — before the nexus between ads and editorial can be established. Give the editor the benefit of doubt, please!”

Atul: Fair, then explain some of the classified ads; offers for ‘escorts’ by men and women. How how does an editor allow those? Or are you now going to say that he does not know about these?

So I called the head of my media agency who said: ‘To the best of my knowledge, they (newspapers) are not concerned. Classified ads are booked through depots which are franchise operations. The franchisee or booking agent is not concerned about what is being advertised. The only time they insist on verification is when you book an obit. Then they insist on seeing the death certificate. Rest, anything goes.’

Let me give you a parallel. I work in a company that also makes hair care products. We use an ingredient called sodium laureth sulphate or SLS in every shampoo. It is toxic and carcinogenic. Yet we continue to use it. Why? The same reason that some newspapers carry ads for ‘escorts’ but look the other way. In our case, we know but we are busy shrugging our shoulders.

The worst is this, Antara. No manufacturer is willing to invest in a decent R&D lab. No one wants to spend on researching a consumer-friendly alternative to SLS. You talk to shampoo makers and they are wont to tell you it is pretty harmless, at least less harmful than 1,000 other things you expose yourself to daily. But is that the point? Drinking tap water is far less harmful than drinking ditchwater. So is relativity the logic? It is this senseless logic called ‘statistical significance’ that justifies profiteering. There is a verse in the Bible — “my people die because of ignorance” — that sums it up, period!

Principal Dave: I tend to agree. It’s the very same relativity logic that also says ‘rape as a game is better than…’ If adults contemplated on what goes into building a human child into an adult, they will watch out. Our nutritionist has now come up with a warning on instant noodles. The kids are angry we don’t serve those anymore. Dr Karnik says the packaging material and glues used for these are suspected to contain dioxin and other hormone-like substances that mix with the food when hot water is added to the noodles. Also, there is talk that these noodles are coated with wax to make them non-stick. This wax does not get ejected from the system for 48 hours, and if you continue eating without giving your body time to eject that wax — which is what many students do — then you end up with cancer! These young are born into new cultures — instant noodles and Japanese games, whose sales we allow blindly. Who will research their risks? Should not our media spend time on such information services? These are the doubts that we want addressed. If not, why buy newspapers? I think they are stuck with their definition.
Gaurav Misra (CEO of business consultancy 2020 Social and Dave’s guest): My opinion is that print is the medium that is most threatened by the Internet. Television and radio are real time, and can, therefore, co-opt the Internet to become more interactive. Newspapers and magazines have to try harder to overcome their “published yesterday” nature.

In India, however, there are still 600-700 million people who don’t read newspapers, so there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. Still, if newspapers have to hold on to the young, urban, upwardly mobile readers, they will have to become more interactive and innovative.

Manas Tripathi (parent and accountant): So true! Today’s young are natural non-readers of newspapers. So, you, in fact, have a good reason for making your newspapers far more stimulating! And if newspapers track dealers that sell these kinds of games, point them out to the public so they know where the danger zones are, talk to the young directly and not as if they are kids, they will have a far better readership!

Principal Dave: I believe that is most important. When one of my students commits a wrong, we don’t shovel it under the carpet. We don’t pretend it did not happen; we place it on the table in the assembly and we talk to our students. We allow them to express all kinds of views on it. We can also take the stance that the role of schools is to teach as NCERT dictates and let parents worry about all else. But we have come to realise that education, like news, has to be complete and well-rounded to be meaningful, if it has to serve its purpose.

The next day, Antara was called to Bhrigu’s room for an edit meeting. On his table she saw a McKinsey report on why/how American consumer behaviour has changed during the recession. Bhrigu smiled as he caught her staring at it. Antara matched his smile and said, “You are paying to read something that will at best enhance some editorial you will write about ‘US: receding or recovering’. Why isn’t a study of the Indian consumer’s doubts and ignorance not relevant? That Palika Bazaar dealer, or Burmah Bazaar dealer in the rape game in all probability wears devotional marks on his face and flings flowers on a gold Laxmi idol. I would love to expose such a dealer. But you wouldn’t, Bhrigu!”

Bhrigu: Did you know that the only reason why he could go behind bars is because he has acquired the stocks through illegal means, and not because the product itself is harmful?

Antara: Yet our newspaper reports about where RDX was found, what RDX can do, where terrorist training schools were found, what colour shirt Headley was wearing… why, we even report and dissect the personal lives of people because somehow we imagine that we are adding value to readers. Media vie with each other to be the first to write about marital discords and sibling rivalries, yet, when an RDX like this game is found to have entered the country nobody raises an eyebrow!

Bhrigu: It is time for people to take responsibility for their own actions. The only solution is to shut down the Internet.

Jeev: Wow! After Headley, did you shut down the airports or just strengthen the visa barriers? When cholera hit the country, did we stop eating food? What did we do instead? Think… that is what we are asking to be exercised. Where illegal works, illegal will sell. Where corruption is the currency of transacting, people are known to buy innocence and acquittal with a few lakhs. We have shown the way that authority is flexible. But I do believe that today too the public continues to love and respect the printed word, and we must employ this faith to save the country. Instead, have we, as a people, as a country, communicated to the world outside that we have no filters? That anything can come in and the law cannot stop it?

Antara: But the problem is that media does not want to antagonise any of their golden geese. That is why news is so inane these days — some teacher’s face blackened, some actor caught in a rape case. Are we enabling our readers to wake up to real truths besieging our country? Then why admonish the Indian for intellectual lethargy when we don’t care to inform him? Is this because the real issues that need to be covered are backed by powerful lobbies, the ones which pay for the media’s existence?

Bhrigu: What does that mean?

Antara: Patancheru is a place in Andhra Pradesh, Bhrigu. Many large companies have their plants there. The people there are suffering from diseases wrought by the effluents dumped into their rivers and that have seeped into their groundwater. The Patancheru committee of villagers  is fighting to get back their basic need. Their protests have been covered by bloggers, social agencies and international publications. But what is the Indian media doing about it? Ditto for the mining community in Bihar. No whiff of this topic. They have driven viewers to a level of dumbness by feeding them social gossip and extramarital catastrophes. Are those life or death questions? No. Patancheru is.

Media today is not what media was. If the Indian media content is defined by advertisers’ agendas, then what is happening at a global level? Are there greater compromises at play?”

Analysis: Engaging Minds

With rights, we have lost sensibility. With laws, we have forgotten to be alert

G. Gautama

This case highlights several layers of questions and conflicts (see flowchart in ‘Back To The 30s: Silent Media’). For a long time, the market has ruled the openness to new ideas, and products have become symbols of modernity and civilisation. Spices, carpets, machines started unifying the world on ships, camel backs, trains and airplanes. With the death knell of colonialism came the ascendancy of the marketplace — the right to trade.

This has been brought to the forefront through the World Trade Organization, or WTO. But much was lost in the headlong rush for more things, ideas and gloss.

Who was to decide if something was good to sell? Who could challenge the pollution, the poisons? Who could temper the right to trade and sell with the vigilance of history? And who will protect the rights of our unborn children?
This case shows the impotence of humankind in dealing with tough questions. With rights, we have lost sensibility. With laws, we have lost alertness. With markets, we have discovered that everything has a price, even our children’s lives and their future. Isn’t the Japanese rape game just a small extension of the ‘Game of Life-2009 India Edition’? (See flowchart in ‘Back To The 30s: Silent Media’).

I am reminded, anachronistically, of the molestation on Ruchika Girhotra by S.P.S. Rathore, one of the senior-most police officials of Haryana. With increasing chagrin, I see the reports dragging in chief ministers, four of them, and listening to their impotent denials of ‘I can’t help’. I wonder how they would have acted if it had been one of their daughters who suffered this unhappy fate.

My mind rushes back to the story of the cow, the lame bull and Parikshit, Abhimanyu’s son. After the Mahabharata war was over and Parikshit was the king of the Pandava kingdom, he once saw a fearsome man brutally hitting a lame white bull on its only unbroken leg while a miserable cow sat next to it. He learnt that the cow represented mother Earth while the white bull signified Dharma, which stood on penance, cleanliness, compassion and truth. Pride had destroyed penance; indulgence destroyed cleanliness and arrogance strangled compassion. The person hitting the bull, Kali yuga, was trying to kill truth, and replace it with his weapon, untruth. And the cow was crying over the golden days that had gone by and the dark ones that were to come in the future.

Today, if the highest elected and appointed officials of the land, not marauders from another part of the planet but people we know and recognise, behave like thieves, murders and rapists, who can we turn to? Draupadi, abandoned by her protectors, who were the high and mighty of the land, turned to Krishna. Is that the only recourse left today for the weak and poor? As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, is it too early to speak about egality, respect for all and one law for all citizens? Has enough historical time gone by for human beings to have learnt that as we sow, so we reap?

At present, we seem to be saying what the worst despots have always said — “I have power, and so I can do anything” or “if you have power, you can do anything”.

I use newspapers a lot for my general studies classes with senior students. I try to teach them to read critically and look at the overall picture on any given day. Unfortunately, most students do not read the newspaper well. One may ask if this is so because the newspaper is only reporting but not engaging them?

Most youngsters dip into the sports pages, or metro plus and the odd two or three may read an editorial. But almost all watch the news on television and catch the broad headlines. However, here too, the garbling is immense. News channels mix what I would call ‘understanding the nuances’ kind of news with just ‘gossip’ news. If my paper spoke to me, I would speak to it and ask questions, and even learn.

The difference is between ‘engaging’ and ‘catering’. The world is full of caterers. First, you soften the person with advertisements and brain-numbing images and find out what makes him or her tick. Then you give them what they ask for. But who wants a discerning public, one whose brain and heart are engaged in enquiring into goodness, truth and egality?

To draw in students for a higher level of enquiry and learning requires some depth of conviction and a more clearly established sense of purpose. Are there any channels and newspapers that take the responsibility of speaking to the discerning individuals and adding to the shaping of an intelligent community of people? Or has the challenge of survival and viability driven everyone into ‘catering’? Is the mandate about exposing facts and their nuances? Or is it about covering up and moving quickly to the superficial, becoming a tool in the hands of the seductive marketplace?

Case Study: An Educational Chernobyl

“Each word has an echo. So does each silence.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

Meera Seth

Bhrigu Pant entered Principal Achint Dhawal’s office where another parent was also seated. The GM School, where Bhrigu’s sons studied, was one of the first to call Bhrigu in November 2009 when Dhawal had sighted news reports about a nefarious Japanese computer game that had entered India.
“It’s an underground game, sir,” Bhrigu had said then attempting to minimise Dhawal’s indignation. But Dhawal had pointed out, “The papers covering it are all ‘above the ground’, no Mr Pant? If you publish it, then an explanation must follow; a condemnation. The game’s entry into India is a cognisable act. Its condemnation and eradication must likewise be cognisable for it to not accumulate interest value.” While Bhrigu’s senior staff at NewsIndia had argued variously for the print medium to gain expression, Bhrigu wanted to verify what it was that bothered the schools.

Meanwhile, Ms Raman in the primary school was teaching the idea of ‘headlines’ to class 1 students. Little Kartikey had looked at the newspaper she had, and said, “That is a big word ma’am, speak it ma’am… what is that big word?” Succumbing, she said, “Molestation.”

Little Ranveer said, “My father told me it was about grown up people.” Kartikey’s face grew intense as he asked, “What does it mean ma’am? I am grown up…”

Raman told her class, “There is a bigger word. Let me see if you can write it.” She wrote ‘Constantinople’ on the board and asked the students to write it in cursive. “Tell me if it fits in one line!” And she went to meet the principal.

As Dhawal dealt with Bhrigu and parent Arjun Honaver, in walked Ms Raman. Honaver stood up and greeted her awkwardly saying, “Sorry for calling on you without notice… I need to talk to you. It’s about Ranveer.”

Bhrigu watched the goings on of a school, an organisation like any other, but whose daily story was refreshingly different from the rest, at least for Bhrigu, whose day began with deadlines and delays and cast-in-stone adult behaviours. He enjoyed watching Dhawal tend to different problems, including student Ronit Singh’s excuse for not wearing his school colour patka.

Honaver: See, daily when we drive to school, we play a ‘Point-the-word’ game with the newspaper. This morning Ranveer pointed towards ‘molestation’ and asked me for the meaning; I didn’t know what to say!

Raman: Your company’s recent advertisements for water purifier Swach talks about H1N1 and amphoteric surfactants. How did you explain that to consumers?

Honaver: Of course, we do communicate, but there is no risk of embarrassment there! I guess that is the fundamental difference. Besides, the consumer is not my child, you see… if my consumer is misinformed, it does not hurt me or give me sleepless nights.

Raman then narrated to Dhawal the chaos in her class over her unwitting choice of headlines, Dhawal advised her to approach it like she would any word.

Raman: One can go with the dictionary meaning which is “pester or harass (someone), typically in an aggressive or persistent manner. The crowd was shouting abuses and molesting the two police officers”. The other meaning is “assault or abuse (a person, esp. a woman or child) sexually”. I feel unsure about the latter meaning; do we need to address that at all?

Dhawal: Don’t we teach our children the rules of safe and unsafe touch? We do teach them that if there is an unsafe touch they experience, they must say ‘No’ and go tell an adult. Therefore, we have a responsibility to speak to children frankly. They trust us to give them answers, and that the answers will be correct.

Bhrigu: (Alarmed) Are you prepared for this? Won’t some kids react with fear or anger or helplessness or anxiety?

Dhawal: The solution then is silence. Unfortunately, that is not even an option! Here we are, grown up adults, unable to keep this country and world safe and clean, and in order to protect our own sense of comfort or discomfort, will we choose to keep information away? Information that is critical for the safety of our young? I am aghast that we can even think like this!

Raman: What should I do if the children say “the police officer was a bad man”? Should I endorse their feelings or deflect the question?

Dhawal: How would you answer that to your own child? What do you really feel and think: what the senior police officer and his office did, is it right? Stand by what you consider right. It may not be easy. But go ahead.

Arjun: How can you say ‘yes’ to that? It will break their faith in the law!

Dhawal: Once your little boy steps out of school, these are the people he will be dealing with. Can you afford to disguise meanings and call them ‘for grown ups’? Is it that you don’t know how to answer, or are you saying that the child should not be asking such questions?

Bhrigu watched them and thought, what a lot of song and dance over a news item that has probably died by now. To Dhawal he said, “I am amazed! Since when did schools begin to pay such attention to life outside the text books?”

Dhawal: Since the time life could not be contained just in books. And since a lot that is learnt is from society, from the system. Since the time news reporting exploded, grew variegated, insensitive and undependable. Since the time the world grew unhappier and parents adopted dynamic methods to make their kids smart but not wise. Tending to their EQ (emotional quotient) is our business, our calling, our responsibility.

We don’t just teach text books, we also teach our students ‘right attitude’. For this, we depend a lot on the external environment to be supportive (read, honest). Incidentally, sir, the girl whose experience has brought this ugly word into the front pages, was a child, a school student. It angers me that this country does not have respect for our young!

Realising how angry he had become, Dhawal paused and said, “For you, Mr Honaver, it is one child asking for one meaning. For me it is 1,100 students. My responsibility is to ensure that they get honest answers because we as teachers know that eight out of 10 kids do not get responses at home. Why? Because they are not taken seriously!

“Are you aware that about 50 per cent of the children in our country experience sexual abuse? In most cases, the abuser is somebody the family knows well. There is one more very troubling fact: on an average, a child needs to complain seven times before he or she is taken seriously, and one reason is that most of us seem to think that our children are safe. A young mind that grows with fear and anxiety, cannot grow into a healthy adult. Don’t your companies need healthy adults? Doesn’t our government need healthy adults to run it?

“How safe are our children? You tell me Mr Pant… you are a newspaper-wallah! Do newspapers know about children-youth-safety or only liquor, fashion, politics, crime, business and stockmarkets? Where is life in all this? When sexual imagery is the language of advertisement, when family magazines carry sexual surveys, when contraceptives are freely advertised with copy lines that are unnecessary, do you think the children are being ‘educated’ rightly by the media? Safely? Do you consider children and youth for other than selling things to and through? What are they? Little people who don’t matter?

“This is why I asked you, Mr Pant last month, what has NewsIndia done to exonerate the Japanese rape game. No one chose to condemn it. Why? This is a part of rightly informing our children. You need to partner parents and teachers. It is thanks to education, my good men, that newspapers have editors and soap companies CEOs! And just as parents are often ill-prepared for such conversations, so are school teachers!”

Bhrigu was strangely reassured. He had been unprepared too. And Dhawal was saying just that now. “Nobody is prepared for this! Which teacher is prepared for an answer to ‘Ma’am, what is a rape game?’ or ‘If he is a policeman, why did he trouble that girl?’ Mr Honaver, you tell me, how do you feel when a consumer calls to say that your soap brand did not deliver its promise? We feel sick when the students come back and tell us they are unable to deal with the world outside. Hear what my ex-student, Ishayu Sen, who is studying to be an accountant, writes: ‘sir, this profession is veiled in curtains of lies and deceit. It hurts me to know what I will have to participate in. I know that I do not want to become like my bosses or colleagues. They may be very professional, but they are not good people; and I frankly do not care to be associated with them.’ In Ishayu’s words I read a certain sadness and I feel responsible. Do you feel responsible, Mr Pant?

“Education is about an ongoing process of developing a big picture of life and its challenges, Mr Pant. There was a time when I used the newspaper a lot to teach. Instead, I am turning to new media, Internet blogs of George Monbiot or John Pilger or commentaries in the Guardian Weekly for depth and story telling. Yes! That is what is missing, story telling. Mr Pant, reporting is for trainees. Grown men write stories and challenge the edifice on which lies are hoisted! Instead, what do we have? News that crafts untruths to save some pompous agendas.

“I bookmarked this sentence from an old post from John Pilger for my class 12 debate on ‘the metaphysics of lying’. Here, let me read it out to you: ‘… the BBC’s director of news was asked (by Media Lens) why the BBC had remained silent on known atrocities committed by the Americans in Fallujah. She replied, “Our correspondent in Fallujah at the time [of the US attack], Paul Wood, did not report any of these things because he did not see any of these things.”’ Pilger adds wryly, ‘It’s a statement to savour’.”

Raman: Silence speaks louder. That is why I wanted to give Kartikey and Ranveer the right answer. Tell me Mr Honaver, how do we shepherd our students? Can we afford to be coy too? How do I enable them to discern aberration from rule?

Yes, thought Dhawal, how do you say, “Son, this is molestation, but you may not do it”. If an act should not be done, how did it get a name, then? This is why working in schools is only for the bravest! You cannot tell lies and spin fairy tales, but have to meet the frank questions of the young and search inside for any wisdom.

Dhawal left Bhrigu to continue his chat with other teachers, and walked towards class 11G for the English class. He saw the boys reading the news on the Yahoo homepage. “What’s news?” he called out, and the four sheepishly shut the laptop saying, “Nothing serious, sir.” Dhawal smiled, “Okay, rapid fire round: what were you reading about?” The four laughed knowing Dhawal’s ploys, and said, “Okay, there was some news about Rakhi Sawant…”

“Tell me,” said Dhawal. Jimmy Walia, a prefect, said, “It was less about Rakhi Sawant. It seems the chap who forcibly kissed her is so angry that she had lodged a complaint, that he has said he will never work with her in a film.”

“Okay, back to class now. We are reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Quick, on the double guys,” said Dhawal. But as he set up the podium for the lecture, his mind was droning with what he had heard and seen. Class 11 students were reading gossip when the country was torn by the debate over a police officer’s dishonesty. Turning to the class his thoughts leaked out. “What is today’s burning issue: a) The complicity in corruption and criminality by cabinet rank ministers, cops and courts of your country, or, b) Is Mika using offensive to look holy?”

Param (student): Mika-talk is the world we occupy, sir. We youngsters cannot choose or discard our ministers or the law, for we are young and certainly not ‘relevant’ for the country’s agenda as we are not adding to GDP. But we can choose or discard the actors and singers who inhabit our iPods and Facebook.

Vyas (student): How does it matter if Mika is right or not? Where is the truth in the news, sir? You tell us, how come newspapers are selective about what stories they give attention to and what not? How come some past sins are dug out but others not? Some of us here read Badri Raina on ZNet… they give us thoughts to think. Whereas newspapers only give us events.

Back in his office after the class, Dhawal said to the teachers conferring with Bhrigu Pant, “What paradox! Class 12 students do not seem to be attracted to mainstream news! They read the business papers and The Economist, but that is all business and commerce. What about the world they live in? Today, Sridhar Vyas has hit the nail on the head. He says newspapers are just event reporters. And I now understand what he means; the newspapers are not challenging them! News channels, too, have become like theatre performances with high-pitch voices, dramatic arguments and a generous garnish of Bollywood debates. Tiger Woods or Rakhi Sawant become far more worthy of conversation than starvation deaths in Orissa or BT brinjal or the judge in Karnataka! Their interaction with news is fleeting and flippant.

Mallika Sinha (music teacher): That is because the newspapers do not tell the story. They only report cold facts and walk away, much like ‘Kya aap ke toothpaste mein salt hai?’ Today, can the papers say they are tracking the West Asia wars? Or the emancipation of Iraq as a story like: ‘This is how it began…’? No!

Dhawal: Why invest in the intelligence of human beings, Mr Pant, when all you need is their ‘eyeballs’, isn’t it? Ethics of the market place is removed from the larger responsibility of ‘rightness’ and ‘goodness’. Markets thrive on the grey, undefined, and badly defined. In fact, they thrive on poor definitions, confusion and stirring the unresolved areas of human consciousness.

Here comes the media’s role. Is it their role to cater or to involve and engage? And how much are they willing to think about their mission and how much of themselves as a business, a corporation? I think those days are gone when newspaper barons passionately believed in engaging. Today, this has translated into a corporate empire which is supported by advertisements and sponsorships. And, therefore, media increasingly has taken on the colour of the marketplace. Much the same way that schools and colleges take their colour from the corporations and lose their purpose in their catering.

Mallika: The editorials and comments require one to search and only the clearly oriented reader has a chance of getting something halfway significant out of the paper…

Biren Chogyal (sports teacher): Absolutely. Presenting facts versus shaping an opinion! Dulling the sensibilities of the readers and in fact like the Mobius strip the reader finds himself supporting something that is terrible. Such an insult to individual intelligence. The tragedy at a deeper level is that our education drives out what residual sensibility we carry from the older generations!

Madhav Lal (history): Worse, Mr Pant. We even come to disregard that residual sensibility. I really wonder how we are going to step up the schooling experience. Newspapers offer a platter of ‘news’ but steer clear of tricky stories. Take the Maoist uprising in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, etc. The students have been unable to delve deep and examine the situation. While many newspapers have written about the raids, deaths, counter attacks, there seem to be few pieces that tell the story of poverty, starvation, exploitation and neglect. Few raise historical questions — are these people criminals or freedom fighters? Or examine the reasons for their uprising.

Some students have been sharp and reached columns written by Harsh Mander, P. Sainath etc., which dare to unfold a carefully worked story. Unfortunately, students ‘encounter’ them rarely, as the paper speaks alongside, a language of disjointed and sensational news, while burying significant news between gossip and advertisements.

Dhawal: Exactly my point too. Take any country, Mr Pant, it has a story laden with confusion: West Asia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and then the bigger chapters are about the involvement of the G8 in their histories and futures.

You must write history as it happens, and unearth the details wherein lies the denudation of a country’s values. Only then can you say you gave your children the truth. Today, lies are written in the language of truth. My student Vyas asks me, “How come some testimonies are admitted and some not?” Do you see, Mr Reporter, to answer Vyas honestly, I will be saying things about the law and order, about newspaper ideologies and revenues and, of course, political optimisation.

Or, are newspapers afraid to speak plainly? Are we unable to take a clear position resting on truth and a sense of rightness? Where is the question of taking on the system and breathing new life, if people who are in positions of influence don’t speak their minds? Can you imagine where India would have been if Mahatma Gandhi had not resisted at Natal? Suppose he had apologised and disembarked from the train? So, conviction Mr Pant, conviction!

Analysis: The Wonder of Why

The media needs to take responsibility for its choice of content, slant and tone

G. Guatama

Make what you may of my silence, my child.
At least I did not feed you lies!
‘Why’ is a difficult question, child…
The first ‘Why’ usually takes us to the surface,
The second — how much we take for granted,
The third ‘Why’ brings us face to face with the depth of our ignorance,
a la C.V. Raman in ‘Why The Sky Is Blue’
By then the whys multiply, leading to wonder,
To unknown facts, exciting questions,
uncomfortable unanswered answers.

Why did the police officer hurt the girl?
What happened to her hurt?
Why did no one listen?
The papers, why were they quiet for 19 years?
The quiet cops, were they terrified, embarrassed?
Or did they protect the wrong doer?
When I am older, and commit a wrong,
will the cops and court protect me too?
Will I too be able to get away with just a tap?

Aha! That’s how it works!
If you have profit, you have power!
You don’t go to jail or pay for your crime,
protected by money, protected by power!
So teacher, please, don’t teach me useless stuff.
Teach me the real world!
Teach me how to fulfill my heart’s desires; ads do.
Teach me to get all I crave; the market does!
I want to look good, like in the magazines,
the stars and the beautiful people.
Did they get there playing by the rulebook?
Or did they duck when inner questions
flew fast and thick?
No one got anything by answering questions.
‘Just do it’ is the only mantra! Don’t ask how!

If you see walls, break them.
If rivers block your path, suck them dry!
Life is an opportunity, and I have just this one.
Teacher oh teacher, don’t waste my time.
Fill my mind with dreams of power.
I hear it so loud that I can’t hear your song
of respect and dignity, of right and wrong.
I learnt it all very early, so did my friends.

You are tall and grownup, did they somehow leave you out?
Teacher, is that why you are still at school?
Teach me that nothing matters beyond power.
Show me how to bury questions and confusions.
Surely you know that this is just a game,
this talk of morals and values, goodness and decency.
Or, did they forget to tell you?
Surely you know I need the prize,
to stand tall a victor.
But I need to quell the little voice within,
the one that asks questions…
Teach me to smile, when I have done wrong,
To forgive myself and deny all wrongs.

Teacher oh teacher, I have nothing against you!
You may not know, but you are in a tight spot.
For you can neither speak the truth nor endorse power.
But know, I was here when yet young, unformed, often I spoke the honest truth;
I was licked into shape with jeers and taunts.
I have learnt my lessons, I learnt what pays.
So Teacher, will you still stand alone?
Or soon sell your soul to the spell of the market?

Why is the school, the last of institutions standing, to be left with this hopeless mandate? Why is there such little support for the emergence of intelligence in the young and old? Could it be that we actually don’t love our children? If we did, would we not find a way out?

Have we, the society, chosen power over care, efficiency over effectiveness, the cat that runs away with the pie over the larger good? And, therefore, have we chosen lament over hope? And if this is what we wish to burn into the consciousness of our children, there is no better broth we can offer. An anachronistic school system and powerful surround messages reinforcing the opposite.


Business World – 15 Jun 2009 – Business Conduct – The Heart of the Matter

“Ethics and religion must not stay at home when we go to work.”
— Achille Silvestrini, Cardinal of the Roman Curia

-Meera Seth
Raghuveer Vats felt like a blender on pulse mode. Varsha Nigam Dorai had just left his office after dropping a hateful bombshell, and the flying splinters were tossing him around; that Varsha was also the wife of his senior vice-president, Tyaagi Dorai.

Varsha, whom he had known for many years, had said, “It is Tyaagi. He is never home before midnight and always claims to have meetings with clients and overseas visitors. Ours is a large joint family, I am the eldest and the live-in daughter-in-law. I manage the entire household and run my dance academy, which keeps me busy round-the-clock. Busy also means that I am focusing less on anxieties and worries. Therefore, it has taken me three years to convert worry into suspicion into action. I fear Tyaagi is having an affair…”

And after some more explanation, she said, “It could be a person called Saarangi… Is there someone by that name in your company?”

Raghuveer’s mind registered a vague recognition of the name, but he was badly shaken. Tyaagi? Of all people! Then he had valiantly even defended, “I work very closely with Tyaagi, Varsha, I would know.” But Varsha said, “You stole my line Veer. Those were my words, ‘I should know, I am his wife!’ Nonsense, Veer!”

But Varsha’s words did not make sense. Tyaagi was not just a terrific manager. He was ‘inner circle’ — part of the core strategy team.

Two days later, he asked Tyaagi to join him for dinner at Konkan Café. Without much preamble, Raghuveer came to the point, “I believe you are having an affair with someone at work.” Tyaagi gasped but only briefly. Then he said, “Where did you get that impression?”

Raghuveer, or RV as he was known, took the menu card from the manager, and said, “We will call you as soon as we are ready, ok?” And then to Tyaagi, “You and I are too old to play cat-and-mouse games, Tyaagi. how I know, where I got the impression from… never mind. Let us come to the point. We are men, and we know what we are capable of; interestingly, we are also aware of what we are not capable of, that is honesty in situations like this. This won’t do at Gavinn. I am sorry that after so many years of great team work, we will have to part ways.”

Tyaagi was taken aback. “Part ways?” he asked, not even sure he was hearing right. “But what has that to do with anything? Besides, it is not even an affair in the real sense…” RV was angry now. “‘In the real sense?’ What does that mean? Anyway, look my relationship with you is that of an MD and colleague. So, I have no interest in your personal definitions. I am concerned with the business of Gavinn and that interest directs me to take a view of your conduct.” Tyaagi said, “I am sorry. but listen to me, it is not what you think. I am a married guy. I have kids. I don’t need all this, you know…”

RV said, “There are men who stop lying when they are found out. You are a rare breed. I have had a long chat with Saarangi. Now tell me…”

Tyaagi was shocked, but said, “I am simply friendly with her…” RV could bear it no more. He said, “If you want to talk, it has to be about corrective action, not the details of your relationship. So, either you have to leave Gavinn or I will have to ask you to.”

Tyaagi could not understand, “Why? Why do I have to go? How has my personal life got anything to do with my work? Am I not delivering? And I don’t think it is sufficient ground for terminating my employment! You are making an issue of something quite commonplace; we are consenting adults, so what is the problem?”

“The problem?” said RV. “When a man changes his script on being caught, or pretends none of that happened, such a man is clearly one who lacks conviction. When a person dons two different profiles, one for the day and one for the dark, I would not trust my business in his hands. I do not know which is the real Tyaagi that works for Gavinn!”

Tyaagi breathed deeply. “Alright! Let us not get theatrical!” he said in a low angry tone. “If it bothers you so much, I will tell her to leave Gavinn!”

“On cue, Visaka and Vishesh exchanged a disturbed glance. They were in fact not very far from that situation. Vishesh had sunk a huge amount into the India business.”

That made RV furious. He said, “It is not about who leaves or stays, it is about protecting the integrity of a structure, a system that we all subscribe to. They are as simple as road safety rules. It does get inconvenient now and then, but then it is not about convenience, it is about common and greater good. Nobody forces you to get married, raise a family. But once you do, it is ‘till death do us part’, which incidentally is not a romantic notion but about responsibility. Now, as an organisation, Gavinn is part of that very society with its inconvenient rules. And what is good for the goose is good for Gavinn as well.”

Tyaagi now realised he was talking to a mad man. So he said, “Let me think about this. Let us meet again next week.”

“Not next week Tyaagi. Two days is all I have for you,” said RV as he left the restaurant.

Next morning, HR head Kaushal Santrup walked into RV’s office and shut the door behind him. “Tyaagi has sent us a letter from his lawyer that seems like a preamble to a lawsuit for unfair termination of employment!” Kaushal announced. RV shrugged, “I knew he would. Fools and cowards respond like that.”

Kaushal: We will have to fight it. Tell me your stance so that I can develop my defence.

RV: We are not ‘defending’ anything. He can do that. We have a stance and we are committed to it.

Kaushal: It is also Saarangi; she alleges sexual harassment. She could well be doing this to pre-empt being sacked herself. Whatever her ploy, fact remains that since Tyaagi is in a position of power, and his partner is much junior, it could well be construed that he is misusing his power!”

RV: I am not interested in putting modern day labels on this episode. This is about irresponsible behaviour, which will hold true in any age. And Gavinn will not subscribe to it.

Kaushal: Listen, she is accusing a senior manager. She alleges he brought pressure on her to reciprocate that there was no volition from her side.

RV: Why are you wasting time on this? All this is nonsense. He brought pressure on her’! Look Kaushal, she made the choice to toe his line. She could well have made a different choice and taken the management’s help. Period. We have been very supportive and helpful always and there is not one lady here at Gavinn who can fault us. I am not diminishing Saarangi’s words, but these are two-faced people. And both should go.

Kaushal: And if Saarangi alleges it is sexual harassment, then?

RV: Then she will have to give me a non-helpless explanation for why she did not seek management support. At one level, it is misuse of power by a person in authority and on top of that both are using the law as a fig leaf. It is being assumed that the junior cannot refuse, that she was ‘influenced’. Then the law says, “Oh but if she was ‘influenced’, it is not exactly consent, but a case of harassment!” But who is to prove consent or not? Then what happens? Then the case will weigh down on the male partner heavily. Therefore, this sexual harassment is after all, nonsense. I am not even considering it.

Kaushal: Maybe we need to issue a caveat to employees on workplace liaisons…

RV: You interpret me hastily, Kaushal. This is about married people straying. He is guilty of decimating the home responsibility, and she for encroaching on what does not accrue to her. As an organisation we have to subscribe to the social framework. If as an organisation I can request consumers to deface and destroy mineral water bottles to prevent reuse, not buy pirated CDs, recycle paper, not use plastics, to enable our market environment, then can they not reciprocally ask organisations to save the moral environment? Tyaagi will have to go.

Kaushal: Maybe we must slow down. We have just yesterday received the clearance for the plant in Ahmednagar. Tyaagi has been negotiating with the government. Could we not soft pedal till that gets done?

RV (surprised): Kaushal, I am a leader, not a fixer or broker. If this deal gets sticky, so be it. But endorsing betrayal, valueless conduct, irresponsibility? Never. The home/family is an operating unit to be accorded the same respect. If the head of the home business unit cannot lead well and enable his profit centre, how am I to believe he can work for the benefit of his organisation’s business unit? It is easily extrapolated!

Kaushal: Given the times, such severity may be extreme…

RV: Tyaagi is not some management trainee. It is clearly the wrong example for a senior member of an organisation to set. Importantly, Gavinn has to always be an organisation where women feel safe. The MD’s vision has to be clear on this.

Kaushal: We could look at how others handled this: Teffer transferred its senior director out of the country to get him off a scandal he got into.

RV: What Teffer does is Teffer’s choice. What Gavinn does will be driven by our values. We must never run organisations to ‘look’ good. Covering up, pushing under the carpet, calling in PR… these are ego-driven exercises, born out of faith in falsehoods. I will manage my business and the careers of my managers. But they have to come with values. If their values break, they must go to ‘Start’. Life is not all ladders…

Kaushal: Times have changed, RV. There’s growing evidence that morals are on the low in organisations, and naturally management is either unsure or unwilling to take a stance.

RV: I am neither unsure nor unwilling. Besides, it is the very nature of time to change as it is of water to be wet. Hardly reason to recalibrate values! But some things should not change, the basic edifice on which we build homes should never change. If it does, orgnisations won’t have a foundation for survival. Now I need to work … Don’t forget our 4 pm meeting.

There it ended for the time being. but outside the sound-proofed walls of Raghuveer Vats’ office, the buzz of discussions was mounting. How news travels or leaks, is difficult to flowchart. “Why is RV being adamant?” “Seriously! What anyone does with his personal life should be nobody’s business.” “Seems very harsh a step. Why sack the guy? RV must be deranged…” “What a severe man!” “Tyaagi is dead. Indian law on sexual harassment will nail him any which way.”

Kaushal met Teerath Jain, his next in command, to discuss the letter from Tyaagi’s lawyer, which was a sort of pre-emptive legal opinion that clarified his rights and obligations.

Kaushal: India’s sexual harassment law rests on ‘absence of consent’. Only then is it construed to be. Other countries’ laws go further, where if someone is in a position of authority, then any sexual relationship is harassment. But RV does not even want to hear about it. He says, “Values don’t need the sanctity of law. What is wrong is wrong. Period.”

Teerath: He has a point, but unfortunately when you are dealing with contractual employment, you have to work through the law. I can hardly see myself saying with conviction: ‘Tyaagi, you have to go, because I think what you did is inappropriate.’

Lunch tables at Gavinn saw more huddled heads. “Say, is this code of conduct usually documented?” “Yes, it is supposed to be annexed to your contract. Many MNCs do this.” “But listen, if he is wants to file a suit, on what possible basis can he do so?” “Company will allege it tantamounts to harassment, while he will resort to the flimsy Indian definition and claim it was consensual. Finished. He wins.” “Absolutely, he will simply say that company cannot police personal life! Then what can we do?” “RV will put his tough foot down, and chant his pet mantra about unwritten commitment to the code of common conduct, which include the adherance to social norms. Simple. I can even hear him chant now…” “RV is a clear-headed guy… Tyaagi has no hope in hell. Legally, he may wrangle victory, but in the press he will look like a fool.”

Elsewhere, Teerath was in discussion with Kaushal and RV, “The Indian law is set out in a case called Vishaka versus State of Rajasthan, where the court set out guidelines to be adopted at all workplaces. There is no mention of ‘consensual sexual relationships’. That implies, in India, consensual sexual relationships between adults is not illegal. However, I say an Indian company can and should go further and prohibit this when people are in authority, as is Tyaagi. And I do think RV you are on solid ground. You are a man for policy, plus you have terrific conviction. Besides, we must push for a change because the Indian law only sets out a minimum standard, which is not only outdated but also dreadfully nebulous. It is essential to have a more rigorous definition of sexual harassment in workplaces and this prevents subtler forms of gender discrimination.”

Raghuveer heard him out keenly, while Kaushal added: “Look at the kind of domestic situations that arise daily. Right here at Gavinn. young trainees have married and divorced in eight months. Alcoholism, abusive conduct, domestic violence, and now extra-marital affairs. These kinds of moral delinquencies are present to some degree in many homes.
Where will you draw the line? And how many will you get to know about? Can we ask all these men and women to quit?

“Why only men? The husband of one of our brand managers has complained that she has too many late night meetings and parties and their home life is derailing. Do I take that as an official complaint against her professional self or against her personal self? If Tyaagi’s case counts, then this one too does, no? You think a man is setting a bad example having an affair. But you don’t think the lady manager is setting a bad example neglecting her home? And then what do I tell her boss Vijay Cherian who asked me, ‘If she fails to meet her objectives, can I call her husband and report? No? Then why is he calling us?’ So, where will you draw the line RV?’

RV: Interesting arguments; but the case of Tyaagi is clear as day. The issue gets bad when one of them is already married, and break social convention. I have asked you this several times: Is an organisation not responsible for society’s values being maintained? For the upkeep of a moral standard in society? After all, an organisation is part of that very society. Isn’t that why we restrict cigarette and liquor companies from advertising? People will protest — it is in the nature of people to resist hindrance. But finally who is the watchdog? Organisations have to draw the line and make known these lines.”

Kaushal: Pardon me if I come across as argumentative RV. if Tyaagi was having an affair with a lady outside Gavinn, would you have even known? There is also the view that society itself has changed its stance on such things as extra-marital affairs. It is rampant, so how much can an organisation do? I think a point can be made to the employee that we are disturbed by his conduct. Then it is for the errant manager to take a call. He will then know the viewpoint of his management, and he cannot get abrasive at least, if he expects his career to move upwards.

Or if it was interfering with work… Then there is a case for action. I keep wondering, where do we draw the line?

RV: Why does everything have to have lines and boundaries and definitions? What ever happened to common sense? Why can we not have black and white, yes or not-yes, can or cannot? These grey zones are really nothing, but our own confused sense of democracy.

I agree, the organisation cannot go about sleuthing. But here I am, employing 20 hours of a man’s day to run my business. Does it not become Gavinn’s responsibility? When I hire a man, I hire his whole family’s support. That is how I see life. Maybe your vision is different, so I cannot even tell you you are wrong. You tell me how do I shut this window that shows me a different perspective from yours?

Organisation that have a passion for being value-driven will know right from wrong. And I say this, even if his performance is good, work unaffected, top drawer deliveries; but when his subordinates know he is married, and is having an extra-marital affair, is this good or not good for the value edifice that the organisation stands on? Is it not affecting the fabric with which we weave our businesses everyday? Does he not compromise his seniority and authority?”

Kaushal, then asked softly, “Yet, would you have saved the marriage by sacking him, RV?”

RV replied, “I am not saving any marriage. I am trying to save the values that are being assaulted by his behaviour. Values is the air I spray abundantly in my workplace for people to inhale. He is polluting it with an attitude that I see as unwholesome. That is all.”

Kaushal was satisfied, “Fair, but allow me to suggest a framework for this: Follow full process; set up a sexual harassment committee; give everyone concerned a right to be heard; and then terminate with reasons. You will be well within your rights then to say, “Gavinn strongly believes in social norms. Our code of conduct derives from society and breach of social convention is breach of organisational code of conduct.”

Raghuveer stood up and shook Kaushal’s hand, “Fair!” And then, “But remember, this is not about sexual harassment, but dishonest indulgence. That is really my point!”

Business World – 08 Oct 2007 – Growing Bad Bosses

Growing Bad Bosses
–Meera Seth
“When a person comes into his chamber and finds the chairs all standing in the middle of the room, he is angry with his servant, and rather than see them …in disorder, takes the trouble himself to set them all in their places with their backs to the wall.”
“When the preservation of an individual is inconsistent with the safety of a multitude, nothing can be more just than that the many should be preferred to the one.” Adam Smith (1723-1790) The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Vivek Bhargav felt hot tears of frustration sting his eyes. This was a deeply private moment in his life. Shutting the whole of existence, he faced his life alone. I hate being insulted and humiliated. I hate the way he talks down to me. I don’t want him to be abusive… How do I get out of this? And as always, it occurred to him that if he was not married, if he did not have kids, he would just go away.
Only a few days ago, over some other similar incident, he had told a colleague, Prithvi: ‘the things men have to bear to support family!’ Prithvi was surprised, “Why ‘men’? Don’t women too?” Vivek had agreed, but added, “Somehow, there is a difference…” The stress of the past few days was growing. He remained preoccupied, did not eat well and found it impossible to sleep on his left at night. This morning he had woken up with the most stunning headache, thanks to all the build-up last evening over the media schedule — made only worse by what transpired this morning, when CEO Atul Kashyap had called him. His boss, the divisional head Bharat Sinha, was present too. Kashyap then said, “Vivek, do you realise what your mess-up has cost the company? You know the media schedule has to be paid on time, yet you waited till the eleventh hour! Now they have cancelled three of those schedules!”
Vivek was embarrassed. He could see Sinha not speaking up the truth. Neither could Vivek place the situation on the table. It didn’t seem right. That was a very undesirable left-handed punch that Sinha had delivered. But he felt all this was a function of him stopping payment on a bill. Vivek had cottoned on to some strange dealings that some people in marketing were having with a ‘marketing research agency’ who, for some payment, were going to produce statistics that would make Kesslor look tops. His informer had called him and said, “Somebody there is paying to get dressed-up market information that makes Kesslor look better than it is. Go find out if your chaps are paying one Ajax. And if you do, God help you, man!”
Vivek, being the division’s commercial accountant, had pointed it out to Sinha and to his senior in HO. Thereafter, Sinha had been roughing him up on one pretext or another.
Last evening, he had gone to Sinha to get him to clear the media schedule. Sinha waved him off, “Later young man, we are in the midst of a serious discussion.” The seven people in the room were watching the one-day international on his TV. Vivek urged Sinha, “Bharat, the schedule; today is the last day, your campaign is breaking from next week. The team already took so long finalising. I promised Neptune that I will send it tonight.”And Sinha said, “I will call you.” Vivek waited for over an hour. He never made it to Neptune. The next day Neptune cancelled three segments of the schedule unable to accommodate. Kashyap was very annoyed. And adding insult was Sinha now, saying, “He is very disorganised, Atul! He is an accountant after all, what did you expect? I have been telling you, let this task be with us marketing chaps, these accountants are useless for all this. He has no ownership, no commitment! ”
Then, calling Vivek to his room, Sinha blasted him, blaming him for the cancelled schedules and then, “What a girl you are! You could not even get the buying agency to work for you! All you have is youth, but no intelligence! Why else would you hold up the Ajax payment? And now my research has been held up, thanks to you! Now don’t stand there and stare at me, please. Just go!”Vivek felt a slow disgust crawl over him. He could not believe Bharat’s attitude. How was he getting on despite all this? This man has brought this on deliberately just to cause me grief. Why don’t I simply walk out of that door and never turn back… Just then the phone rang. It was his three-year-old daughter. Vivek panicked. She was home today with a fever. “Fultoo also is very sad like you were yesterday, Pappy, and fever also. Will you bring medicine?” (Fultoo was her rag doll of no specific gender.) Vivek felt an agonising pain. Last night, his daughter had waited up till 11 p.m. to serve him dinner (“I will give Pappy khaana, okay?!”) but he went to bed without eating, stressed out after the media chaos; she climbed on to his bed and tried to prise open his eyes to check if he was asleep. He had told her he was not feeling good. “Sure beta,” he assured her now, “Now you sleep, make Fultoo sleep, too, OK? I will come home and make Fultoo all right.”
Vivek hated it when his moods impacted his kids. The torrential rains only made him feel gloomier. Walking to the dining room, he saw the rest of his group was already there. Hushed angry conversations were on, all heads together. An obnoxious rumour, which everyone had been in denial over, had just been confirmed. Kapil Avasthi had propositioned his subordinate Manas’ wife. And while everyone thought Kapil would be asked to leave Kesslor, this morning’s internal communication had said he was being transferred to Europe as the regional head for brand development. Some at Kesslor were disturbed by the turn of events, some laughed it off and made a poor joke about easy promotions. And some asked a serious question — is this the organisation’s way of making a social statement?
“I asked Rajdeep Dang, (the senior manager HR) to explain this,” said Ananya Deo, the management accountant. “He initially defended valiantly saying, ‘People do suffer aberrations periodically and our role as an organisation is to create an environment which is accepting and forgiving and then, enabling of rehabilitation… Therefore, sending him off to a new place will help him review his life.’”Acute anger gripped the seven. Fiery abuse simmered in the space between them. Ananya added, “I think they knew it all along, but wanted to move him out first.” Prithvi Joseph, a brand manager, was disgusted, “What did they do to drive home the point that Kresslor will not brook valueless behaviour? We have virtually rewarded him!”Ananya agreed, “And it seems to me that the organisation may be anxious over losing him, or telling him that after all the good work he turned in, they now disagree with his behaviour.” Just then Rajdeep walked in too and the group pounced on him. Rajdeep was at a loss for coherence, but he said, “He was drunk, try and understand… sometimes these things look easy to resolve…”
“Did the drink find its way into him?” asked Ananya. “Why are you making excuses for his behaviour? And what about Manas who has to live with this agony, being in the same organisation as the man who insulted him?” said Ananya. Rajdeep went white in the face, as he said, “Manas resigned an hour ago. That makes things really bad for us, I know.” They were shell-shocked to hear this. They hated Rajdeep for this, they hated HR; they hated the CEO even more. “What are we, cattle? Isn’t there something called sensitivity? How low is low?” Sitting in the silence they picked at their meal, angry and confused. How come Manas was paying the price for Kapil’s sins?
“You know,” began Riya Nath, “OK, hang on, let me go and get it,” she ended and flew out of the dining hall. Minutes later she returned with a printout. “Let me read this out, this explains life,” she said, and read out:
NEW YORK: How do people get ahead in the workplace? One way seems to be by making their subordinates miserable, according to a study released on Friday… . Participants said the local workplace tyrant was either never censured or was promoted for domineering ways.
“The fact that 64.2 per cent of the respondents indicated that either nothing at all or something positive happened to the bad leader is rather remarkable — remarkably disturbing,” wrote the study’s authors.The much needed relief descended on the group. Vivek grinned, the term ‘workplace tyrant’ fitted Bharat Sinha, he thought. “Bad bosses just get paid for being obnoxious”, he said. “Hey come on,” said Kartik Rajan, “Let’s not be cynical. Does one Kapil Avasthi change the worldview on bosses?” And like normal troubled people, they sought comfort in trading experiences and opinions.Prithvi: Kapil getting away signals many things. One, the higher up the hierarchy you are, the greater the chances of the old boys’ network bailing you out. Two, it is not the propositioning; that is terribly dull. It is the easy acceptance of such conduct from a senior manager, by the senior management. It is this subtle approval! It is like a private joke, which they have all shared and enjoyed. Vivek: It is an assertion that a boss’ sins are OK. That a boss can be mean, vicious, domineering and aggressive, and you, the victim, will be so unsure that you will take a long time to label that as aggression. How many people suffer this state, do you know? Worse, we don’t even feel confident complaining!
Ananya: Nail on the head, Vivek! I have experienced exactly this. It’s most demolishing a feeling.And she went on to recall her boss, the partner of the firm of auditors where she worked. “A client had violated a serious tenet of the Companies’ Act and I reported it to the partner in charge of the audit. Then, the following Sunday, he called me to his house with the audit files to meet the client. Now, this is what happened: I reach his house, files are taken from me by the servant, I am made to sit at the door, at the door, where a chair was placed next to the shoe cupboard, next to his chained dog which kept growling. No, I am serious!
What is going on is, he is putting me in my place. He does not call me to take part in the discussion — after 70 minutes, the servant tells me to go in. I go in and partner does not look at me, both are drinking. He gestures for me to take away the files (with a flick of his fingers) and says — ‘you can go’. The following week, my senior on the audit asked me to ‘remove’ the query from the file. I refused. Partner got annoyed and asked me to quit the firm. And then I got hopping mad. I told my senior he would have to sack me. The manager of the firm pleaded with me to go peacefully. Suddenly, I was seeing such rot that I didn’t want any more to do with them. I left. Two months later, the errant client appointed that firm as auditors for their flagship business. Big, big bucks. The errant partner was promoted. “Point I am making is the manager knew I was being victimised. My senior knew too. Did they do anything? That life is less likely to bully you because you are a girl is rubbish and this: the higher up you are, the more your bad stinks and the more the low-on-self-esteem hangers-on you will have who will save you! That was Kapil’s luck too!”
Vastav: Why didn’t you raise dust with your manager? That was a mistake!
Ananya: At 22? Be real. What happened to Manas? 33 years? His wife complained. We are seeing who won. OK, tell me, we have a 22-year-old market researcher working here. Tell me, how likely are we to believe her if she complains? She is a passing season, as far as we care. And a 22-year-old, what revenue is she bringing to the table? If anything, she is a cost! Let her go. That’s what is going on — We all want to protect and save the hi-revenue potential, more enduring managers who we see as pillars of Kesslor. And that is the trade off that happened this morning. And that is the trade off that happened at my firm, over me! End of the day it’s this: As the CEO, so the organisation. But integrity is not even an attribute anymore.
How many accountants got promoted for seeing their companies through frauds and covering up sins? What do you think happened at WorldCom, Andersen, Parmalat and Enron? We see the big picture of big balance sheets. But how many people were trampled and trod upon, do we know? Do they speak? Do we let them speak?
Vastav: Every organisation has a bunch of bad bosses. But nobody spells their names. What makes them invisible? Does nothing happen to bad bosses? Don’t organisations take notice of them? People don’t complain! Would you, Vivek?
Vivek: Depends on the kind of CEO I have. If he stands like a rock assuring me justice, I will. Finally, it’s his organisation and if the emperor likes lies, he will never find out that he is, in fact, naked! People who squeak often get ‘burnt’. Companies choose to notice only when their interests are at stake. When damage is visible in terms of deliveries / resignations, etc. That is why exit interviews are a total waste. It’s a huge sham.
I think there are two kinds of bad bosses: bad in attitude, bad in performance; bad in attitude, good in performance. The former variety gets eliminated by the system. The latter is the most lethal for life. Often, organisations tolerate this variety and choose to look the other way to gain revenue. Very few organisations have the guts to tick off a bad boss. Do you think Manas will be interviewed on his exit? Do you think Manas will talk? And if he did, do you think Kesslor’s HR will say, “Oh, that is not nice! Come, you will get justice…” This is an organisation for profits, and that does not include growth needs.
It needs strong HR and stronger leaders. But CEOs, like all leaders, do not want to lose their kingdom and crown fighting silly ethical wars. So, they look away. The difficult situation is when the BAD BOSS seems to be delivering in the short term while causing long-term damage to morale, motivation, work culture, AND… simultaneously engendering and encouraging short-term behaviours that say, ‘people are expendable’. Isn’t that what we saw now? Manas was expendable, Kapil was not.
Prithvi: I have another theory, Vivek. We are a very performance-driven country. As a result, as a management we ignore soft issues such as respect, compassion, politeness. We even believe that if a manager has these attributes, he will be a poor manager. So, what happens? He gets rewarded for delivering and he achieves this by making others die. Flip side is, if you complain you are labelled non-resilient, soft, whiner, not tough… and then you will not get the right moves.
Ananya: There is widespread belief that good performance comes by ‘pushing’ people and pressurising them. Pardon the use of such language please, but it is very fashionable people management jargon — called ‘kick butt’. Have you seen the sense of power and glory the person saying that, wears? All these behaviours, Prithvi…from body language, to verbal language, to those gestures and mannerisms and, now, some ridiculous accent too. We are completely overwhelmed by packaging. That’s how shallow we are. We behave as if we are on a reality show, constant theatrics! Maybe because results, though short term, come quicker with some knuckle whipping. and in an instant delivery SMS world nobody, not even the so-called sages in the board room, have patience.
Kartik: This Indian cultural bit about wanting approval of the masters is partly correct, but it is getting weak with the younger generation. Today, the young have no pretensions, nor do they worry about their past, because they know the future is in their hands. In fact, almost 90 per cent of people do not get away by fighting their boss, they pay for it. The system has created that sort of immunity for bosses. Being obnoxious is part of being a boss. So, you can be discriminated against, superseded, bypassed, ignored, fired, sidelined, humiliated, ‘put in place’ — a whole bunch of passive aggressive behaviours.
Ask anyone who quit a job — it will invariably be because there was a monster boss. People always eventually quit, or they go into a shell and bide their time till they get out. Uniquely, HR does not find out, or if it does, it remains tight-lipped. My theory is simple. The guy who is insecure will bully to stay on, for he fears losing his job. That’s the boss. The guy who is secure in his heart will quit. Rarely have I seen anyone becoming a hero resisting a bad boss or taking him on.
Riya: I have seen quite the opposite! Where the victim begins to sympathise with the bad boss. Recall Amit’s situation with Swamy? Amit always got called in for meetings at 6 p.m. Swamy had nothing to do in the evenings, as his family does not live here. Amit’s marriage got in deep trouble. And he just could not take on Swamy! Swamy knew this guy won’t protest. He did not value Amit’s personal life, expected him and some others to work to his convenience, whims and fancies… calling at all times, SMSing on weekends, giving assignments on Friday to be done by Monday. Ultimately the Stockholm syndrome prevailed, where Amit started justifying Swamy — “Bechara yaar, kitna kaam karta hai!”
Vivek: Funnily, my boss can rate me poorly and ruin my career. His own boss, despite his bad behaviour, will rate him star performer and promote him! That’s life.
Riya: Notice how bad boss will say absolutely sweet things about you, in front of his own boss; but in private, they can be disgusting. You can see the cunning in their eyes. In my opinion, usually bad bosses are a function of utter insecurity. They should be institutionalised!
Vastav: Why look far? Take Sinha …this man cannot deliver on his own. Totally useless chap, we still have him, why? Muscle power. He is a major hustler — uses abusive language, aggression, underhand play, really low chap. He is one person I am going to nail before I die, mark my words. He brings out the worst in me. Heck, I should know, I slaved under him for three years. Remember Zip, the new detergent from Europe? It was meant to be a test run, but oh, no! Sinha shoots his mouth off, ‘Of course, we can pose a competition for the leaders.’ Such a stupid statement from a marketing head. The guy did not deliver, and he blamed me for it. Rubbished me like mad before Kashyap, but Sinha is a maha-chaloo; he figured how to keep bosses pleased, while roughshodding his minions. My marriage nearly broke, thanks to him. I had severe acidity, ulcers, had a haemorrhage and do you know what he tells me? ‘All this is nonsense, girls fall sick, be a man and return in two days.’
Kartik: Why didn’t you discuss this with Kashyap? You should have. Seriously.
Arunav: Kashyap is weak. He does to us what London does to him. HQ does not care what he does to his chaps, as long as Kashyap does not throw the dirt upwards. See? They have told Kashyap, ‘boss, this is your karmabhoomi, how you do or what you do, we don’t want to know. But if we don’t get our topline, then you are out on your bottom.’ Simple. So, huge lies to cover up, is staple. If juniors are not on line with boss, then who knows what lies he tells, because the junior never travels, so does not know and does not care. It happens in sales in branches all the time. If branch does not deliver, branch manager will blame the sales guys. Ask me. Bad-bossing is a disease. It starts at the top and travels down.
Prithvi: Have you guys heard each other speak? All of us here have endured a bad boss either here or elsewhere. What is going on? I feel this is a sign of our times. What has become of our country? When are things going to change? Why is the system so wretched?
Vivek: We are the country, we are the ‘things’ and we are the ‘system’, Prithvi. If we keep it healthy we can depend on it. If India Shining Inc went public and issued shares, it will be sorely undersubscribed. As an icon, it looks good; exactly how we all have cute Ganesha idols all over the place because it looks good and ethnic. Periodically as occasion demands, we can claim religiosity, or superstition, or parental heritage or divine benevolence. But if someone were to ask us to own it, worship it, then we say: ‘I don’t like rituals!’So too here. The ‘system’ is an icon, there to see; but no stakes in it. We don’t believe in it, we don’t love it, we don’t want it to come in the way of our recklessness. So, we love to say, ‘what government? The country succeeds regardless!’ Each one feels it is the other guy’s job to sustain goodness. But finally, each one has to fight to keep the system pure. A bad boss has no business to last. He is bad for the system.
Prithvi: What are you saying, Vivek?
Vivek: I am saying, Bharat Sinha will have to go….
Omni Boss
Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: Integrity, intelligence and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.- Warren Buffett
Then one day, a hiring error becomes your boss, and suddenly you are Ben Hur on the boat.
Such situations remind me of Peter Sellers in The Party, playing a bumbling Indian actor trying to make it in Hollywood. In one scene, he stops a big time director from molesting a starlet. The director, incensed at being interrupted by a quisling, shouts “Who do you think you are?” Sellers looks at him quizzically and says “Back home in India, we do not think who we are, we know who we are”. His career was finished, but the ending? The starlet fell in love with him!
Vivek has a problem — he has respected a system that doesn’t exist. In uncovering shady dealings with Ajax, he has trampled over someone with vested interests who sees himself as more important than the organisation. Bharat is a bad boss who would rather trash a good subordinate than let the truth mar his objectives. That he succeeds in doing this, highlights the culture that prevails at Kesslor — only immediate results and the individuals who achieve them matter. All the other situations are expected outcomes of such a culture.
When you ignore the divide between black and white, grey becomes the corporate colour. So, we see an insecure CEO, paranoia for immediate results, which becomes the only judgement parameter, bending of the rules by bosses to create a mirage of achievement and finally, scant regard for growing the managers of tomorrow, to the extent of punishing good work to hide the bad.
What makes bad bosses? First, the system. Companies that insist on success at any cost make good people go bad, but then it’s not just one boss —everything will stink. Second, bad individuals who would be bad anywhere —try giving Satan an apple a day. And anyone who thinks HR doesn’t know, better realise that the grapevine is thicker than Jack’s beanstalk.
Organisations overlook negative traits for an individual performer. His behaviour gets tacitly accepted. Then he gets subordinates who get burned while he rides on his past. Companies therefore need to have a clear distinction between individual contributor and people management roles and specific assessment before deciding career paths. Third, change. Poor change management can create insecurity. Companies need to evaluate, assess and communicate when change happens. Otherwise, smart subordinates will be seen as threats and browbeaten into servility.
An organisation has several unstated responsibilities. The most important is creating respect — both within and thereby for, themselves. To achieve is commendable, but it is to achieve through excellence that is desirable —and sustainable. Effectiveness is rewarding, but effectiveness through efficiency is a winning proposition. As we distribute the overall goals of an organisation into parts and processes, it becomes the role of the manager to encourage each member of the team to achieve and, then, bring together individual efforts in a manner that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. This ultimately creates the culture of respect — for the system, the individuals and the organisation. If you are working in such a place, a bad boss is merely a passing storm. Stick to your job, communicate in writing, present with facts and don’t expect emotional satisfaction for the present. No matter how tough it seems, if it is just one individual in an otherwise great system, it is always better to survive him and if possible learn what NOT to be. Stay put — after all, a hero is often someone who was afraid to run away.
What about Vivek and Manas and all the others? Their problem is that they work for a rotten guy in a putrid system. Soon, if they survive, they will BE the system. Already, Manas has been tipped over the cliff. One of the finest HR professionals I have known once had a similar situation as the HR Manager of an MNC. Her boss the HR head (a personal favourite of the CEO) was a former sales manager moved into this role to fast-track him over others. A total disaster, he managed by shouting below and beaming above. His only priority was to keep the CEO happy. The HR manager decided to wait it out, but soon it was apparent that for all its organisational branding, HR was the company’s last priority. One day, after being asked to wait hours for a critical presentation, she went looking, to find the HR head busy — helping the CEO decide where to hang paintings in the cafeteria! She resigned the next day — and salvaged her career. Because, like Peter Sellers, she knew who she was and didn’t want the company to make her think otherwise.
Employees must share a symbiotic relationship with the organisation. As long as both you and the company need each other, you’re both ok. You need to focus on performing, simultaneously acquiring new skills that keep you contemporary. That way, if push comes to shove, you will have options. On the personal front, professionals need to put their careers in perspective. If you make your work your life, your life won’t work. Always retain the ability to take professional decisions on professional parameters. Else, there will be disasters on both sides.
Dear Kesslor, never forget — the world is full of the graves of indispensable people.
Choice Power
This snapshot of subordinates’ disgust at their seniors’ behaviour illuminates the struggle between values and reality at the personal, team, organisational and cultural levels simultaneously. Individuals and organisations develop some core values (honesty, loyalty, equality, etc.) and the attempt to live by these provides meaning to human existence. They also have some basic needs (safety, success, desire, etc.) which sometimes require actions that are contradictory to the core values. The process of facing this contradiction/conflict, coping with strong emotions which arise, making choices and finally finding a healthy balance exists at all levels of human behaviour.
Once an individual experiences and works through this dilemma at her level, she influences the system and likewise, as a system resolves this dilemma at the organisational level, it affects and influences the individual.There are three other dynamics operating in the current phenomenon of the bad bosses: the impact of fear on an individual; personal power and hierarchy power; and dealing with resistance.
Though Vivek felt shock and then anger at his boss’s dishonesty and not taking responsibility in front of the CEO, what really caused him stress was the fear under these feelings. He was frightened that he would not be able to assert himself, be penalised unfairly and on the other side, and was scared about losing his job and his family’s financial security.
While Ananya also spoke of her anger in an earlier job where her seniors compromised their values to bag bigger business, what really led her to leave was the fear of losing her own integrity. Such intense fear paralyses and overwhelms a person and brings on feelings of aloneness, hopelessness and helplessness. The actual interaction ends quite soon but the emotions and thoughts continue and have debilitating effects. This is evident in Vivek’s words “the victim will be so unsure that you will take….a long time to label that as aggression”. Fear brings on anticipation of ‘worse danger’ and all thoughts revolve around this — rational thought becomes impossible till these feelings subside. One even loses sight of the fact that the thoughts about a ‘worse’ future are really in the mind and have not happened or come true yet.
How can one cope? As the group kept on talking about the same theme, sub-consciously they were validating each other’s experience and venting their negative feelings. This venting process allowed release of the feelings and increased a sense of being supported (thereby reducing the aloneness). When fear reduces, rational thought becomes possible and one can recover the truth that we always have choices. Hope awakens and solutions then feel possible, as is evident in Vivek’s closing words “I am saying Bharat Sinha will have to go…”
The second dynamic, personal and hierarchy power, is about the sense of control people feel at different levels in the organisation. Everybody has personal power — controlling aspects of one’s work space. At the same time, a ‘hierarchy power’ is also given to people at senior levels due to their role in the organisation. At moments of conflict between a subordinate and a boss, there is higher awareness of the hierarchy power versus personal power for both parties. Because, even though at the conscious level today, organisations talk about being competency-driven, having flat structures, our collective unconscious is still hierarchical where more power rests with the ‘men at the top’. While both parties are feeling threatened in the conflict (the boss about losing benefits and the subordinate about losing her ideals or job in the scenarios presented here), they cope with it differently. The boss uses hierarchy power to dominate, which obscures the subordinate’s sense of her personal power. If the latter copes with her intense feelings, remembers she always has choices in any situation and finds inner courage to make a choice, she can regain her personal power and not surrender completely to the hierarchy power by quitting the organisation or becoming cynical/apathetic.
The third dynamic, that is, dealing with resistance, is linked to the primary conflict between values, needs and emotions discussed at the beginning of this commentary. When an executive faces the reality that everybody will not respect or follow the same values as him, she has to cope with the shock and confusion which follows. One’s formal education and training does not teach how to deal with the reality of organisations where many different beliefs and value systems exist.So, people entering work life have unspoken expectations (sometimes unrecognised by their own self too) that their values will be appreciated by all, and their bosses will be embodiments of the same values. When confronted with the reality of a boss not following the same value and meeting her opposition or hostility, one is called upon to use skills of dealing with resistance. Being prepared for opposition and speaking for one’s rights or values is a life skill one learns during growing up. If a person has learnt this skill during their childhood or college years (at home, at school or in the neighbourhood), she will recover from the pain faster, employ her skills and find a successful resolution.
Thus, it would help to reflect over one’s inner reactions and regain one’s personal authority when facing a clash with a boss or a system so that one does not over-generalise that ‘all bosses are bad’ nor surrender to cynicism or passive indifference.

Business World – 16/23 Apr 2007 – Employee Burn-Out/Time For Reflection

16 Apr 2007 – Employee Burn-Out

Harit Roy sat watching the sea through his window. Maybe it was not even the sea but the subtle movement of a lone small wave asserting itself, pointlessly. In a distant way, Harit wondered why the wave was even bothering at all, for there were no other waves. The glare of the sun, the outrageous brightness of the world outside — set off his room, and his mental state, in further darkness.
In an hour, Harit had to present the new product to the operating board. Madhur Vats, the head of corporate investment banking, would be expecting results. This thought dissolved almost audibly, clearing space for a volley of other thoughts that had been there collecting mass and volume. Thoughts with two voices, one his diffident self, the other the higher entreating, trying self… I don’t feel confident of success, something will go wrong; No, I am not capable of handling this. But then why not, you have always brought success, you are seen as a star. Yes, I know. But this time, it is going to flop. With that, gushed forth a fresh wave of diffidence that shut all thinking.
Harish recalled what his uncle had said last week. “But you have always had excellent reviews, then why do you worry about failing?” Harit had said, “You are right. I do deliver eventually, but go through a lot of worries, stress caused by a lack of self-confidence (which is not seen by my colleagues since I am quite prepared when I interact with them), panic attacks, etc. So each time I have present myself, I fear the pattern repeating.”
These were not rare moments of clarity. The unique thing was that Harit suffered both, his diffidence and his clarity, consuming him completely. And here he was again, at the mouth of yet another whirlpool about to be sucked in by an all consuming feeling. He would not call it fear or anxiety — but he knew it was a force indefinable and external to him.
Helpless yet anxious to find a way to break this slowly building state, his uncle had asked, “Can you recall roughly when this feeling of lack of confidence as you label it, began? At school? At IIM?”Harit’s dad was the archetypal father of the 60s and 70s, who decided everything for the family; what to do, where to go, what to eat, etc. He smiled as he recalled how most of his actions were to ensure that Bapu did not get angry… or to please him somehow. He used to shudder taking a poor report card to him, or the loss of a geometry box or pen. “My years at IIT and IIM were terrific, I recall I was the happiest those days!” he said to his uncle. “But the lack of confidence was there in school, say, when I had to write an essay, or ahead of an exam. But in the last two years, it has been worse.”
Uncle pondered, then asked, “And this anxiety had to do with failure or a wider sense of embarrassment before a larger audience?”
“Yes, that I would be ‘exposed’ and ‘embarrassed’ when I don’t live up to what is expected of me!” he had replied.And that was it, even now before going into the board room, his fore most thought was ‘what if I fail? What if I am not in sync with what they want from me?’ Ten days ago,
Madhur Vats had called Harit’s boss and said, “Give me one of your superstars for 10 days, then you can have him back.” Harit could have refused, but he relented because he felt it was expected of him. I have always done things because that is what is expected rather than really explore what is it I would enjoy doing. I went to IIM after IIT as I thought that is best for a great career, but maybe I should have pursued a PhD in engineering, that was my dream. Each time everyone lauded his performance and called him star, superstar, genius. Yet it was that every time he set out on a project, an assignment, he felt sick in the stomach, worried if he would get it right.
Future Bank was going through a major product rationalisation exercise and Madhur’s pet product ‘Maxima’ was under the microscope. He now wanted Harit to repackage it and sell it to the Board. Maxima enabled corporate clients earn some returns on short-term unpredictable surplus funds that would otherwise have remained in their current account earning nothing (though it was a free source of money for the bank itself). This had become a hugely successful product and attracted a lot of new clients, but when Harit studied it, he was not sure the product would be viable always. Harit felt the growth had come from cannibalising existing accounts that were otherwise providing interest-free source of funds for the bank. Hence, while the product itself grew, the bank as a whole lost out on cheap source of funds.
Three days ago he had said to Vats, “Maxima has eaten into our zero cost source of funds. Many of our existing customers now know about the product and are demanding similar returns. Besides, competition is promising better returns, and soon we may be required to match those. That will lower our spreads and revenues.
Finally, the Central bank has been reiterating that providing a return on current accounts is not allowed as per policy.”In reply, Vats said, “Forget the Central Bank. We have enough legal opinions to defend us. Think of how to grow volumes without cannibalising, drive the sales force to look at new segments in the market that are known to have idle funds, which are not earning returns now and would move to us with Maxima. Talk to Treasury to see if they can invest in higher-yielding instruments and so we can provide higher returns to clients without cutting our own spreads.”
Harit was surprised by the reply and said, “Treasury has said categorically they cannot provide any other type of instrument. On the contrary, they are demanding a higher share of the revenues made from Maxima. As for sales force, they are already anxious that competition is already undercutting on pricing and unless we match, or improve, we will not be able to attract new accounts.”
Vats replied, “Harit, you have to be firm and not take this nonsense from Treasury! What are they doing other than just providing the instruments? We could have as well bought them from the market directly, we are doing all the work! Your objective is to save the product. It is my pet idea, and there is no way it can be demolished in the board meeting.”Harit was worried that the price war could sharply lower the product profitability, but he could not think of what to do to save it. Can it be positioned differently so that return alone is not the determining factor? Can he think of bundling other differentiated services to Maxima so that financial return alone is not all-important? Just then Sunil Chinoy, a colleague, called, “Morro wants to subscribe to Maxima and this is a biggie. They have huge funds in flow, for relationship reasons, I wish to offer them 7 per cent yield and keep only 2 per cent spread. I understand you have some misgivings about Maxima. But you will get huge volumes!” Harit was taken aback, he said, “But Sunil, if you start, then many others will also want it. Besides, that will also mean that we need to provide return on the existing free balances of Morro group enjoyed by us.”
But Sunil was adamant. “We will get this approved as a special case for relationship reasons; also we will get additional funds moved in from their other banks, so not all will be cannibalisation.” And when Harit tried to explain that this would hurt the future of the product itself, Sunil said, “What is your problem if Vats will sign on it? Morro is big biz… throw your weight behind it, man!”
Harit felt a deep sense of powerlessness. These were terribly short-term attitudes, but he was totally unable to express himself or hustle aggressively as others. Today he had to meet the board and ‘sell’ the product. But he knew he couldn’t. I cannot do this, they will not buy my idea.
Harit shut his eyes as if to block out a memory, but it only came back with greater force; now recalling to him his eighth grade debating team event. There was a choice of eight topics and he had chosen ‘John Adams’s respect for truth and justice compelled him to defend the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre’. But his father had thought it was irrelevant and based on established facts so that there was no scope for real debate. Instead he had asked him to select ‘State of Emergency is contradictory to the tenets of democracy’. Harish messed up four times during the debate as he could not recall the issues — yet he had been smart enough to swing the debate in his favour. But the stress that his team would lose owing to his failure came back as dreams many times later.
And now, he felt a relief as he realised that he had been right about this feeling always being there in the background, humming gently, waiting to assert itself when the time was right. What he felt today about the board meeting, he had felt many times in the past.
His first job at Future Bank was clerical, operational, procedural, yet stressful because the job also demanded one to be in the limelight doing something different and noticeable. It was apparent that progress and rating would be driven more by his networking skills — partying around, meeting outside office hours, talking about self, and being ‘extrovertish’ or doing something exceptional that gives visibility. As he never had been the partying type nor an extrovert, he was always stressed to find something ‘visible’ to do to take him ahead! Consequently, Harit felt he had nothing to show for himself. When he was in trade finance, he managed the staff that was handling the actual delivery. Harit was worried about errors and mistakes creeping in. For example, data entry into the computer system regarding contents of the request, or its processing could be incorrect, and if he authorised an erroneous entry, it would go into the system and hit them later. This worried him. The sheer possibility of such a thing happening made him restless
On the other side of his mind stood bosses, colleagues, customers who were delighted with Harit — a delight that Harit Roy did not ‘see’, just as none of them saw his anxiety. That delight caused his move into cash management. Here, he was not in operations but product management — responsible to grow the product revenues through either new features, driving sales force, identifying new market segments, or introducing new products.
This was again a job where his visibility was critical for getting promoted. So, Harit did worry about what he should do to remain in the running for future promotions. If a product did not do well for whatever reasons, he would get worried about it and blame himself when there was no need to! The whole environment was a pulsating, throbbing canvas that demanded continuous visibility. Effort alone would not count for promotions!
Through and between these anxieties, Harit moved up the ladder in a bank that thought highly of him. That he didn’t think so was not apparent to anyone, for his anxiety never showed. Thus, he moved into a job in Treasury. Considered extremely difficult, it was a job that attracted the top notch talent from B-schools. Harit himself was quite fascinated by trading, derivatives, etc. Trading had ups and downs and he remained stressed about not meeting the numbers. While explaining the dynamics and thrill of the business to his uncle, Harit said, “But then what you make one day, you could lose the next.
This aspect is taking a lot out of me. You can only last as long as you continuously make money, which is not always possible.” So every waking hour was treading on egg shells, carefully, alert, poised, quietly frantic, aware of being under a microscope, immersed completely in creating the desired numbers. Every notch up meant he had delivered. Performed. Made it. And then there was not even the awareness of a breath well taken, even as he poised himself at the foot of one number, ready to pole vault into the next 10 per cent.
The job was burning him out where he was continuously on the run, a non-stop marathon. His stress doubled, even quadrupled when markets turned very volatile. He started facing a lot of pressure since numbers were not being met, and when things started going bad, his confidence took further knocks — he began to feel terrible every day.
Now for risk management, there is a maximum loss that each trader or the whole trading desk can take on any day. So if a trader is really sure of what he wants to do, he can say, OK, this is the maximum loss where I will cut the trade and book a loss, if the market is going against the expected direction. (A trading desk has different traders who trade in different instruments, say, like different currencies or different types of trading products like swaps, etc., all reporting to a chief trader.) There were two aspects to it: one, managing the traders reporting to him and the other generating revenue. On the management side, this was his first experience of leading a team of traders where different people have different views, and it is not necessary that the boss’s view is right. The worst part was that the result of a view on the markets becomes apparent by the market action very soon. So sometimes, he had a to take a knock on credibility as traders much junior to him could be proved correct and he could be wrong about his evaluation of how a certain currency would move in the market.
One key ingredient, Harit was to realise later in hindsight, was his lack of an aggressive personality. He never sought to defend himself or repackage himself so as to recover from a situation quickly. Whereas, the more experienced head traders who too faced bad weather in trading, applied their aggression to quell such reactions and show the juniors who the boss was. When the trading desk took big losses, morale was affected and that is a bad thing for a trader, for then every subsequent decision compounds the problem. And thus, it went from one day to another. There would be interim relief when his desk would turn in a profit, but then another day one could see it wiped out; and when you are in spotlight things become even more difficult. More difficult, if one came with Harit’s anxiety. And if you lacked aggression.
Some of the traditional head traders had a reputation of having made big bucks sometime, so they wouldn’t even bother about a setback and fire back the dandy juniors. The younger aggressive MBA head traders knew how to show who the boss is (right or wrong) and say, “Let me worry about my desk. Don’t you come nosing by to watch my numbers!” “You have to love making money to have this attitude,” Harit explained to his uncle once when describing to him the laws in the trading jungle. “Nor have any emotions or feelings for one another! You have to be ruthless!” He had been witness to numerous occasions when the aggressive chief trader would advertise his success to his senior management, talk about it openly and use it to reaffirm his credibility and show his juniors that he is not the boss for nothing. A meeker one like himself would not capitalise on such instances to firmly establish his authority.
In quiet moments, Harit smiled when he watched the aggressive fellows protect their skins from being bruised by junior staff. But he did not have it in him to do likewise. Like bragging about an old success to cover up current mess — it did not undo the loss today. But others used that as an oar, or say, a pole vault, to transcend the current demolishing situation, whereas Harit got stuck, in the loss, in the agony, in the embarrassment that it openly showed up. In short, Harit could not use a lie to survive.
While he joked about this being a skill, at work life was a continuous flow of anxiety. Uniquely, Harit remained aware of when his thinking got jammed. There would be a feeling of constant — fear about how he would perform, feel incapable, angry with himself, and lose perspective. Then followed headaches, nausea and complete loss of appetite, which was worsened by the excessive and opulent lunch meetings where he felt compelled to feign interest in food, lest he cause people to ask about it. So he ate even if his body protested and ended up the worse for it. Consequently, he carried home the bad feelings and worries, which meant he was not able to spend quality time with his family. The kids somehow sensed it even from the way he shut his car door when he parked.
The trading job was sucking out a lot of his energy. Harit was continuously on the computer or on the phone and everywhere the mobile phone buzzed. One day he spoke to Megha, his wife, and expressed how bad his feelings were. Surprised but not expressing it, Megha tried to make him feel positive, but he concluded by saying, “All this is my own creation; I could ignore it, shut it out, look at the positives and feel happy; but I have almost made a habit of only looking at the negatives.”
Megha was uniquely calm. For one because she was not surprised. Having seen the kind of life he led, she had always wondered if it was not excessive. She was not sure if he enjoyed the power play, the adventure with money, the designation, the name and fame. And now this expression of no confidence, stress; this was surely a fallout of overwork, she thought. She had sensed a small drop in his happiness, and now it surprised her that his bank had no meters to gauge this! It was a very hi-stress industry, hi-stress environment… that is where the problem lay. Harit was a calm, earthy person, found his joys in his family and kids, watching a movie or running. (Harit was a trained marathon runner). Clearly, the environ was clashing with his personality. When his condition remained unchanged after a month, Megha asked, “Has your productivity dropped at work?” He replied, “No, how can I let that happen?”
“Has anyone sensed it? I dare say they have not! Yet they crack the whip on their performing monkeys. I am amazed… for all their greatness, organisations are downright ordinary… they can tell you you are a good performer if you run fast, but they cannot tell when you are losing steam! Wah! How many morons does it take to run a place like that!”
Angry and beyond reason, Megha watched over Harit for a whole month, and then suggested with calm firmness, “Take a break, leave the industry because as long as you remain in this industry, there will be a parallel track running, which will show you up as a misfit. As long as that track keeps playing, you will judge everything against that track. The break will help erase old tracks. I am surprised your organisation has not sensed your feelings!”Harit thought about it. I know the problem but am not charged enough to fight it; so I wallow in it when I feel down. “How long can I be sapped of confidence?” he agonised.
“Use cold logic even if it is not believable,” said Megha. “‘Am I lacking in knowledge? No. Am I dishonest? No. Am I low on skills? No. Am I disliked? No. Am I slow and dull? No. Can I do this job? Yes. Do I have the means to do it? Yes’ Then what is stopping me from feeling good? The oppressive debilitating crushing environment.” Harit heard her out quietly and said, “Well even though logic says otherwise, I do feel I am slow and dull, that I can’t be a success and it is like some kind of a force that is holding me back and I have to struggle against it and be pushed into doing something. There are two things, Megha: one is the courage and confidence to do something and another is a passion or will to do something. I think if I find the latter, the former will come, but I am struggling with the latter!” Megha nodded and said, “Passion will come once the will is there, passion is the result not cause in your case.”
As he recalled this chat, he asked himself, “Is will lacking or missing? If I cannot find a liking to do something though logic says that I should be doing that, I find it difficult to take actions to support that — that makes me feel guilty that I am not doing enough to get out of my problem; I guess will is missing, not lacking. Or is it? Oh God, I cannot take this anymore!”

23 Apr 2007 – Time For Reflection

Harit watched the coffee machine. It had been nine minutes since he set it up and there was no trickle of the water percolating. The percolator had been malfunctioning the whole of the past week. And he remembered the DustBuster, too, needed a change of filters. The DVD player’s clock had been randomly resetting itself; he needed to check that, too. There never seemed to be enough time for maintenance… only survival…
Harit put his head down on the kitchen table and thought. What kind of life was this? And he was not even enjoying anything he worked for. He heard his kids pad into the kitchen, laughing and giggling over something. Arjun was miming, “My Spider sense is tingling!” And Anya was shrieking with laughter. Harit wanted to be a part of that. He heard them serve themselves cereal and the shuffling sounds meant they were crawling under the dining table to sit between the chairs and eat. Now they were play-acting at hiding from aliens who were attacking earth…
Harit loved his kids to a point of distraction. Presently his wife Megha came into the kitchen speaking monotone alien talk, “Invoking file ‘Kidsearch’… Magnum 24 spotted Fruit Loops in radius of 2 feet…” More hysteric laughter followed as Megha joined them under the table. Harit felt like an alien… his mind did not have the space or energy to lighten up. What is this life?
Harit’s banking career sat on him like a dreadful pain. His job took a lot out of him, leaving little for family; He was always stressed and worried about work, always preoccupied, always on the phone or laptop. Work was a burden to be done only to earn a living and for financial independence. The most happy times for him were always those spent with family and kids. The past two years had been enormously stressful and anxiety ridden. Anxiety being paramount. So much so that everything else got blocked out of vision and hearing. Harit harboured doubts about his ability — and his capability. (See ‘Employee Burn-Out’, BW, 9 April 2007.)
A unique thought occurred to him, how wonderful it would be if he could be at home taking care of the kids, be there for them while Megha could work? Her career in advertising was soaring; it involved so much travel and each time either her parents or his flew down to be with the kids.
The thought assumed unprecedented proportion, more owing to the immense joy he felt each time he imagined not having to go back to work. The sense of relief he felt was already a huge attraction. Yes, it will be good to take a break… He would either take a sabbatical or work out of home… the whole idea of a clean break felt tremendously joyful. He felt a relief that was completely overwhelming. Funny thing was, Harit had not felt happy in a really very long time.
Over the next week, Harit discussed this with Megha. At first, she was sceptical. This high flier, could he sit home with no trading, no deal closure, no heart-racing excitement of interest rates going up? But having watched him the past three years, she agreed it was wise to take a year off. Thereafter, the next moves would be easier.
Harit spoke to his boss, who was typically startled but not surprised, and agreed that Harit would work on an assignment basis. The only people who kept a profound silence were his parents. “Will you be earning? It is not nice to live off a woman’s earnings.” But Megha told Harit to remain unperturbed.
Into the sabbatical: Harit was a picture of joy, happiness and effervescent with energy. The whole house reverberated with his laughter and joy. The kids got the best out of all this. Rarely were they lost in the PlayStation or TV. They were out in the playground playing aggressive soccer. Harit had been a star football player at Mumbai’s Don Bosco School, where he had played for the state. Today he coached the team at his kids’ school and especially was the idol of the 5th grade girls’ team. Gone was Anya’s mild stammering, thanks to the soaring confidence that she gained from ‘Anya! Your dad is too cool!’
Harit learnt to cook, played with the children whenever and whatever they wanted, helped with their school work, planned several holidays with family with no constraint of having to match holidays with Megha. He went back to playing the tabla and taught English in the local government school for free. He even worked as a substitute teacher of physics at the kids’ school.
One unusual fallout of this was a chat with the school principal. Father Dias once stopped him and said, “I always agonised over the boys who played well on the field but produced poor grades, especially in the sciences. Today most of them have crossed the 70 per cent score and are taking a healthy interest in their studies. Their parents will not believe that a sports coach can bring such a change in self-esteem!”
Harit felt a great sense of wellbeing. There were no demands in terms of deadlines and pressures and politics and dependencies on others, etc. so it was unmitigated fun.
During the initial 6-7 months, he did not even think about work; he thoroughly enjoyed the period , thus validating to himself how working was taking away all the joys of his life. It was a treat to receive the kids when they come back from school, make things for them, take them to museums, etc. It was also great fun trying out new cuisines and recipes, and going to the gym made him feel physically fit — so it was really blissful. Harit had booked to see live music shows of his most favourite bands that were performing in the city. He even made trips to Delhi to attend the AIR Sangeet Sammelan.
When he was working, he used to be so preoccupied that he was only physically present at home, but mentally always worried about something. But during this period, he was wholly present and thriving. It was lots of laughter, fun, good feelings. Whenever someone called he was happy to talk and said he was feeling great, rather than like before when he would talk as if he was carrying a heavy burden. In short, his mind space was released — he had space for what he enjoyed… a feeling that came to him as a surprise.
How amazing it is, that our core personality gets submerged under the weight of falsity! Periodically, colleagues from the office called to share in his experience. It was not uncommon in banking and in many software companies, where people took sabbaticals. In fact, just a few months before him, three others had gotten off the conveyor belt, in a manner of speaking, to go off to the hills for some quiet.
His diary notations read: “I wanted to take a clean break to feel totally free, not be controlled, not be constrained by any obligation towards anybody; least of all financial considerations!”
Periodically, as if to wake him up, some family member would call to say, “Enjoy while the going is good, for soon you must get back to work.” And then, Harit would think about getting back to work… and once again the doubts returned. As the excitement of doing something new started wearing off both for Harit and for his family, the routine threw up some rude realities that one has to come to terms with. I lacked the efficiency that a more experienced housewife would have. I would feel disappointed when the food was not appreciated, blame myself for not keeping the food ready on time or handle sudden changes of plans. I would feel touchy if Megha would be upset that the house remained messy. When I noticed how she could efficiently manage various types of housework on weekends or sometimes even after coming back from work, I was reminded of my own deficiencies — of being forgetful, thoughtless, disorganised, clumsy, etc. and how difficult it was to manage housework. This used to make me feel disheartened at times though later, I came across an observation that made me feel better — that women are far better at juggling multiple things than men!
And then there were other dampeners. While my desire was to master playing the tabla with adequate practice, it was not translating into reality. Probably due to age, I felt I was not learning as fast as say my son learnt it. I could feel the beats but could not express them digitally. My interest in cooking and trying out new things also waned.
Another thing that started bothering me was a concern expressed by my parents and in-laws about how long I wanted to be on the sabbatical and what I planned to do after that. Try as I did to ignore what others said or felt about my decision, it kept bugging me whether it was all right for me not to be working. And yet despite these negative emotions, on balance I felt a lot happier than when I was working, as I always had the time to handle these.
As is natural in a period like this, there were those still moments between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. …moments when time could be ‘seen’, and felt, as it crawled with him around the house, even if he was jogging on the treadmill or cataloguing his music… these were moments when time spoke to him, questioning him whether he would remain happy playing the role of a house husband at all times. Stepping into the uninvited role of alter ego, it spoke to him and asked, “Are you really doing a good job of helping the family, or is your mind rusting? Don’t you think, if you continue like this, you could become so miserable that you will neither be good at housekeeping nor have resurrected any chance of resuming your career?” Harit felt disturbed, but he shut out the chatter. But it also got him to think about all his women friends and relatives — those who had to give up their careers either temporarily or permanently. Those who maybe sat on the fence of hope, like he did, unable, but blamed all the same. Harit wondered if this was how they felt.

Writing his diary was the most satisfying act. At one level everyone was’ ‘enjoying’ witnessing an all-new decision that someone else had made. The operative word here is’ ‘someone else’. It was a nice window to watch and learn the outcomes or maybe validate their own self doubts over such a decision. They were at one level happy, at another relieved that I was getting a break from an enormously stressful work environ; they were not overtly anxious because we are a double income MBA-hi flyer couple. So, money was never on anyone’s mind. But once the novelty and challenge of observing a grown man stop working had been enjoyed, the extended family started making polite noises… ‘don’t you feel like getting back to work?’ ‘How long will you sit back like this?’ to ‘You must start thinking about work’. Then came more subtle ones, since I was not falling for the gross ones — ‘what do you plan to do ‘after this’? Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the ‘after this’ period. If I thought stress was over, here it was coming back in a renewed package. Yet when he looked at his kids and wife, everything was wonderful. It was only the extended family for whom all this was not socially acceptable. They felt Harit would never enjoy a decent social life.
And the mind does feed greedily on such thoughts, as mine started to, aided and abetted by self doubts over ‘what if I go to waste?’ Questioning led to self doubts and like a vicious spiral, the self doubts closed in to eat into Harit’s own confidence in being able to do well in any profession, despite all past evidence to the contrary. Any attempts to look for a purpose in life that would balance his own desire to spend quality time with his family while pursing a profession would end without any clear ideas. As days passed without a resolution to this quest, Harit started feeling restless, anxious once again about what he would do with the rest of his life. Should he just shut all these confusing thoughts and get back to the grind? But again that would not be fair on the family and the children. I have to solve the problem of balance… I cannot shut out work to be exclusively with family nor can I embrace it with all its attendant anxiety to the exclusion of family.
This was around the ninth month of his sabbatical, when thoughts about the future and his lifestyle took over aggressively. And when he started thinking about getting back to work, the confidence and anxiety issues came back. Gingerly and tentatively, he sent his CV to a host of companies and sat back and suffered. What if they don’t get back? What if they did get back? Will they buy my sabbatical? What should I tell them? If they get back with a good job, will I do it to satisfaction?
Every time he thought about going back to work, his stomach churned — often he even said he could smell his office. During moments of clarity he tried to figure whether it was the office or was it going back to work. It had become very difficult to hold on to a feeling that I did not want to go back to work, and not feel terrible about it. A sort of confusion set in; from trying to shun work, sometimes I felt I should put my confusion to rest and just join a job again, then I don’t have to worry about what to do.
I cannot recognise any great passion for a specific type of work, though something tells me that I must try to find that passion… if not I will be seen as weak. I should find a pursuit that would keep me mentally engaged while still giving me all the time for my family! Sometimes I also feel lonely, so I think it would be good to work with a team (as I used to really enjoy where we were a large team and it was fun to support each other). For nine months he had been joyful and at peace, but the recent call from his dad asking about returning to work hurtled him down many levels. Once in this confused state, Harit logged on to a chat room where he often went to ideate with the rest… and this is what happened:
Harit: Are we socially prepared to help a chap who is burning out?
RealMan: No, we are not. We are an unforgiving, stuck-in-the-mud, cast-in-stone, ritualistic bunch of idiots. Corporate India sniggers at people who ‘break’.
Harit: Are you an HR person?
RealMan: That explains my pseudonym… I need auto suggestion, if not my profession is very demeaning. We don’t get to treat people as people. But then we are all HR people at one time or the other. Because the employee is a machine who gets worn out by the negativity, the stress, the long schedules, the rigour, the balancing act.
Sancham: But really, why do we hire people? For their creativity, their joy of working, their positive attitude, their
efficiency; but these qualities get worn off. In fact, organisations should encourage employees to take a year off, reconnect with selves and come back better people.
Harit: OK, this is about a friend of mine who was in a high power seat and took a break. (Harit explained the story). Today he is a bit unsure how the market will perceive him…
RealMan: I envy your friend’s guts. It takes a real man to get up and do what he did. This chap must have grown so much in this time! I hope organisations realise this. But they are all nerds out there.
Sancham: Shut up, realman, you need to get out of that organisation where you die every day. There are good organisations out there who are investing in people — they will see the break as going for servicing and coming back. If I were running a consultancy, I would hire this guy at a senior position because he has a) displayed singular courage to take a break.
RealMan: Agree, that means he is not afraid of taking unconventional decisions.
Sancham: b) he has done something totally different from his earlier job — he has had time to rest his mental muscles and gain perspective.
RealMan: Let me add c) he has had a good rest period — that makes him a better employee. He recast his day, his hour, his minutes he sat and looked at time and made it do different things for him — and that my dear chap, is a BIGGIE! We need these sort of people now, because everyone is looking jaded and dead these days. I am on the operating board of an ad agency and I always feel I have walked into a janitor’s room full of limp, soggy, dead washcloths!
Sancham: I would totally go for this guy. People who have known the flavour of rest are people who will work carefully and they are more creative. Period! Reflection is a skill few people have, most are caught in the ‘now’. Anyone who can reflect and takes time out to do so is going to be a better manager.
RealMan: I doff my hat to this guy for doing it. I am sure his wife must have supported this fully. They both must be losing focus on the important things in life to take this decision. I have been a people shepherd for 19 years and, trust me, very few people have the courage to step off the treadmill of a career. All of us depend on our careers for self-esteem and power. This guy is ultra cool. If he is a marketing guy, or from finance, send him to me.
Harit: But won’t he be looked down upon by the market when he returns?
RealMan: On earth you have to lie a little bit, by that I mean not say the whole truth. He should not call it a sabbatical — what he has done is gotten in touch with himself — it is a corporate detox programme. He should send all sorts of bills to his boss and claim all kinds of money. This is what companies need to be paying people to do!Harit felt assured. He was, in fact, caught between getting back to work and not doing so yet. But now he experienced a warm feeling. He couldn’t say what it was, but RealMan made him feel better about his decision. Over Megha’s support, RealMan’s verdict sounded real.
Slowly but surely, Harit started realising that he was responsible for finding the solution. It is all in the mind. Why can’t I work without getting “worked up”, so that I can also be emotionally present with the family? Can I not train the mind and emotions to achieve this? Can this alone not be a defined purpose in life, whatever be the profession?
Harit sat by the window and gazed at the street. His last 6-7 years swam before him, with fluorescent highlights of the critical moments that had led him to take this sabbatical. It was justified. Taking time out to reflect is not a weakness… reflection must be a part of one’s evolution…. I took time off to stop, to pause, to be… to recompose my life around the realities of my life… with those being core. Whereas earlier the core was my bank, my career and the feelings of my bosses, while the softer realities simply garnished it. Now I have established my softer realities where they belong. What I experienced until last year was also a valuable experience… Sancham was right, no experience is negative. All experiences add to life. Never mind what anyone has to say.
The next few days were slightly different. Harit found mental activity easier. Possible. He was able to see a road ahead. Earlier it was a blur. Now, he saw some detail and that detail was about a purpose.
In two weeks’ time Harit had articulated, “I must return to a life of purposefulness, not to a life of control.” He decided he was going to extend his sabbatical by another six months. During this period, he would define purpose , and then define the kind of career and job he would work in. Only one small anxiety remained, something that RealMan had said, “Your friend will still have to explain what he did during the sabbatical”.
Harit said aloud, “I am working at changing from being a controlled individual to an individual in control.”

Business World – 05 Feb 2007 – Games Egos Play

Games Egos Play

Arjun Bhaskar was utterly confused. Last evening he had left the media planning meeting in a huff. He had been very upset over Robin Kamat’s stance on the bubblegum advertising where he had easily agreed to cancel Rs 1.5 crore worth of plans, and this after Arjun had painstakingly explained to Robin that it was ‘not a feasible idea’.
To recap the events until now, recently Coral India, an MNC, where Arjun was a media manager, had entered into an agreement with Ahora India, a family managed company, to buy off its candy business. Part of this complicated arrangement included seconding Robin Kamat, its vice-president, to Ahora as general manager (GM), and Arjun, too, to jointly enable the integration of the brands. For both men, the nemesis at Ahora, it turned out startlingly, was its CEO Kaviraj who was not just hard as nails, but acerbic too. Robin had, over time, developed the knack to handle Kaviraj and his own ego. Or so it seemed. But Arjun had found the whole situation unnecessary and beyond logic.
As far as Arjun could see, it was a buying arrangement between the two companies and Kaviraj being domineering was really out of place. Kaviraj continued to assert and act as CEO of Ahora, but his utterly overbearing attitude in the face of the sale, rankled. Kaviraj continued to call the shots and Robin was ‘allowing’ that. I really don’t care how Robin chooses to manage his career and Kaviraj, but it comes in the way of my work and the media strategy, which is finally Coral’s now! mused Arjun.
On a few occasions when he had tried to express his displeasure, Robin had calmed him and said, “Be patient, Arjun, no point rubbing him the wrong way… .” But now it seemed clear to Arjun that it was not just with Kaviraj, but he was on an uncertain plane with Robin, too.
Driving to work this morning, Arjun was not sure of his destination. If he went back to Ahora, he would face Kaviraj who would look triumphant. And for some reason, he did not want Kaviraj to get away with all this. Their interactions had no professional logic. If he went back to Coral, he would need to explain coherently to Saxena without sounding like a whiner. Saxena did need to understand what they had to endure at Ahora and recast the relationships, he felt. But he also knew it was going to be difficult to state the interactions in professional language!
The phone rang. Arjun pulled up by the side to take the call. It was a colleague calling to say that the meeting with a large supermarket was fixed for 3 p.m… and on the way back it would be a good idea to stop at Churchgate station to glance at the new danglers and POP material. Arjun was uneasy. By this time, he had missed his position in the morning traffic.
Twenty minutes later, on Marine Drive just opposite the health club, Arjun was on lane 3 and just as the lights turned in his favour, the car next to him on lane 2, beeped loudly and cut from the left to take a U-turn, thus blocking Arjun completely and pushing him into a new signal wait… Arjun was hopping mad, he yelled at the guy, called him names, but the chap had gone long ago. Two little urchin boys who were watching, smiled through their grime and said,“Saab, woh to chala gaya!” Arjun was even more annoyed. He said, “Mereko kya, dikhta nahi kya?!”
All too suddenly Arjun was furious. Everybody is controlling my life… my day has not even begun but one after another people are deciding what I should be doing and when! He was tired of being controlled. Tired of life taking its own course when he should know what to do next, like last evening’s meeting, where Robin had sprung a surprise, after all the effort Arjun had put in. It had annoyed him so much he had walked out of the meeting. Going back to Ahora was futile… Kaviraj had made sure his way won.
The background to what had happened until now: The bubblegum media estimates face off with Kaviraj started last week, when Kaviraj summoned Arjun ‘to discuss’. On a Monday morning when Arjun had so much to cope with, this was too much. Arjun had clucked in his head. He had a hundred different things to get done to start the day; he needed the morning, but Kaviraj’s summons was sacred. So, he had grabbed all the papers and reached his room.
The third quarter estimates were amounting to Rs. 4.5 crore over six weeks, starting in the third month of the second quarter. When Arjun met him, Kaviraj said, “You have barely been here and you already have a plan for me! This MNC style of knee jerk responses won’t work here. What have you understood of our markets, tell me? In four months, you have a plan for spending Rs 4 crore. And that too to be consumed in six weeks. Where is Robin?”
Arjun was taken aback. He could not understand what the issue was. Media planning and spending was old hat for him — he had been doing that all the time at Coral. So now, what was the issue? He tried explaining but Kaviraj busied himself indicating ‘the meeting is over until Robin is here’.
Arjun sought Robin. Robin pacified him. “Give him a few months. Our innings is long, and we have to accomplish all this over three years. Don’t force the pace. Come, let us meet him.” Together they had returned to Kaviraj’s cabin. “Any specific problem with these media estimates, Kavi?” asked Robin. “We need to approve them immediately since the deadline to book spots on some of the popular and busy TV channels is running out. We will not get any air time at good rates if we delay any more!” Kaviraj did not share the enthusiasm and said, “First of all, Robin, where is my approval? You cannot spend all this money together in month 1 and month 2.”
Robin was surprised; “But why not? I don’t understand. The theme advertising has been agreed at the beginning of the year and you have agreed to the overall Q3 advertising spending. So then?” Kaviraj clucked and said, “Ya, ya, Q3 spends are OK, but the first month of this campaign is the last month of Q2. The profits for Q2 are already looking bleak… And this is the third month of Q2; you will have to cut spends for the first month of this campaign by at least Rs 75 lakh–85 lakh. If not, Q2 will end on a bad note. And that is not acceptable to me.”
Robin was frustrated. He said, “We cannot do that, Kavi. This is a new film campaign, with a new message and it needs a heavily front-loaded plan for better notice ability and build-up. If we begin on a thin note, the whole campaign build-up will be low and, consequently, the campaign effectiveness will be LOW. We need to begin with a bang and thin down after three weeks.” Kaviraj waved it all away with a gesture of his hand. “I do not understand all this. All I am saying is instead of spending more in month 1, you spend it in month 2. How is that difficult? Same year after all! Anyway, you should send me the month-wise media and advertising spends for approval before actually spending it. This sort of independence on big monies is not allowed.”
Robin breathed deeply, then said, “But once we agree on an annual budget and the quarterly breakup, then you will have to allow us to spend it during the months in a fashion that best suits the marketing needs. For example, sometimes it is necessary to do press and TV together along with lots of retail activity in a short span of one month to get high visibility. Any spreading thin of such expenditure will be sub-optimal. Please try and understand how media works.”
Kaviraj flared. “If I didn’t understand media you would not be buying a successful candy business, young man. Maybe you need to understand from me how media works. Rather, how business works. Business is not mere media spending. Media is not the pivot from which business runs. Business rules media. And I rule the business. Let that be clear!” Then after a pause, he said, “You optimise using the models and intelligence of your agencies Robin. Every month you will have to send me the forecast for the next four months ad expenditure and you will commit to every month only if I approve it. We will agree to not cancel the current month since it would have been committed to the TV channels or press, but the rest is subject to change… the change of bottom line.”
Arjun who had held his peace until now, spoke, “Robin, media cannot be planned and bought like that. You know that better than I do. We have been through this before. You need to plan in advance, do annual deals to get the best rates and keep up commitments within some limits. If we keep cutting and chopping like that we cannot make firm commitments to the TV channels or press and we will not get the best rates, thus affecting our efficiency of spending.”
At this point, Kaviraj stood up in a manner of declaring the meeting over. And Robin was now completely exhausted with this body language talk. “So, what is the point Kavi?” he asked. “We cannot build brands with such short-term view. Brands are not built on shifting sands but a firm foundation.” Not looking at him, Kaviraj said, “But that is the way it is in this tough world. This is the way I want it done. I have said this before, I shall repeat: I am the CEO, I will have nothing less than unequivocal concurrence to my diktats.”
Robin stood up. His face was deeply lined with controlled hopeless embarrassment and despair. He wanted to have a few moments to speak. But Kaviraj in his feudal manner had stood up to open the door. Robin too decided that it was better to leave. Kaviraj was not receptive anymore. Arjun found this whole situation dramatic. On his left was Kaviraj walking back to his desk. On his right was the receding figure of Robin.
Arjun was frustrated… everybody was controlling him, even Robin… he felt blocked… a bit like the dot game he played with his daughter where you connect dots and mark your territory… and the smart one in the game blocks you in such a way that one slip in this maze and you virtually hand over all your property to the opponent…
Returning to his room, Arjun stared at the fish tank in the corner; it certainly was the most idiotic piece of décor anyone could think up, he felt. He was sure it was Kaviraj’s idea, the whole idea of putting people into cages… For a brief surreal moment, he felt he was in a tank and the fish were watching him. He had been a mute witness to the exchanges between Kaviraj and Robin and was alarmed. Why was Robin so passive? At Coral, they had three annual spend meetings and that was it. No pointless meanderings. And that was because marketing drove the business. How could advertising be effective if they had to have monthly approvals?
Four months in Ahora had drained him completely. The feeling of being controlled and pushed was now reaching a crescendo. This life at Ahora was not a test, it was torture. He had tried to protest but Robin had said simply, “Yes, this is how Kavi orders his life. We have to work around it.”
“You are saying this, Robin?” Arjun had asked. “What has come over you? They have defanged you completely! Look, I am trying. I am here to do a job and that is being blocked. I am perfectly sensitive to orders that make sense. But this is beyond all logic!”
Robin nodded, “That logic which you bank on belongs to planet Coral. In planet Ahora you operate on a different dimension. You need to drop some of the Coral comforts and allow yourself to learn another way of achieving the same success. I am not suggesting you shift your goal post. It remains the same, on the same spot. Only you are playing with a different team. Your defence, your mid-fielders are all different people with different strengths. Find what those are. You need them.”
Arjun was surprised; he said, “But the game rules don’t change Robin!”
“No, they don’t, I agree,” said Robin, “but the players are using a different strategy, you have to play with that. Your strategy will clash, be out of tune and what you think you can achieve cannot be achieved because there is no harmony in thought. So, reformat your process, copy their strategy and work with those variables.”
Arjun stuck his ground, “I cannot do this, not when it does not make sense. And talking your language, even if I reformat and adapt, face it, the media is the same. The TV channels, the publications, are the same people. I have dealt with them wearing the Coral hat. How am I to talk differently to them now? They know what I know and understand — should I now tell them I am denying some of that knowledge of how things work? I will be inconsistent!” Robin was quick to reply, “But then so is the profit line, no? That is where we have to recast our thinking. You are assuming Coral’s profitability and constraints. Ahora’s is different.”
Arjun had kept his calm. He needed to so that Robin would make the right decision at the final review meeting two days later. So he said, “I understand profits and costs Robin, and I know what I am doing. All I ask for now is simple — at next week’s review meeting be firm that we cannot waver and vacillate on media. I have a lot at stake and have gone through agony to get those ad spots.” And Robin had agreed, saying, “I assure you, I will do my best for everyone.”
A week later, that is, yesterday, that ‘best’ had been handing back the Rs 1.5 crore budget and cancelling the media plans. Today, Arjun recalled all this with an increasing sense of hopelessness. Both meetings had shown him that he had not a chance to win. He was utterly confused. Sitting in his car he battled his mind: either go back to Coral and tell Saxena or go to Ahora and take it up with Robin. But he recalled Robin’s passivity and Kaviraj’s ego wars and decided it was a waste of his time. “Enough… I am going back to Coral!” he thought and did just that.
Sitting with Abhay Saxena at Coral’s office, Arjun said, “I don’t think my job is about how to handle Kaviraj. The problem we have concerns two very senior and mature people, not two 20-year olds in a BPO! If Kaviraj wants to behave like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum, the solution may not be to humour him or understand his psychology but ignore him. Let him know where he gets off! And Robin should go about his restructuring plans/ recommendations without Kaviraj. Coral’s job is to focus on the integration process, not to manage conflict and egos. And what learning? What do you all have in mind? I am not learning anything, not strategy, not management… all I am doing is being the punching bag for a man with the most complex mind!”
Saxena sighed. As it happened, Arjun was his blue-eyed boy, precocious but brilliant. He said, “Arjun, strategy, management and all that you learnt at B-school. These are the practicals. You don’t become an efficient manager without either. Who told you that you were sent there to learn strategy? Oh, no! The most critical part of strategy is managing resistance, destruction, attack. Finding a solution is easy; they teach you that at B-school. But it is during implementation that these little emotional goblins jump up! That is what you are learning at Ahora… Arjun, as you grow in the hierarchy, the soft issues matter more. What separates success from failure is these soft issues. The rest of the hard stuff: strategy, structure, systems, can come from two intense readings of Kotler, Drucker etc. Go back to Ahora. Don’t react.”
A little confused, Arjun went back. Sitting with Robin in his room he said, “I am not designed for this, Robin. I cannot be a ‘yes man’. That is not how I build my career.” Robin was not surprised. He said, “You are right. But you are blocking your career by saying ‘no’ too early in the relationship. And you think this does not happen at Coral? There too we have Kavis who sustain on ‘yes’. Maybe at your level you have not encountered them intensely. Here, you are in a senior job that brings with it such encounters. The higher you rise the more the anxiety for approval and being accepted, so a greater need for ‘yes’. The complexities continue except they become more sophisticated; which actually makes it worse because you have to introspect a lot about people’s intentions.
“And yes, by going back to Coral, you are ensuring a return to comfort for yourself and, strangely, a life away from those people who are not saying ‘yes’ to you. You are being paid to deliver results for the business, not run away. ”
Arjun fought back, “I have to have some comfort level to deliver, Robin! This is not what I expected!”
“Sure!” said Robin, “Sometimes the expected and the real are at variance. That is expected too. When you came here, you knew the planet was going to be different, the rules, goal posts, the system and reporting lines. Then, why are you assuming the path to success would be the same as on planet Coral? You are stuck with a given definition of success. Everything that is contrary or contradictory to that path seems like resistance, attack and punishment to you. Because you are seeing it thus, you are unable to step out of the Coral box. So, you experience control and defeat.
“You forget that you are at the foot of a completely different staircase. The steps here are different, Arjun, understand what I am saying. The process of climbing is the same, only you need to hark back to the basics that you learnt at B-school, which is examine the path, mark the potholes, and strategise bypassing them and overcoming the bumps and roadblocks.
At Coral, too, these roadblocks are there, except they have been mapped and colour coded; but don’t be annoyed, they have to be overcome. There is no way out. You don’t have to learn how. That you already know. You just have to apply same knowledge to different variables. Stay with the purpose. Define it clearly. Then flow.”
Arjun knew all this was talk. It could not be walked. There was too much ‘sir’ and ‘ji’ happening here and the big bosses’ views always prevailed. Yes, it was a valid management style for Ahora, but individuals like Arjun could not flourish. “What do I do then? Watch him destroy me?” asked Arjun.
“Not at all,” said Robin. “Kaviraj’s ego just can’t be challenged, it thrives on yes men, on approval. You manage that with restraint and introspection; restraining your own ego to an extent. And teaching his yes men to say ‘no’. Corporate life teaches us to become a bit emotionless, ego-less and strong!”
“Nonsense!” said Arjun, “We are taught to curb egos not because it is nice to do so, but because it is safe!” Robin smiled, “Then stop playing safe, Arjun. Start experiencing. My good friend would have said, ‘Enjoy every experience. You never know if they will come again.’ And let me add, Kavi is playing this round to cause a little strife between us. A man like him enjoys these little crow fights. He derives some power from them. Don’t feed him.”
Arjun never felt more lost. As far as he saw these were all games. But Saxena was playing it too, worse, he wanted Arjun to play along as well. Was Robin right? What Arjun called ‘games’, Robin called ‘management’. Was this management? So was he to eat his pride and give in to mindless ploys? Why were organisations so high on egos? Yet, Robin himself had said that organisations cause the sublimation of the ego, but this did not look like that at all! How did Robin manage to be so calm? Or, was it calm or the lull before the storm? Was he playing safe even if he denied just that? How would he ever know? Who was right?
Robin had said that corporate life teaches us to curb the ego and become stronger… yet none of this made sense. Nothing did… Why can’t we be simple folks?

Analysis 1: Achal Bhagat

Beyond Yourself

Last time when I was trying to understand the situation at the new Coral haunt I had used many lenses to view the situation: the lens of change gone wrong, the lens of differing perceptions of time, the lens of clash of cultures and difference in the way people think. I had tried to see the situation from each person’s standpoint without being judgemental in my thought. I will try to continue to remain neutral in this conflict and understand it further, though this time around I will take the organisational objective as a focal point. The question that needs to be explored is different and that is, “Who is resisting what and why?”
The objective of a decision-making process in an organisation is to arrive at the best method forward. When the players stay with this objective, it is quite possible to resolve the most difficult of problems. However, if the personal objectives of the players in the decision- making process take precedence over the organisational objective, then each player uses strategies to resist the other. All the players then become resistors to change.
The reason they are able to continue to resist so vehemently is because each person continues to see himself or herself as the champion of the change and paint the other person as the resistor to change. The objective is, then, to sustain the conflict because it gives each person a special identity in his or her mind, the identity that has the romance of valour, the smell of victory and the strength of personal validation. So, from where I stand, everyone at Ahora is lost in strengthening their personal identities and they have lost sight of the organisational objective. All players, Robin, Kavi, Arjun and associates are resisting change, but in their minds they are the champions of change.
How do each of these players get the energy to renew his battle every morning? What do they say to themselves? What is the image of work that they create for themselves? What is it that will be lost if they do not fight? It is answers to these questions that will help us understand their identities better.
Kavi, you see yourself as the protector of values and culture of an organisation that has been successful. You protect in your mind not only the past but also what is the essence for future. You accepted the association with Coral thinking that they were interested in the secrets of success of Ahora. However, you believe that they do not understand the secret of success and will destroy Ahora in their restlessness to get ahead of the field. In your view, you are the protector. You protect by slowing down. You slow down by being inflexible and not change.
Robin, you see yourself as the strategist. A strategist who can overcome everything. You want to feel the glow of the sun soon when you can say to yourself, “It worked. It had to. I knew it.” Your image of yourself is of the person who can unravel everything. Your strategy right now is to help Kavi tie himself in as many knots as possible. Once he loses his sheen you will come in and say, “I told you so… now let us do it my way… the Coral way.” You will win. The win will mean going back to what you knew and not what you have learned about Ahora from Ahora. So, your strategy is also to be inflexible and not change.
Arjun, you are the strapped up warrior. You are tall and rippling, proud of the weapons that you have. You want to immediately try all the techniques of buying media and pushing the brand. You have the skill and want to display it, the restless Abhimanyu who does not mind walking into a chakravyuh. With a slash here and a cut there you see victory. You want to be victorious but not understand the battle. The battle has to be played according to the rules you have learned, and that may happen in board games but not boardroom games. You too then resist change in your need for victory.
So, what could all of the players do differently? In my view, the best way to manage the conflict around change is questioning oneself. All players in a change process must sit down and ask themselves two questions. One, what is the similarity between the others, who I am seemingly in conflict with, and myself? The similarity between people is the foundation of success. It is the foundation of a non-threatening discourse.
Robin, Kavi and Arjun, all of you think similarly in that you are passionate about what you do and all of you want Ahora brands to succeed. Perhaps all of you also do not want the workforce at Ahora to be impacted negatively by the present conflict.
Let us start again with these similarities and ask the second question. How will my different way of thinking impact others in the process and what benefit will it bring to the objective that we started with? Here, we define the objective as the primary objective, that is the objective of the association between Coral and Ahora, and not the objective of making sure that ad spend budget is not slashed. So, what value does my different way of thinking bring to the completion of the objective? If the difference in thinking helps the organisation reach its objectives then let me emphasise it and not relent. But if it only helps me validate that I am brilliant then let me stop right now and accept that I need to change.
If images and metaphors in boardrooms stop being those of a battle and change to those of building a road, we may have less crises of personal identity and derive more strength from each other. Take care!

Analysis 2: Matangi Gowrishankar

Total Manager

My heart goes out to Arjun and Robin. What a struggle they face emotionally and physically. It is a struggle that they face alone, for they do not seem to be getting much support from either the folks at Ahora or Coral. Every time they reach out to the leaders, they are told to buck up, grin and bear it — and words to that effect. Is it because these leaders do not want to address the underlying issues, or do they think that people who work in their organisations are robots without feelings? I find that leaders are divided on the matter. Some believe that if you want to succeed in the corporate world, there is no place for emotions, ‘softy/touchy’ issues and, above all, it is a sign of weakness to be stressed by these issues. But with my numerous years of experience in watching and managing human resources, I can say with conviction: strategy and all that can be taught by B-schools, but in the net analysis, what tips the scales towards success or failure as a manager is one’s ability to both cope with and manage emotions in the organisational process.
Somewhere at the heart of this situation is a denial of the basic respect and dignity of the individual. It seems to be guided by a belief that people who want to be successful do not have the need to feel personally valued and work in a safe environment. An organisation that allows for an unsafe work environment can never make the transition to a world-class successful organisation, because sooner or later the best will leave, not as ambassadors but as disillusioned employees. I believe that people are a package deal; they bring all facets of their personalities to their roles and have a serious impact on the success or failure of the organisation. I don’t believe that managers ‘learn’ to be level V leaders; there is a definite personal inclination that makes them so. Equally, a theory X manager operates from a sense of deep insecurity either because he/she is being managed that way or there is a deep sense of insecurity that drives them.
So, the struggle that Robin and Arjun face are real and must be owned not only by them but by the leadership team of both Ahora and Coral. It is painfully obvious from the narration that Coral and Ahora have not even begun to consider a formal process of integration. It is not even clear as to what the conditions of the takeover are and, of course, there is even less clarity around Robin and Arjun’s roles in Ahora
The top leaders at both organisations seem to have left it to Robin and Arjun to figure it all out, which is grossly unfair. Organisations must have the crucial conversations around the ways of working and set the context for individuals to make a success of the business imperative early on. In fact, these conversations need to be an integral part of the business deal.
World class companies rightly call this a process of cultural integration because it is in fact a meeting of the hearts and minds of people that will ultimately make a successful business venture. Resistance will exist but a well-thought-out process of understanding processes around delegation of authority, decision making and communication will go a long way in helping the cause of people in both organisations.
On the face of it, Robin seems to be working things out for himself and trying to motivate himself with his vision of getting a new experience. But for how long? He seems to be withdrawing and making compromises that are affecting Arjun and others around him. If this pressure continues, Robin will either become a part of the problem or will leave. Either way, the organisation will lose a highly valuable resource whose falling from grace or departure will ring the death knell for other aspiring leaders. The buzz would be “If that could happen to them, it could happen to me!” Robin will be another one of those who will prove that people do not leave organisations, they leave managers — managers who have scant respect for the dignity of a human being making them feel less than they are.
Arjun seems to be in an even more precarious situation. The stress of being unsuccessful at work is taking its toll on his whole persona — into road rage and argumentative behaviour. No system or organisation has the right to break the spirit of an individual. Arjun is already thinking: “Is this worth it?”. Soon, he will make choices. If he stays, he may end up becoming sub-optimal with a feeling of resignation. If he leaves, then the organisation has once again lost a highly valuable resource.
One organisation I was a part of made it mandatory for all leaders to watch Love And Profit. It was a film on organisations that focused on capturing the hearts and minds of their people; the profits came automatically. I would urge the leaders at Ahora and Coral to watch it, they may learn something.
I appreciate that leaders at all levels today have an unenviable task of managing the ever-rising bar of performance. But the reality is that they are not going to reach it by themselves. They need the last man and woman in the organisation to work assiduously in a safe environment where they are valued for who they are as much as what they bring to the table. Leaders have to understand what makes people tick and they HAVE to have organisation support systems that create an environment that fosters success. Forget the programming that business is as tough as nails. They have to learn and accept that it is ‘the entire person’ that counts.

Business World – 05 Dec 2005 – A Man Called Machaan

A Man Called Machaan

Manjunath Shanmugham (27), an IIM-Lucknow alumnus and employee of Indian Oil Corporation, was killed in Lakhimpur Kehri on 19 November, allegedly over his drive to prevent adulteration of petrol. The news sent shock waves across the country. This case looks at the issues the incident has raised across different walks of life

Kar chale ham fida jan-o-tan saathiyo Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon…”
–Kaifi Azmi

Utsav Virkar stood in the men’s room of his office, choking on his tears. If 3.4, the band of Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow (IIM-L), had sung this, only Machaan could have done the honours, Utsav thought. “Dey, Machha! Big job you have left for us, da!” he sobbed. “We don’t have your grit, da!” Machaan, Manju, Machha… his dear batchmate had been silenced forever by a mindless system, but he had passed on the baton to his contemporaries.
Returning to his desk, Utsav found life going on smoothly. Rohan here was calling distributors, using his usual swear words; Sumant was telling admin in his flat tones that yet again there was no paper in the printer. Anahita was telling the pantry: “Baba re, chai bhejo…” Nothing had changed; the need for paper and tea and sales continued.

“Utsav, are you alright?” asked Anahita. His voice cracked as he said: “I don’t know, but it seems a batchmate of mine, Manjunath, was killed in UP.” And Utsav broke down again.
Rohan, a few feet away, continued to type his sales report. Eyes glued to his monitor, he asked: “How was he killed?” Someone said, “This is life,” and added more sugar to his tea.
Utsav left the room. Alone in the lawn, he recalled Machaan. It seemed like yesterday. Utsav was driving to Bangalore. RAMpack had called him on his mobile: “Hey Mirchi, Machaan is in the neighbourhood, man! Detour maar and come to my guest house.” There, they thumped him on the back, hugged him, pushed him around – all excited to see an old pal again. This was Manjunath Shanmugham, abbreviated over time to Machaan by the Tamilian lobby at IIM-L and then naturally to ‘Deyy Maccha!’

The usual questioning followed: where are you, which company, are you enjoying? Machaan had said in his characteristic jovial way: “UP mein teil bech raha hoon!” Utsav had cackled: “Arre Madrasi, tu aur UP mein?” Machaan laughed good-naturedly: “Perfect challenge for a South Indian, what?”

But he was happy. He enjoyed his stint, his organisation, the work. Everything he talked about was in superlatives. But that was Machaan. Utsav had said: “Yaar Machaan, anybody else in your place would have cribbed, oil company and sales! And B-schoolers are renowned for cribbing about even the best job. And you? You are rare, da!”

Machaan was rare. Utsav recalled those first few months at IIM-L. For many, it was the first time away from home. For all of them, it was a big thing that they were in IIM. Managing parental expectations and their own was a tight-rope walk. So they either studied too much or too little and at the wrong times, each one saying he had ‘cracked it’. But none really came to grips with the monster called IIM exams.

Then came the day before the first semester exams. They were all in the mess eating a late lunch. Stressed out, many had been up all night; almost all of them were unwashed, unbathed. Stress gave way to singing and before long they were singing in soprano, out of tune and hysterically. The mess staff brought in old ghee tins for the boys to use as drums. Machaan had led them in the singing – vibrant, racy and enthusiastic.

Four hours later when they left the mess, almost all of them had a sore throat, but gone was the stress, the anxiety, the nervousness. This became a pattern, semester after semester: Machaan led the singing session (and what a singer!) at the mess, ghee tins and all, ‘for junta to de-stress’.
That was Machaan, who was known for the 3.4 band and his cherished personal values. The band got its name from an inane fact: IIM-L was 3.4 km away from the main Lucknow-Sitapur Highway. Ironically, this was the same township where Manjunath would lose his life. Utsav felt his eyes sting with fresh hot tears. The joy and abandon with which they sang… Those were the days – young, innocent, trusting and happy to have chosen a hard but decent life. How innocent they had been. How trusting and determined. After the teen years spent in rebellion and exploration, getting rapped on the knuckles by teachers and parents, admonished for being wayward and irresponsible – why some were even taken to swamis and gurus for counsel. But all that passed as they grew out of rebellion to a life of commitment, trusting….
The call for Namaaz from the nearby masjid wafted through the air. Between yesterday’s prayer and today’s, Machaan had gone…. Nothing had changed – India, with its billion-plus population, took deaths in its stride.

Then the emails started pouring in. Did you hear? How terrible! What a guy! What is our country coming to? Some blamed oil companies, some blamed all companies, some blamed the system, some blamed the law, some blamed the leadership, some blamed the media. They all blamed someone or the other. Utsav read them all. He did not reply to any. Mercifully, his sister called. Could he sit the night in hospital to watch over grandpa? She could not; her son had taken ill. Utsav was relieved. An evening spent in the suffocating assumed normalcy of life would have been unbearable.

Grandpa was in fact a relief. Through myopic eyes, he looked at Utsav who sat by his side holding the near transparent hand, watching the veins throb. Grandpa smiled his toothless smile and said: “Bol re bala. What’s on your mind?”

Utsav said: “Aajoba, many people die. Many good people die. I understand that. But why are some good people killed?” Grandpa shut his eyes briefly and said: “Parithranaya sadhunaam, vinashaaya cha dushkritaam, dharma sansthapanaarthaya, sambhavami yuge yuge! Thus spoke the Lord, bala. When dharma is displaced and the Lord cannot bear it, He takes birth to put dharma in place. This is kaliyug – an era of depravity and adharma. So much is man dulled by material gain that he won’t recognise God even if He stood before him. Maybe, He takes lives away to stoke mankind to wake up to dharma sansthapana… Who put Jesus on the cross? Did Jesus die in vain? Whether we wake up to that call or sit back and count our dollars is to be seen.”

The next day, one newspaper announced the incident on its front page. Lead media was still pondering. But reactions fired…. Far away in Chennai, Raja, a young school teacher waved the newspaper in front of his Principal who was examining a poster that said: ‘In 2020, India will be the centre of world attention.’

“And who will be running India in 2020, Sir?” asked Raja. “The students we have here will be running the country! Are we equipping them for that? Read what we are doing to dedication… what message is this crime sending to them? Will our students be able to support the economy? I am not sure, sir, I am not… It’s their world that is being messed up! Is 2+2 enough? Is history and geography and physics enough?”

The principal said: “Raja, we also learnt just all that, didn’t we? Is our country any the worse today?” Raja clucked: “You miss the point, Sir! Then was then; today is different. Today, we have a valueless society. Today, people are taking false pride over an India they imagine! Let me tell you, sir. The India that we take pride in today is not a function of today or yesterday’s leadership. It’s the hard work of the 1960s and ’70s! A seed does not grow like that,” said Raja and clicked his fingers to emphasise. “It was sown many years ago! What seed are we sowing today? ‘2020 India will be great!’ How can they say that when all we have to give our children today is the rot we see on TV and crime like this! Progress does not happen by forecasting techniques, Sir! The mind has to evolve too, and such a mind cannot evolve through higher incomes. We need to teach them about how to set a standard in life.”

The principal was surprised: “But Raja, what has that got to do with running businesses?”
“That’s what they need for running businesses, Sir. A values standard. Businesses are about people, and people are only about attitudes and values. Nothing else! Take both away and what is left? Only a body! We need to build inner wealth in our students. They can tell a Honda City from an Accord. But can they tell right from wrong? And one student today was telling me, ‘I want to become the richest man in the world…’ Shouldn’t we teach them more about their real wealth?”

Elsewhere in Kolkata, Shibani Basu shuddered. Calling her son, she said: “Partho, you must reject that job offer in Chandigarh. Look for something here. Kolkata is safe; all our people… and no one understands us better than our own…. We don’t want money, we want safety!”
That evening, Sujoy Basu, an HR man, told Partho: “Life isn’t what it used to be, son. What to do?! I would like to fit you with wings, and let you soar like my father did to me. But times have changed…. This country has become like that.” Then, looking out the window, he said wistfully: “There was a time when we sent our young management trainees to rural towns as part of their training. All we told them was ‘Don’t drink tap water, don’t eat roadside food.’ Today, even keeping them in the city seems dreadful. What caveats do I give them?”

Meanwhile, in a B-school in Karnataka, Prof. Dhiren Vyas stood before his class of first-year students. He was teaching ‘Business Ethics and Society’, when he was interrupted. “What ethics, ‘prof’?” asked one student. “What do ethics do for one? If I must die, I’d rather join the army and die respectfully!” Prof. Vyas replied: “None of today’s wars is for ideals or principles or ethics. Ethical wars are being fought in the open, in the marketplace; we are the consumers of ethics. I want you to be ethical towards me just as you want me to be ethical towards you. You don’t need to be in the army. Life is the biggest battlefield; the world of business and commerce is the only way for intellectuals to put their ideals to test. Ideals have to be lived.”

Back in his room, Prof. Vyas’s colleague said: “How are we to know what to do in situations like this? We are teachers; we deal with texts and students. We don’t encounter these issues in our world.” Vyas replied: “We don’t need words. We need conviction and determination to keep our students on the path of right.”

Further north, in Delhi, four ex-chairmen of large companies sat in the coffee room of the CII and shook their heads. Said one: “I had told them, ‘Five years after liberalisation, take stock of the pulse of the people….’ But for 15 years, all that has happened is a reckless pursuit of growth. Arre, economy ko liberate kiya, lekin people are still in mental bondage! We have changed the government four times in this period. Where is literacy? There has to be a steady pace. Man’s mind has to develop before his material index does. Otherwise, he will not know how to use all the increase in income. Just see this… this boy is as young as my grandson! This is shameful.” The other chairman said: “Today, some TV guys were at my house. Wanted to know why we are giving this so much importance. Idiot.

“I told him, ‘Yes, this loss is important for the country if you consider the numbers. Every year, over 3 lakh students appear for the CAT. Twelve hundred are selected. Twenty five per cent leave the country. So it’s more than just a life lost – it’s a bright, honest person, with preserved albeit untamed integrity who knew the risks involved and had the courage to stay on the front. Or else, he too could have asked like you, Why are you giving adulteration so much importance? isn’t it? As an institution builder, I am saying this country has very, very few like Manjunath. So when one of them is lost, it is important.'”

In Mumbai, Mridula, a journalist, looked up at her colleague and said: “This morning, my mother was telling my brother, ‘Please don’t get into any kind of arguments over anything with anybody. Koi Satyavaan nahin ban-na hai…!’ You know what these boys and girls will take back from this incident? When on the job, quit your principles and beware! This is something they don’t need, Ankush…” He said: “Why are we only grieving for this boy? Because he is an IIM graduate? What about the many poor people who are killed by the mafia?”
“Spoken like a true, well-fed, protected, intellectual bourgeoisie!” said Mridula. “Did you do anything about the poor who were killed by the mafia? No, because they were not your kind. So now, here is someone of your kind who was killed! Now Ankush, now can we do something?! This is our problem, Ankush. We are a country of thinkers, not doers. We know how to audit, but we don’t know how to account! There is nothing wrong about the death of ‘one of us’ getting more publicity. In our newspaper, a death of an American soldier in Iraq gets the same coverage as five Indian jawans in Kashmir and 50 Iraqi civilians. Sometimes, these incidents do help create awareness, which would otherwise never have happened. Satyendra Dubey’s death did more to fight corruption in the National Highway project than any amount of anti-corruption drives.

“We are not grieving only for this boy, although right now we are grieving for him. Those who are grieving are firstly shocked. Because until now, it happened to others – people they didn’t know. Now it has happened to ‘us’, to straight people we know… see? That’s when it comes as a shock. It shocks when crime is closer to your home and not far away somewhere in the wilderness, happening to people whose values we know nothing about. Then, they are grieving because they ‘know’ this guy, have seen him, touched him, walked with him, seen him as a good awesome soul… and at their age, these 25-year-olds are saying, ‘Didn’t he stand for all the good teachings of life? He was picture perfect! How can you do this to him?’
“Their shock forces them to ask ‘Can I continue to believe all that I learnt till now? Has the time come for me to revise my learnings? Is it good to be good, after all?’ That is the nature of their shock, Ankush. All parents tell their kids, ‘Achche se padho, naukri karo, khush raho’ – prescriptions for leading a clean straightforward life. Because education was meant to prevent you from taking to crime, but it doesn’t hesitate while offering you as a victim of crime!”
Mridula called an MBA student for his reaction. He said: “We students believe that this is a huge community of the well bred and the educated. We feel that big corporates are backing us, that they are with us and that we are safe to pursue our honest intentions. All these big people investing big money in big projects look so credible and clean and nice… like our fathers. The whole business community appears so dependable. But honestly, when I read this sort of news, I am scared. You know what one chap told me? Is life worth just a few minutes of mention on NDTV and some loving notes on Yahoo! chat groups? Why take ‘panga’ to prove dedication at the cost of one’s life? We are human, Mridula, face it. What I am saying is a human derivation of the situation and the inference at this time. I am sure that’s exactly what’s on everyone’s mind right now. Then, we blame IIT-IIM grads for going abroad.”

Elsewhere in an MNC, managers were discussing the ‘news’ too. Being in denial was their only armour. Some believed this would never happen to an MNC; they too had found a way to establish distance between ‘their kind’ and ‘our kind’ of people. As long as we are different, we are safe, went the warped logic. Consultants blamed the profiteering in manufacturing companies and lack of a quality system. Consulting was safer, they felt; they didn’t have to deal with third parties.

Back in the hospital on Thursday, Utsav felt safe with his grandpa. So was it about safety then? he wondered. No, it’s about faith. It’s also about being able to work and live among people who work and live like us. But he felt alone. Most people around him had bounced back to chasing sales, targets and planning where to eat lunch. He recalled some emails he had received. Many had passed off the incident as a ‘normal thing’.

Friday morning, Utsav ran into his HR head, Kapil. Drawing him into his room, Kapil said: “I am sorry, Utsav… really, really sorry. Time will heal all this.” Utsav looked at him sadly and said: “That’s what I am worried about. Time will heal all this, and we would have forgotten Machaan’s fight. Trouble is, time does not heal attitudes! Will time change our callousness, our insensitivity, our greed for power and money? This is what amazes me. Why are we all in denial? Why do we want all this to be ‘over’ soon? Like a bad dream or a wound that has left an ugly scar? Why do we want to return to comfort zone again? Everyone I meet shrugs it off as ‘yeh sab life mein hota hai…’ Don’t we have any other way to think about this? Kapil, we have become so desensitised to the media reports of crime, attacks, wars, earthquakes and tsunamis that the related human emotion of pain is something we can only intellectualise and find solutions for immediately. But we cannot feel it.

“Here is a guy who is saying he has just lost everything he ever possessed in the tsunami. And we have a solution: we give him a cheque for Rs 1,001. What he wants is an arm around his shoulder, maybe a hug, maybe he wants you to feel his pain? Sometimes, people just want to tell you how bad their pain is.

“Read these reports, Kapil. Each one is saying: book the culprits, punish them, etc. This is not the solution! That’s my point. Relate to the situation, relate to the pain… feel the pain of the aggressor too! Yes, the pain of ignorance! Do we know what causes them to be deviant? So the law will book them… then what? This is like my nephew. When he sees a cockroach, he will jump onto the table and shout, ‘Usko maro, kaka!’ But where did the roach come from? Isn’t that the point we have to address? What has caused our people to become valueless?
I remember a verse our grammar teacher would give us, which I then thought was weird: ‘When brother raises hand to slay brother, who has thought for the sorrowing mother?’ Even that culprit is our own kind, Kapil. In each of us lurks a killer. The difference is simple: one has killed, one hasn’t yet…

“I know, a lot of people are rationalising, ‘MBA tha. Is liye shor macha rahe ho!’ Absolutely! Because the only people today who can, if they choose to change the fabric and tenor of our country, are the educated. But they haven’t chosen to yet. But this could well be a wake-up call. Finally, each of us is responsible for all this. We are all busy embellishing our lives. We have extracted a few ‘values’ from here and there, and we watch over them like vultures. It’s okay by us to live in a corrupt, unjust society but we cannot tolerate an Id procession in front of our temples. We ‘need’ a few ‘values’ to hang our egos on, and never mind what those values are. Because we have no time; our targets and toplines have to be delivered. Yes, we have become insensitive, uncaring and overwhelmed by our economic brilliance. We are the real criminals, we who pass this off as yet another incident. Why blame the law, the government, the system… we have empowered them, no? We allowed voting age to be lowered to 18, no? Did we ponder? No. We are an ambitious people and we have time only for ‘important’ matters… we are the tribe who read a financial newspaper cover to cover and we know about Jim Watts’ corner drugstore; we know who are the top seven richest men in the world and the movements of the indices on the BSE and NSE…

“Machaan’s cause scares us because none of us can do what he did. Worse, we will not. I know I cannot. That is why we have coined very nice phrases like ‘But life must go on’, ‘Time is the best healer’…. That’s the only way we can drop this incident and forget it before it consumes us!”

Analysis 1: Anchal Bhagat

Long live Manju!

Dear Utsav,
Manju has left us. Torn away from us in a manner most foul. How do we mourn our young? Do we let them pass away without reflection or do we begin a revolution? Can Manju’s death be a revolution for us? For if it cannot, Manju died in vain. Will it be a revolution for us? Maybe not. Maybe not for most of us. Some of us will start our own little unheard battles and some of us may, like Manju, make a dent on people’s consciousness. But most of us will shrug and live our lives.
Can one live in a vacuum where a young man with aspirations is shot to protect some partisan interests by two other young men, and where one does not even stop for a moment? How can a nation, which telecasts the lynching of a young man in an election rally, live? Where women are raped, so that their men can be controlled? Where communities get burnt alive, so that political ambitions can be fulfilled? Where life does not matter?
Are we a nation or a cauldron? How many more lives do we need to sacrifice to become free? How can we celebrate any success when we are witness to murders of our own daughters and sons? Do we cry enough? Do we remember enough? Unfortunately, no!
We have grown not to question. We have grown to accept exploitation. We have grown to see violence as the obvious. We have learned to co-exist in this world which we do not see as our reality. We see our reality within the four walls of our home or our organisation and we do not see beyond our goals.
Of course, this is not new. Some people suffer, so that others can live. Christ did, Gandhi did, Mandela did. Mankind has survived when ordinary people like Manju and Rosa Parks stand up to the tyranny of the few in society in which they live. There is always a need to watch, protect and fight for one’s freedom and rights. But I fear that Manju and many like him are forgotten.
There is a conspiracy and all of us are part of it. If we let the pain of Manju touch us, then we cannot sleep quietly. We cannot let the reality of India be our reality, and so it will have to change. The reason Manju died is not because someone killed him; the reason he died was because those who killed him thought it was possible and reasonable to do so.
They have learnt this over the years. They have learnt this because Manju is an isolated phenomenon and others like him – all of us – do not speak up. Are we not too comfortable with our own goals without being affected by all that happens around us?
So where do we start and who must start it? How do we address this vacuum of ethics amidst us? How do we address the lack of hope and the cynicism that the young in India face everyday?
The beginning of a revolution is with a dream. If we are to be a nation that treats its people with dignity, each one of us has to cherish a dream of such a nation. The revolution doesn’t run only on dreams; it runs through combat.
Each one of us has to combat what is within us and around us. We have to question ourselves and those around us. We have to question each action and ask ourselves: “Are we contributing to our dream or are we contributing to the vacuum that leads to murder?”
A revolution is successful if it questions and demolishes what exists. If we really believe that we have a right to be a sovereign nation, then we need to ensure that Manju does not die in vain. To ensure this revolution, we have to question our own methods. We have to question our opportunities, and we have to question our success.
If in our success, we find that we have unwittingly been supported by processes that undermine the dignity and rights of others, we need to walk away from that success and try again. Each decision that undermines our ethical stance makes us quieter and compromised when we question others. It is this silence that kills Manju, not a bullet.
If we reflect each time we act, we will build ourselves as human beings and we will build a nation of human beings, not some goal-directed, hunting-gathering species. A revolution is successful when it has a framework. We need to nurture a framework in ourselves and our young: of recognising people around us as people. The rest will follow.
Manju could have easily walked into the bubble of safety we all live in. But he chose to risk his life for something as intangible as the ‘right thing’. We choose to walk into our bubbles and leave the Manjus of this world to fight their lonely battles and die. We need to look beyond the walls of our bubbles of safety if we have respect for Manju. We have to look beyond our bubbles to be human.
Come, let us start a revolution. Long Live Manju!

Analysis 2 : Subhabrata Ghosh
A larger conflict. Machaan’s murderers represent the old order. And he epitomised the power of the new order by challenging the exploitation of the old order

The allusion of this case to reality demands that I be objective and realistic. Therefore, I would look at this case from the viewpoint of creating an understanding and what we can do with an optimistic attitude.

What is the fact? A young, educated and honest man gets killed in the line of duty. Let us examine this from the broadest perspective, and then narrow it down to the incident. Currently, the economy is polarising our society into two worlds: the new world and the traditional world. The traditional world when compared to the new one is autocratic and controlled by a few. Historically, the control emanated from the primary resource of the old world: land. Wealth creation was based on exploiting the masses to fill the coffers of the landed gentry.
This economic system pervades all sections of our country, and the landed gentry have evolved a protective mechanism to guard and propagate this system. This protectionism is economic, social as well as physical. It is still prevalent in the majority of the land mass of our country. Education has been and will continue to be the biggest enemy of this system because it moves wealth creation from land to enterprise.
Our economic growth is essentially coming from growth of enterprise and is, therefore, posing a direct challenge to the control of the old economy of the landed. In its most naked form, the resolution of this conflict at the individual level resorts to the basest form of domain protection – through violence.
Machaan epitomised the power of the new order by challenging the exploitation of the old order by an individual.
When we installed democracy in our country, we also resolved to make education a fundamental right. But a large majority of our population is still deprived of education at a time when the world is bursting at its seams with information and has the easiest access to it.
The truth is that most of those in the political system who represent the people do not get elected by the informed choice of people, but by their own economic and physical might. These are also the people whose primary objective is to protect their domain.
Now examine the scenario. We have two powerful groups: one has created economic power through knowledge, skill and enterprise, and the other commands the political system and subverts the enforcement machinery to prolong their control over their shrinking domain. More than a third of our parliamentarians have established criminal records. Yet, we allow them to run the highest decision-making bodies of our country. The magic of this conflict is that it is making a political system irrelevant through democratisation of wealth creation. The old order has never been more aware of this as it is now. So, they will get even more desperate as they become more aware of this shift in power.
Those of us who represent the new order must be more aware and spread the understanding that we put a serious threat to the old order. The greatest threat to the new order is the lack of this awareness. We must also be aware of the power we wield to challenge and break down the old order. When we wish to exert the power, we must also be aware of the consequences. The pain of Machaan’s death is also a gain. It is for us to protect this gain – the demonstration of the power of the individual against the old order establishment. I have great faith in our judiciary, and believe that Machaan’s murderers will be punished. That itself is a blow to the old order.
Let me explain why I believe Machaan’s murderers represent the old order.
Oil is the lifeline of our economy. Therefore, the people who distribute oil exert incredible control in their geographical domain. We also know that the licence to distribute oil is controlled by the state and, therefore, the political class. The political class also understands the shift of economic power. They are also aware that the shift will necessitate their control over the enforcement infrastructure of the country. Unfortunately, the enforcement infrastructure has been subverted so badly that it works more on fear rather than the confidence of the polity. We can only hasten the demise of the old order if we empower the individual economically, which can only come through education. This is where our responsibility lies.
If we are moved by the sacrifice of Machaan, let’s do something about it. If all of us, who have had good education and are reaping the benefits, put some money back into our institutions to create a corpus of funds, it can be used to provide free education to children who are not able to access it. This will be a giant step forward.
If we are aware that we have the economic power to destroy the old order, let us exert it and adopt the teachers. If each one of us shares our economic power with our teachers, I believe, it will be the best tribute we can pay to people like Machaan.

Business Today – 21 April 2001 – Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong

The Nut Island Effect

When Good Teams GoWrong

They were hardworking, uncomplaining, and dedicated beyond the call of duty. Yet the extraordinary team that ran a vital wastewater treatment plant actually brought about disaster. How could such well-intentioned people produce such perverse results? They fell prey to an organizational pathology that can strike any business.


They were every manager’s dream team. They performed difficult, dirty, dangerous work without complaint they put in thousands of hours of unpaid overtime, and they even dipped into their own pockets to buy spare parts. They had tremendous esprit de corps and a deep commitment to the organisation’s mission.

There was just one problem: their hard work helped lead to that mission’s catastrophic failure.
The team that traced this arc of futility was the 80 or so men and women who operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, from the late 1960S until it was decommissioned in 1997. During that period, these exemplary workers were determined to protect Boston Harbor from pollution. Yet in one six-month period in 1982, in the ordinary course of business, they released 3.7 billion gallons of raw sewage into the harbor. Other routine procedures they performed to keep the harbor clean, such as dumping massive amounts of chlorine into otherwise untreated sewage, actually worsened the harbor’s already dreadful water quality. How could such a good team go so wrong?

This question goes to the heart of what I call the Nut Island effect, a destructive organizational dynamic I came to understand after serving four and a half years as the executive director of the public authority responsible for the metropolitan Boston sewer system.

Since leaving that job, I have shared the Nut Island story with managers from a wide range of organizations. Quite a few of them – hospital administrators, research librarians, senior corporate officers – react with a shock of recognition. They, too, have seen the Nut Island effect in action where they work.

Comparing notes with these managers, I have found that each instance of the Nut Island effect features a similar set of antagonists – a dedicated, cohesive team and distracted senior managers – whose conflict follows a predictable behavioural pattern through five stages. The Nut Island story should serve as a warning to managers who spend the bulk of their time on an organisation’s most visible and obvious shortcomings: sometimes the most debilitating problems are the ones we can’t see.

The Nut Island Story

Nut Island is actually a small peninsula in Quincy, Masachusetts. Sitting at the southern entrance to Boston Harbor, Nut Island was a favourite landmark for seventeenth-century sailors, who savoured the scent of what one early European settler called the “divers arematicall herbes, and plants” that grew there. By 1952, when the Nut Island treatment plant went into operation, the herbs were long gone. Before the plant came on line, raw sewage from much of Boston was piped straight into the harbor, fouling local beaches and fisheries and posing a serious health hazard to the surrounding community.

The Nut Island plant was billed as the solution to Quincy’s wastewater problem. Hailed in the local press for its “modern design”, it was supposed to treat all the sewage produced in the southern half of the Boston metropolitan area, then release it about a mile out into the harbour. From the first, though, the plant’s suitability for the task was questionable. The facility was designed to handle sewage in-flows of upto 285 million gallons per day, comfortably above the 112 million gallons that flowed in on an average day. But high tides and heavy trains could increase the flow to three times the daily average, straining the plant to its limits and compromising its performance.

During most of the 30 years covered in this article, the team charged with running the plant was headed by superintendent Bill Smith, operations chief Jack Madden, and laboratory head Frank Mac Kinnon. The three joined me recently for reunion at Nut Island, which has been converted to a headworks that collects sewage from the southern Boston region and delivers it north through a tunnel under Boston Harbor to the city’s vast new treatment plant on Deer Island. The men’s affection for each other is evident, as are the lingering remnants of plant hierarchy. When someone has to speak for the entire group, Mac Kinnon and Madden still defer to Smith.
The three friends don’t need much prompting to launch into reminiscences of their years at Nut Island, which they still view as the happiest time of their working lives. They laugh often as they tell stories about the old days, featuring characters with nicknamed like Sludgie and Twinkie, and they seem cheerfully oblivious to the hair-raising conditions that were part of daily life at the plant. “It was fun,” Smith says, and his two friends nod in agreement.

Throughout our talk, the men frequently refer to themselves and their co-workers as a family. But Nut Island had not always been such a harmonious place. When Smith arrived there in 1963, fresh out of the navy, he walked into a three-way cold war among operations, maintenance, and the plant’s laboratory. For the next few years, Smith did what he could to “get a little cooperation going.” By 1968, he had gained Madden and Mac Kinnon as allies. Before long, they had weeded out most of the plant’s shirkers and assembled a cohesive team.

The people they hired were much like themselves: hard working, grateful for the security of a public sector job, and happy to stay out of the spotlight. Many were veterans of World War II of the Korean War, accustomed to managing frequent crises in harsh working conditions-just what awaited them at the aging, undersized, under funded plant.

Nut Island’s hiring practices helped create a tight-knit group, bonded by a common cause and shared values, but they also eliminated any “squeaky wheels” who might have questioned the team’s standard operating procedures or alerted senior management to the plant’s deteriorating condition. That was fine with Smith and his colleagues. Assembling a like-minded group made it easier for them to break down inter-departmental animosities by cross training plant personnel. The team leaders also made job satisfaction a priority, shifting people out of the jobs they were hired to do and into work that suited them better. These moves raised morale and created a strong sense of trust and ownership among plant worker.

Just how strong the sense of ownership was can be seen in the sacrifices the team made. Few people on Nut Island made more than $20,000 a year, low wages even in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet when there was no money for spare parts, team members would pitch in to buy the needed equipment. They were equally generous with their time. A sizable cadre of plant workers regularly put in far more than the requisite eight hours daily, but they only occasionally filed for overtime pay.

From 1952 until 1985, the Nut Island plant fell under the purview of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). Throughout the early and mid 1900s, the MDC had been known for the quality of its engineers and the rigor of its management. It had constructed and operated water and sewer systems that were often cited as engineering marvels. By the 1960s, though, the MDC had become the plaything of the state legislature, whose members used the agency as a patronage mill. Commissioners rarely stayed more than two years, and their priorities reflected those of the legislators who controlled the MDC budget. The lawmakers understood full well that there were more votes to the gained by building skating rinks and swimming pools in their districts than by tuning up the sewer system, and they directed their funding and political pressure accordingly.

The attitude of the MDC’s leadership toward the sewer division can be gauged by a story that ended up becoming a staple of plant lore. As it was passed around, the story became a central component of the Nut Island team’s self definition. It seems that one day, James W Connell, Nut Island superintendent in the 1960s, went to Boston to ask the MDC commissioner for funds to perform long-deferred maintenance on essential equipment. The commissioner’s only response: “Get rid of the dandelions.” Startled, the superintendent asked the commissioner to repeat himself.

“You heard me. I want you guys to take some money and get the dandelions off the lawn. The place looks terrible.”

At this point, the first stage of the Nut Island effects is in place. We have a distracted management and a dedicated team that toils, by choice, in obscurity. Team members, who share a similar background, value system, and outlook, and place enormous trust in each other and very little in outsiders, especially management. Now, an egregious display of indifference from management is all it takes to set the downward spiral in motion.

On Nut Island, this display came in January 1976, when the plant’s four gigantic diesel engines shut down. Since the early 1970s, the workers at Nut Island had been warning the top brass in Boston that the engines, which pumped wastewater into the plant and then through a series of aeration and treatment tanks, desperately needed maintenance. The MDC, though, had refused to release any funds to maintain them. Make do with what you have, plant operators were told. When something stops working, we’ll find you the money to fix it. In essence, the MDC’s management refused to act until a crisis forced their hand. That arrived when the engines gave out entirely. The team at the plant worked frantically to get the engines running, but for four days, untreated sewage flowed into the harbor.

The incident propelled the conflict between the Nut Island team and senior management from the second stage to the third-from passive resentment to active avoidance. The plant workers viewed the breakdown as a mortifying failure that they could have averted if MDC headquarters had listened to them. In ordinary circumstances, management indifferences might have killed off the team’s morale and motivation. It had the opposite effect on the Nut Islander’s. They united around a common adversary. Nut Island was their plant, and its continued operations was solely the result of their own heroic efforts.

It became a priority among the Nut Islanders to avoid contact with upper management whenever possible. When the plant ran short of ferrous chloride, a chemical used for odour control, no one from Nut Island asked headquarters for funds to buy a new supply. Instead, they would contact a local community activist and ask her to complain to her state representative about the odours emanating from the plant.

The rep would then contact MDC headquarters, and Nut Island would receive a fresh supply of ferrous chloride. Another way Nut Islanders stayed off the management’s radar screen was to keep their machinery running long past the time it should have been overhauled or junked. Among the plant’s most troublesome equipment were the pumps that drew sludge into the digester tanks. Years of deferred maintenance had degraded the pumps, but instead of asking Boston for funds, the Nut Islanders lubricated the machinery with lavish amounts of oil. Much of this oil found its way into the digested tanks themselves. From there, it was released into the harbor.

Rules of Thumb

A team can easily lose sight of the big picture when it is narrowly focused on demanding
task. The task itself becomes the big picture, crowding other considerations out of the frame. To counteract this tendency, smart managers supply reality checks by exposing their people to the perspectives and practices of other organizations. A team in the fourth stage of the Nut Island effect, however, is denied this exposure. Isolated in its lonely outpost, the team begins to make up its own rules. These rules are terribly insidious because they foster in the team and its management the mistaken belief that its operations are running smoothly.

On Nut Island one such rule governed the amount of grit-the sand, dirt, and assorted particulate crud that inevitably finds its way into wastewater-that the plant workers considered acceptable.
Because of a flaw in the plant’s design, its aeration tanks would become choked with grit if the inflow sewage exceeded a certain volume. The operators dealt with this problem by limiting sewage inflows to what they considered a manageable level, diverting the excess into the harbor. Reflecting the distorted perspective typical of teams in the Nut Island effect, these diversions were not even recorded as overflows from the plant because the excess wastewater did not, strictly speaking, enter the facility.

Another rule of thumb governed the use of chlorine at Nut Island. When inflows were particularly heavy the plant’s operators would add massive amounts of chlorine to some of the wastewater and pipe it out to sea. The chlorine eliminated some pathogens in the wastewater, but its other effects were less benign. Classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an environmental contaminant, chlorine kills marine life, depletes marine oxygen supplies, and harms fragile shore ecosystems. To the team on Nut Island, though, chlorine was better than nothing. By their reckoning, they were giving the wastewater at least minimal treatment – thus their indignant denials when Quincy residents complained of raw sewage in the water and on their beaches.

In its fifth stage, the Nut Island effect generates its own reality-distortion field. This process is fairly straightforward in management’s case. Disinclined in the first place to look too closely at the team’s operations, management is easily misled by the team’s skillful disguising of its flaws and deficiencies. In fact, it wants to be misled – it has enough problems on its plate. One reason MDC management left Nut Island alone is that even as it was falling apart, the plant looked clean.

The manner in which team members delude themselves is somewhat more complicated. Part of their self-deception involves wishful thinking – the common human tendency to reject information that clashes with the reality one wishes to see. Consider, for instance, the laboratory tests performed at the plant. These tests were required by EPA. A former scientist with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority tells me the staff in the Nut Island lab would simply ignore unfavorable test results. Their intent was not to deceive the EPA, the scientist hastens to add. “It was more like they looked at the numbers and said: “This can’t be right. Let’s test it again.” A long as Nut Island’s numbers appeared to fall with EPA limits; MDC management in Boston saw no reason to question the plant’s testing regimen.

Maintaining the alternate reality that prevailed on Nut Island required more than wishful thinking, however. It also involved strenuous denials when outsiders pointed out inconvenient facts. Consider what I learned from David Standley, who for several years was an environmental consultant to the city of Quincy. “I remember taking one look at the tanks’ operating parameters and saying, “this is going to die soon”,”Standley says. Predictably enough, these misgivings found an unfriendly reception on Nut Island. “Their initial reaction,” Standley says, “was hostility – they didn’t like me sticking my nose into their business.” Besides, they insisted, there was nothing seriously wrong with the digesters.

If external events had not intervened, conditions on Nut Island would probably have continued to deteriorate until the digesters failed or some other crisis erupted. The plant’s shutdown in 1997, forestalled that possibility. As part of a large-scale plan to overhaul Greater Boston’s sewer system and clean up the harbor, all sewage treatment was shifted to a new, state-of-the-art facility on Deer Island. The Nut Island team was disbanded, after 30 years of effort that left the harbor no cleaner than it was in the late 1960s when the core team first came together.

The field of organizational studies is a well-established discipline with extensive literature. Yet, the syndrome that I call the Nut Island effects has, until now, gone unnamed – though not unrecognized as I learned when I described it to other managers. Perhaps the lack of a name indicates just what a subtle and insidious thing it is; the Nut Island effect itself has flown under the radar of managers and academics just as the actions or team members go unnoticed by management.

Five Steps to Failure

The Nut Island effect is a destructive organizational dynamic that pits a homogenous, deeply committed team against its disengaged senior managers. Their conflict can be mapped as a negative feedback spiral that passes through five predictable stages.

1. Management, its attention riveted on high-visibility problems, assigns a vital, behind-the-scenes task to a team and gives that team a great deal of autonomy. Team members self-select for a strong work ethic and an aversion to the spotlight. They become adept at organizing and managing themselves, and the unit develops a proud and distinct identity.

2. Senior management takes the team’s self-sufficiency for granted and ignores team members when they ask for help or try to warn of impending trouble. When trouble strikes, the team feels betrayed by management and reacts with resentment.

3. An us-against-the-world mentality takes hold in the team, as isolation heightens its sense of itself as a band of heroic outcasts. Driven by the desire to stay off management’s radar screen, the team grows skillful at disguising its problems. Team members never acknowledge problems to outsiders or ask them for help. Management is all too willing to take the team’s silence as a sign that all is well.

4. Management fails in its responsibility to expose the team to external perspectives and practices. As a result, the team begins to make up its own rules. The team tells itself that the rules enable it to fulfill its mission. In fact, these rules mask grave deficiencies in the team’s performance.
5. Both management and the team form distorted pictures of reality that are very difficult to correct. Team members refuse to listen when well-meaning outsiders offer help or attempt to point out problems and deficiencies. Management, for its part, tells itself that no news is good news and continues to ignore team members and their task. Management and the team continue to shun each other until some external event breaks the stalemate

How to Stop the Nut Island Effect Before It Starts

What forms of preventive medicine can we prescribe to help organisations avoid the Nut Island effect? Managers need to walk a fine line. The humane values and sense of commitment that distinguished the Nut Island team are precisely the virtues we want to encourage. The trick is to de-couple them from the isolation and lack of external focus that breeds self-delusion, counterproductive practices, and, ultimately, failure.

On Nut Island, the worker’s focus paralleled their reward system. That system evolved by default as a result of MDC headquarters’ lack of interest and by explicit action from dedicated local managers. It rewarded task-driven results – avoid grit in the sedimentation tanks, keep the sludge pumps from seizing up, keep the digesters alive, maximize flows to the treated through the plant, produce fertilizer-quality sludge. The Nut Island crew were heroes, but unfortunately they were fighting the wrong war. As in combat, the generals were to blame, not the enlisted personnel.

The striking persistence of the syndrome – which lingered on Nut Island until the plant was shut down in 1997, despite a decade of structural and management changes that afforded the team greater financial resources, new career options, top management support, and other opportunities – should send a strong message to corporate managers. While there are probably ways to counteract the Nut Island effect in your company, you for better off to avoid it in the first place.

1. The first step is to install performance measures and reward structures tied to both internal operations and company-wide goals. The internal links are necessary to help build the team’s sense of local responsibility and camaraderie; the link to external goals ensures the proper calibration of internal operations to the corporate mission.

2. Second, senior management must establish a hands-on presence by visiting the team, holding recognition ceremonies, and leading tours of customers or employees from other parts of the organizations through the site. These occasions give senior management a chance to detect early warnings of problems and they give the local team a sense that they matter and are listened to.

3. Third, team personnel must be integrated with people from other parts of the organization. This exposes the local team member to ideas and practices being used by colleagues elsewhere in the company or in other organizations. This encourages them to think in terms of the big picture.

4. Finally, outside people-managers and line workers alike-need to be rotated into the team environment. This should occur every two to three years-not so often as to be disruptive but often enough to discourage the institutionalization of bad habits. So as not to appear punitive, this rotation must be a regular feature of corporate life, not a tactic aimed at a particular group.