From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Meritocratic Humanism- beyond charismatic leaders

It is not very easy to co-hold humanistic values  with demands of meritocracy. This is understandable because meritocracy entails looking at people primarily in terms of their skills, competencies and contribution. The emphasis is on what the person brings to the table rather than who he/she is, where does he/she come from or even what kind of person he/she is. On the other hand, in humanism, the emphasis is on  person as a human being, his/her unique context, personal qualities and relating to him/her as a fellow human rather than as an object of utility. It is therefore not surprising that research shows a clear negative correlation between the two and considerable effort is expended by many leaders and managers to find the “right balance” between the conflicting demands of humanism and meritocracy.

Simultaneously, there are people who do not play this “balancing game”. Their emphasis is on the convergences between humanism and meritocracy rather than getting caught with the conflicting pulls between the two. In their scheme of things humanism and meritocracy become mutually supportive of each other rather than being enemies of each other. Thus the “human touch” provided by such people becomes a source of inspiration for higher levels of performance. Simultaneously the “performance pressure” that they apply makes the person feel more cherished and valued as a “human being”

In almost all traditional Indian companies that I visit, I hear many stories about these charismatic figures with considerable nostalgia. A common theme across these stories is about their being “highly demanding” in performance standards and also “deeply caring” about virtually all stakeholders viz. co-workers, customers, clients etc. Simultaneity of caring and demanding seems to have been an important ingredient of their charisma.Thus it appears that at least in the Indian context, these charismatic leaders held the tension between humanism and meritocracy on behalf of the entire system. While this worked well in a certain context, the efficacy of such a process in the current context is doubtful. There are two main reasons for this-

  1. These charismatic leaders create considerable dependency and often become the proverbial banyan trees under which nothing grows. Consequently, the organisations that they leave behind are a peculiar mix of  a”close family” and a “well-oiled machine”. Generally, these organisations are fairly self-sustaining and can survive even with average leadership in a reasonably stable environment. However they lack in agility and ability to transform themselves in a dynamic and turbulent environment. This can be easily witnessed in many traditional Indian organisations post liberalisation. The end result is that they often find themselves playing the “catching up” game even in areas where they may have earlier played a pioneering role.
  2. The socio-economic changes in the larger context, including shifts in child-rearing practices, family and community relations, greater emphasis on individualistic values etc. has led to reduced power distance in authority relations. Today there is much more pull towards equalisation, participation, transparency etc.  The notion of a “benevolent patriarch” may not have totally disappeared but has certainly lost some of its sheen.

Thus we are left with no choice other than learning to co-hold the demands of humanism and meritocracy ourselves rather than depending upon a charismatic leader to do it on our behalf. The first step in this process will be to review some of the frozen meanings that we hold about both humanism and meritocracy.

In my experience, humanism is often interpreted in a soft, sentimental sort of way with very little room for authentic encounter and confrontation.One often comes across managers who refrain from giving negative feedback to their subordinates lest they hurt their “feelings”. Similarly exercise of lateral and upward authority is shunned in the name of respect, concern ,empathy and a host of similar so called humanistic values. The end result is that humanism  gets reduced to mere interface management and a convenient way of not engaging with the unpleasant realities of the system. To illustrate this process, let me give an example.

A fairly common finding in the engagement surveys conducted by many organisations  is that a statement like “I am treated with respect” gets a reasonably high score. Simultaneously, statements like ” I receive honest and regular feedback on my performance” OR ” I am consulted on decisions which affect me”, tend to receive much lower scores. The obvious question which this disparity raises is – What does respect mean if it is not accompanied by authenticity and relevant involvement? A reasonable hypothesis would be that all that is being said by the respondents is that no one shouts at them or behaves “badly” with them, but nevertheless they end up being taken for granted. The underlying indignity and patronisation of this process is rarely recognised.

Such superficial interpretations of humanism lead to a situation where authentic engagements are replaced by polite diplomatic interfaces. Interestingly research data shows that most Indian managers find their organisations to be over-diplomatic. If this is how humanism is being interpreted then it can only be an impediment to meritocracy and never become its ally.

Much the same can be said in respect of meritocracy. Invariably, it is interpreted in terms of “deliverables” and targets and that too on a quarter to quarter basis. The institutional contribution of the individual or the invisible waste/ damage that he/she may have caused in achievement of the numbers is rarely taken into account. Even efficacy of developmental interventions like training programmes/workshops is measured by feedback rating scales. Is it then any surprise that many trainers/consultants focus more on creating a favourable impression rather than on learning? Personally, I am extremely sceptical of interventions which create only euphoria and no distress.

Similarly, I have found moderately high scores in employee engagement as a much better indicator of healthy employee interface than extremely high scores. Many times extremely high scores indicate complacency and collective delusions. In such cases, it is not unusual to find a disconnect between employee engagement scores and company performance/perception of other stakeholders like customers. On the other hand moderately high scores tend to indicate positive self-regard coupled with a realistic appraisal of the difficulties and potent restlessness to improve the situation. Unfortunately, in the so called meritocracy ,the focus is on winning the much coveted prize of the “best employer” rather than thinking about the health of the organisation-employee interface.

To sum up, co-holding of humanism and meritocracy will entail a serious review of the meanings that we may have given to them. At the surface level, we will not only find them as adversaries but also as self-defeating. Superficial humanism only creates invisible indignities and superficial meritocracy only creates invisible waste. In order to pursue their true essence we will need to discover their convergence and mutually supportive relationship. Not that the inherent conflicting pull will disappear altogether but we may be pleasantly surprised that they not merely complement each other in very significant ways, but in fact are meaningless without each other.

Hierarchy Vs. Authority

This morning while taking a walk, I witnessed one of the security guards in our building trying to prevent a hired car driver from driving on the wrong side. The resident sitting inside the car was arguing on behalf of the driver rather than telling him to follow the rules. While it would have been just a matter of seconds for the car to have reversed and drive through the designated path, much time and energy was expended in this exchange. Clearly, it was not an issue of time or convenience!  What was at stake here was a conflict between two strong principles namely, hierarchy and authority. The security guard  had the authority to regulate traffic movement inside the building complex but since he was seen as lower in status hierarchy, his authority was not acceptable to the resident sitting in the car.

This conflict between hierarchy and authority is played out on almost a daily basis in virtually all spheres of our personal and professional lives. This particular incident reminded me of a paper which Gouranga Chattopadhyay and I had written several decades back. Our central hypothesis was that the concept of hierarchy present in almost all modern organisations creates the breeding ground for incompetence and invisible waste. It is seen as a necessary requirement for exercising authority but in fact, it is one of the biggest impediments to exercise of meaningful authority .

Authority is a structural arrangement whereby certain decision making rights are delegated to a role-holder for effective task performance. In the incident described earlier, the right to regulate traffic movement has been delegated to the security guard and his relative hierarchical status is of no consequence. Hierarchy on the other hand is a relative construct- it places individuals/groups on a scale of lowest to highest on the basis of a criteria. For example, in the Indian caste system the criteria deployed is of purity vs. pollution. The caste groups considered as the purest are placed at the top and those considered as most polluted are placed at the bottom. In another society, economic status may be the primary criteria of hierarchical ordering, but the essence of any hierarchy is the notion of lowest to highest and an assumed superiority of the higher over the lower.

Serious problems arise when this notion of higher/lower is applied to authority which is essentially a task based construct. One of the damaging implications is the assumption that the authority which rests with any role holder also rests with his/her so called superior or boss. The absurdity of such a notion becomes obvious if we imagine a school where the principal has the authority to overturn the decisions of a teacher in respect of his/her pupil or a hospital  where the CEO has the authority to overturn the decision of a medical specialist. Nonetheless, expressions like “higher authority” are freely used by many people in spite of the fact that the concept of higher or lower can not be applied to distribution of authority.

Another deadly implication of this confusion between hierarchy and authority is that status differentials become a pre-requisite for exercise of authority. The individuals concerned start believing that authority becomes legitimate only when it is exercised by a person who is supposedly “higher” over a person who is supposedly “lower”.In other words, the belief is that authority only flows downwards and never upwards or laterally. Consequently accepting the authority of someone gets equated with accepting his/her higher hierarchical status. It is therefore not surprising that most people are over-cautious in exercising authority over someone who they regard as higher or equal and blatantly callous when dealing with someone who they regard as lower.

The end result of this confusion is that many bosses happily usurp the authority of their subordinates and many subordinates happily “delegate” their authority to their bosses- taking their decisions more on the basis of what they believe their boss wants rather than their own judgement. Needless to say, in such a scenario no real accountability can exist. The real decision maker (i.e. the boss) has no structural legitimacy and the the person who has signed on the dotted line (i.e. the subordinate) has no psychological ownership of the decision.

Meaningful exercise of authority has two main elements

-sanctity of role and structure, and

-requisite competence.

For any structure to work effectively it is important that the authority delegated to a role holder is commensurate with the responsibilities/accountabilities and  that the relevant information is available to the role holder for effective decision making. However, when hierarchy enters into the picture, this scenario changes.  The role holder  tends to delegate his/her authority upward as mentioned earlier. Thus it is not uncommon for bureaucrats to delegate their authority to their political bosses and for even elected political leaders to delegate their authority to their “high commands”. In such situations, authority is exercised not by the relevant role holder but by  someone else who may neither have the relevant information nor the associated responsibility/accountability. Thus, the structural/role sanctity gets compromised through creation of extra-constitutional centres of power and consequent disempowering of the legitimate role holders.

Every effective system needs to work continuously on upgrading the skills and competencies of its role holders. The most important source of this is feedback from the operating levels like the shop floor or the market place. When hierarchy enters the picture,people at lower levels tend to hold back their real thoughts and feelings lest they offend those who are higher than them.  Similarly people at the higher levels run the risk of not paying adequate attention to the messages coming from below.  In absence of authentic feedback it becomes extremely difficult for people to work at their own incompetencies. Interestingly,  higher the person is in hierarchy, the more difficult it becomes for him/her to upgrade his/her competence. I recall some time back I had asked a senior manager of a company about their experience with a prestigious consulting firm. His response was very telling- ” What the consultants told us is what our shop floor supervisors have been saying for years, but having paid millions to the consultants, we had no choice but to listen”. When hierarchy is confused with authority, no negative feedback flows from “lower” to “higher” levels, and the system as a whole can never work on its incompetencies.

It may seem that hierarchy can be helpful in at least upgrading of competence at lower levels because “negative feedback” can be more easily given from a higher level. However this is rarely the case. More often than not people at lower levels dismiss this feedback and attribute it to non-appreciation of the ground realities by their seniors. I recall, once  I and another colleague were working with a group of middle managers in a supposedly professional company. Throughout the day the group kept telling us as to how little their seniors understood the ground realities. In the evening we had invited some of their seniors for a joint session. However, the group preferred to just listen to their seniors (and mentally dismiss it) rather than express their own thoughts and feelings. All our invitations and attempts to facilitate a dialogue were ignored by both sides. The end result was that what could have been a significant learning experience became a meaningless ritual.

While confusion between hierarchy and authority is a widely prevalent phenomenon, cultures with high power distance (like India) are particularly susceptible to it, because it keeps getting reinforced on almost daily basis. Often this reinforcement is so subtle and seemingly inconsequential  that we don’t even notice it. Take for example, a fairly common expectation that a person of lower status hierarchy  than ourselves must behave in a polite and courteous manner or should be the first to greet/salute us OR our own difficulty in being direct and forthright with someone who we regard as higher in status hierarchy. Over a period of time, these seemingly inconsequential ways become part of us and become “par for the course” What we witness at the organisational and macro-social level are merely more dramatic and magnified versions of the same themes.

Thus any attempt to delink hierarchy from authority must begin with greater consciousness about how it plays out in our day to day life; and how we engage with people who we regard as lower or higher than ourselves in status hierarchy. Honouring and gracing the authority of a security guard or a maid servant may seem like a small matter but it can have profound impact on liberating authority from the clutches of hierarchy .It may also help us to learn to exercise our own authority without getting caught with the issue of our relative hierarchical status vis.a vis. the other person.