Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.




Door Ka Rahi

Tension between the Captive and the Wanderer has always fascinated me. Both are an integral part of my identity and I suspect reside in all human beings at least to some extent. They come in various shapes, forms and sizes. A few common embodiments of the captive are-  bird in the golden cage, Atlas, Shravan Kumar etc. Similarly Wanderer can be easily seen in the explorer, vagabond, , roving minstrel and many other similar forms.

There is obvious contrary pull between these two identities. My first cognitive encounter with this tension was in my adolescence when I read Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”.I have forgotten most of it, but I recall  that the protagonist wants to be an artist but becomes a doctor, wants to travel around the world but decides to settle down to a conventional domestic life. The other thing that I recall is that the protagonist was an orphan and had a club-foot.At that time, I did not recognise the significance of this and saw the whole drama only in terms of the conflict between need for anchorage and call of adventure. Much later, I realised that the injured/handicapped orphan was an important part of this drama.

Kishore Kumar’s film Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein is a good example of the relationship between the  Orphan and the Wanderer. The image which is stuck in my mind of this film is that of a mature adult who is carrying a handicapped child on his back. The film is about a soldier who on his return from the battle-field discovers that his house had been ravaged by fire in which his wife had also perished. The only survivors was his son who also lost his voice because of the trauma. Essentially the film is about the father’s quest to restore “wholeness” for his son. This quest is captured by the lyricist Shailendra in two of the songs of the film which  to date,linger in our collective memory. The two sides of this quest are – nostalgia for the lost paradise ( Koi laute de mere beete hue din) and  search for the promised land (Aa chal ke tujhe mein leke chaloon, ik aise gagan ke tale)

Door Ka Rahi, another Kishore Kumar film, breaks out of this lost paradise/promised land paradigm. The theme song of the protagonist here is “Panthi hun mien us path ka, ant nahi jiska”(I am traversing a path which has no destination) In a sense, the film brings into play all three identities- The Orphan, The Captive and The Wanderer. The protagonist Prashant is a wanderer who has dedicated his life to service of humanity at large. During his several encounters, he keeps meeting orphans and captives, alleviates their suffering and moves on. His last encounter is with  the duo of an old man (in a “wheel-chair”) and his “widowed” daughter-in law whose husband looked exactly like Prashant. A bond develops between the three and the old man wants Prashant to marry his daughter in law and settle down with them. In wrestling with his confusion, Prashant recalls his own orphanhood and how he had been brought up by a kind holy-man (Swamiji) . Prashant also recalls the pledge that he had taken, at the time of Swamiji’s death that he will stay clear of personal attachments and dedicate his life to the service of mankind. Needless to say, Prashant decides to move on in his never ending journey.

One can look at Prashant both as a Captive (to his pledge) and as a  Wanderer in search of his own wholeness. Interestingly, both perspectives are linked to the Orphan who neither feels whole in himself nor a meaningful and integral part of a larger whole. This psychodrama between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer has often played out in my life several times. The Orhan in his search of  a “home” finds himself in a prison from which he wants to break free. But once the Captive breaks the shackles and turns into a Wanderer, he is haunted by another song written by Shailendra-

“kabhi yeh bhi socha ki manzil kahan hai; bade se jahan mein tera ghar kahan hai

Jo bandhe they bandana who kyun toed dale; kahan ja raha hai tu ai jane-wale”

( Where is your destination” where is your home? Why have you snapped all your ties? What is the purpose of this wandering?)

And then begins another search for home and consequent experience of captivity. The oscillation between the Captive and the Wanderer seems endless but reinforces the recognition that all nostalgia of the “lost paradise” is imaginary and all conceptions of a “promised land” are a futile attempt to escape the “dukha” which is an inevitable part of being human and existential aloneness . In such moments, I am reminded of Ghalib’s verse “Rahiye ab aisee jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho”. An approximate translation of which is-

I wish to live in a place where there is no one else;

no one to relate to or communicate with,

I wish to build a house which has no walls or boundaries

When I fall sick, let there be no one to take care,and

When I die, let there be no one to mourn


Thus it is in fitness of things, that Door Ka Rahi begins with an old Prashant, all alone in a glacier, remembering the events from his life. The film ends with Prashant breathing his last in that cold yet serene solitude. As though life has come back a full circle and one is reminded of yet another Ghalib verse-

“Ghame hasti ka Asad, kis se ho juz marg ilaj

Shama har rang me jalti hai sehar hone tak ”

( There is no ultimate answer to human suffering, the candle must burn till the dawn comes)

Simply put, what Prashant tells us is that there was no “lost paradise”, there is no “promised land”. The only reality is “living” and this endless journey.At least that is how I make some peace between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer in me. Would love to know how these identities play out in you.






Whose Bhavana are we talking about?

Some time back, I received a forward of a video made by Kasbah Digital. It was an open letter written to a symbolic person Bhavana (Sentiment) . The letter was signed “we, the people of India”. The video had been shared several times and I guess received fair degree of appreciation from many people. For those, who may not have seen it, I am giving below the content of this open letter. The video had  powerful visuals, which I can not reproduce here, but the script will give the broad idea.

Dear Bhavana,

How are you? I got a bit worried when I heard about you. I don’t know what you look like, how old you are or where you stay. But from whatever I have seen,read and heard about you, I feel you are a little child. A child who is getting younger as time passes, which is just not right. I am hoping through this letter, I will be able to communicate with you better.

At times you get irritated by someone eating beef. Or when someone says “we need to correct something in this country”. At times somebody raising questions bothers you. It seems you have blisters all over your body,whichever side you turn ,it bothers you. You must be feeling, everyone wants to trouble you-especially the artistic kind. But let me tell you, it is not true. Let me tell you that from reading the news and my day to day experience, I know that you have a lot of well-wishers. And that too in a large number-who defend you by the strongest argument “Bharat Mata ki Jai” They are people who can die or kill for you without thinking twice. Its a different story that we haven’t heard of someone giving their life. But news about their killing people keeps coming.

Bhavana(Sentiments) you are very lucky. Otherwise in times like these,it is very difficult to find such people. It is because of you that a lawyer at lower or high court gets his life. It is because of you that people who do not see eye to eye, speak in the same tone. It is because of you  that people recognise that they belong to a specific caste, region or religion. Your contribution towards the unity and greatness which we see written behind trucks is incomparable. I would appreciate if you shift your focus to some other issues as well.- Farmer suicides, Floods, Fire, Vyapam, Scams, Politics and the issues in it. There are a lot of issues that you are not aware of, for once focus on them as well. When you find time, just think about the fact that when so much was happening in the country, where were you hiding?

First wipe your tears.Stop abusing at every situation and come to terms with ground reality. I have just one small request. Be strong,read self-help books, practice yoga,some meditation, and if possible,change your company In the words of Baba Ramadev “It will happen if you do it.So do it.”

I would love to hear from you. Until then take care of yourself.

Your well-wishers,

We, the people of India.

On first reading(listening and watching to be more precise) I found this video quite harmless, sensible and too an extent even evocative. But I also experienced some unease and tried to figure out what is it that I felt uneasy about. I realised that I experienced some identification with Bhavana and felt touched when the letter mentioned the blisters on Bhavana’s body.However right thereafter I felt a huge sense of let down.Not merely was there no attempt to understand the nature of these blisters (let alone healing them) there was a complete denial of any responsibility in the matter with a curt “This is not so”. It seemed the message was that the blisters are a mere figment of Bhavana’s imagination and hence she needs to be counselled to forget about them. I was reminded of a famous couplet of Ghalib- “Ye kahan ki dosti hai, ke bane hein dost nase; koi charasaaz hota, koi ghamgusaar hota ( What does one do with friends, who start preaching at you, Wish they could heal or at the very least be with me in my pain)

As I  thought some more, the anomaly of the letter became even more stark. Here was a letter supposedly written by “people of India” and yet the writers had no idea who Bhavana is- what she looks like, how old she is and where she lives. They have only “heard” about her. Clearly their stance is of “outsiders”-well meaning but outsiders nevertheless. The all important question is that if Bhavana is a stranger to “people of India”, then to who does she belong? Are people who identify with Bhavana not Indians ? Are the makers of the video suggesting that distancing oneself from Bhavana is a precondition to qualify as “people of India”

It became clear to me that my unease had nothing to do with the content of the message (in fact, I agreed with most of it). Also, I felt reasonably certain that the intent of the makers was honourable. My unease stemmed from this stance of an “outsider”- who critiques, comments and advises but has no sense of identification. Then why call your self “people of India”. Simply say that while we may be Indians, we regard ourselves as separate and distinct from the rest of our countrymen.

This is a phenomenon I have encountered quite often. Several of my friends and colleagues (who I respect a great deal) often talk about India and Indian-ness in a way that one talks about some other people rather than about oneself. As though India and Indian-ness is something “out there” and not a part of them. In my limited experience with people from other countries/cultures, I rarely experience this. When they talk about their country or culture, you find them including themselves in it. However with a certain category of Indians, it is rarely the case. Their location remains primarily of “outsiders” who are commenting and critiquing but in a way that it excludes them. This is not restricted to only “arm-chair critics” but also includes people who are actively engaged in social action. Undoubtedly, these activists do considerable service to their respective clientele but their essential stance remains that of an “outsider”

The saddest consequence of  this distancing and hence disowning of Bhavana by many of us, is that she is hijacked by a host of vested interests who manipulate and exploit her and in the name of “looking after”, leave her even more wounded. If we really want her to heal and become stronger then we first need to own her up, accept her as an integral part of ourselves and stop treating her as a millstone around our neck. Standing apart and preaching will only add to her wounds. Simply put, we need to acknowledge that Bhavana is not some one “out there”- She resides within each one of us and is crying to be treated with some compassion and empathy. It is another matter that many of us have chosen to turn away from her.











Delegation without Empowerment

Delegation and Empowerment are related but separate constructs. Delegation is a structural arrangement whereby certain tasks and requisite authority to accomplish them is entrusted to somebody. It generally pertains to a position/role and is not person specific. The terms of delegation are usually spelt out in specific tangible details e.g. the financial limits of expenditure etc.On the other hand, Empowerment is fuzzy and intangible. It is more a state of being, wherein the individual feels that he/she can chose/act in a way that he/she deems fit, that his/her feelings/thoughts/views etc. matter, that he/she is an important part of the system and can therefore exercise some influence over it.

It seems reasonable to assume that Delegation should lead to Empowerment, but it is not always so. Often individuals/groups may have the structural authority to make choices, but do not feel empowered to do so. Thus a group of elected MLA’s may have the authority to elect their leader but de-facto their choice is dictated by the “high command”. Similarly, representation of women in elected bodies like Gram Panchayat, is supposed to empower them but in practice they may act as proxies on behalf of their male relatives. Such gaps between Structural authority and experience of empowerment is a fairly common phenomenon in virtually all spheres of life.

The corporate world is no exception. Here also it is not unusual to find people who do not feel empowered in spite of having the requisite delegation of authority for their role. A selection committee may be delegated the authority to chose the right person, but its actual decision making may be based on factors other than its own judgement. Similarly, many managers may feel it “safe” to sound their superior(s) before exercising their own delegated authority. Such phenomenon are not restricted to lower/middle levels but are all pervasive and can be witnessed at the very top also. A colleague once narrated  an experience about how a certain note on a fairly routine matter sent by him to the president of a large  company came back with a comment “let us take management approval”.

Our research covering more than 3000 Indian managers indicates that there is a strong feeling among them of their organisations not being sufficiently empowering. To look at this through the lens of structural delegation may not be very meaningful and in fact may be counter productive. Delegation without empowerment diffuses accountability. While theoretically, the person who has been delegated can be held accountable, the concerned person rarely has the complete psychological ownership of the decision. From the person’s point of view the decision is not really his/her though he/she may have signed on the dotted line.On the other hand, the person(s) who may actually be responsible, have no formal role in the decision making process and hence can not be held accountable.

Thus engagement with issues of Empowerment necessarily entails going beyond issues of structure and looking at the emotive dimension. The emotive dimension is closely linked to the prevalent culture and its salience. In the Indian context, issues of Empowerment are strongly impacted by two inter-related themes

  • The relationship matrix and its ambience, and
  • Quality of ownership of the System

For most Indian managers the feeling of empowerment is intimately linked to the quality of their relationship with significant others particularly their boss. If they believe that they enjoy the support and good will of their boss and other significant people, they feel empowered. On the other hand, if they do not enjoy such support, they do not feel empowered irrespective of the structural authority delegated to them.In fact, in such situations, often their exercise of delegated authority becomes tentative and hence more of a curse than a boon. Needless to say, there are people who can feel empowered in a non-supportive setting, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. While relationship with the boss is the most significant element, it is by no means the only one. In fact excessive closeness with the boss can alienate the individual from his/her peer group causing a need to perpetually look behind one’s back. Simply put, it is not just one relationship but an entire matrix in which the individual places himself/herself. It is the ambience of this container which determines the nature of empowerment that can flourish.

Exercise of power inevitably carries the risk of transgressing boundaries. Consequently, a sense of legitimacy is integral to feeling empowered. In the Indian context, this legitimacy is largely derived from “ownership of the system”. There are two aspects of ownership-

  • Sense of belonging and commitment to the System (I belong to the System) and
  • Claim over the System and consequent presumption of right to act on its behalf (System belongs to me).

Traditionally, the former has come quite naturally to Indians because a significant part of our identity stems from our belonging system. Thus “I belong to the System” is a statement which many Indians can make with relative ease. However, the situation in respect of the second aspect is quite complex. The claim/right over the System tends to be defined in absolute terms of “all or none”.Consequently, either the person says that the System does not belong to me and I am a mere “servant” OR that I am the “master” and hence have complete power over the System. Thus it is not surprising that irrespective of their formal structure, many Indian organisations operate essentially as a “collation of fiefdoms”. In this scenario the only person who can feel empowered is the “Chief”. However, the empowerment of the Chief is also restricted to his/her own fiefdom, beyond which he/she feels as disempowered as anyone else.

The complexity of present day organisations requires considerable co-holding (both of tasks and responsibilities as well as power and authority), hence ability to co-hold becomes a prerequisite for empowerment. In my experience of working with individuals and organisations, I find a strong co-relation between the individual’s ability to co-hold with the extent of empowerment which he/she experiences. I am using the term co-holding not just in the sense of collaboration, but also as an emotive link where there is a feeling of being together in something.

To sum up, meaningful engagement with issues of Empowerment requires going beyond structural arrangements like delegation of authorities, appointment of committees etc. They have to address the emotive dimension as well. In the Indian context, it would mean-

  • Building a container of emotional infrastructure in which empowerment can flourish, and
  • Creating a strong sense of collective ownership which would give legitimacy to the individual to act on behalf of the System.