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.



Vigilante Virus and Swatchh Bharat

One of the most frequently used expressions in hindi cinema is “Thakur  tere papon ka ghada ab bhar gaya hai”(the pitcher containing your sins is now full). It is often accompanied by its other half “Bhagwan tum kab tak aise chup chap dekhte rahoge” ( Lord, for how long will you remain a mute spectator?) Put together, the two dialogues remind you of the assurance which Sri. Krishna gave to Arjuna that whenever the universe is overwhelmed by adharma, he will descend to restore dharma. Perhaps Sri. Krishna’s intent was to foster faith in cosmic benevolence, however over time, it seems to have  infected our collective psyche with a deadly virus- the Vigilante Virus or VV to be short.

The person infected by  VV  sees the context as overwhelmed by adharma and takes upon him/herself the task of setting things right. In this process the person gives to him/herself the license to transgress boundaries of normal social conduct and legal/moral limits. Generally, the process takes the following course-

  1. Most people in the protagonist’s context believe  that their primary focus  should be on adherence to personal dharma i.e. fulfilment of role responsibilities in a righteous manner.
  2. The sloth created in this process ( an inevitable part of living) is dumped outside  their personal space and it is assumed that some one else will take care of it.
  3. When this collective sloth becomes unbearable, it is attributed to a powerful and oppressive villain.
  4. The collectivity  silently suffers and waits for a super-hero or a messiah to arrive who can then wage a Mahabharata (great war), in which the normal rules of rightful conduct can be set aside.
  5. It is hoped that after the demon is vanquished, the accumulated collective sloth will disappear through a magic wand.

Countless number of Indian films and t.v.serials have been made on this theme. There is an oppressive demonic despot (usually a landlord or a business tycoon) who controls the entire system through a corrupt bureaucratic and political machinery . There is the silent suffering populace and there is the protagonist who takes matters in his/her own hands and does not mind transgressing the boundaries of legal/socially acceptable behaviour. There are of course several variations to this- sometimes the protagonist is governed by personal vendetta, sometimes by ideological commitment and sometimes is a victim him/herself . While the advent of the “angry young man” has made VV more easily visible, its presence could be seen even earlier. For example, in a typical family drama, the demon could be a distant relative, a close friend or even a despotic mother-in-law. The essential theme of an entire collectivity being at the mercy of a powerful/manipulative demon waiting for deliverance by a messiah was always present though in different forms and shades.

Accumulation of  sloth in collective spaces is very much a part of our lives in virtually all spheres.Political leaders and parties vie with each other for the exalted role of a scavenger who would clean up the system of all the accumulated sloth. Not surprisingly, one of the major political miracles in recent times has been a party whose symbol is a broom and whose one point agenda is to clean up the system of corruption, nepotism and other forms of adharma. Exposing “dirt” is one of the most profitable journalistic endeavours and anchors of TV shows happily shout and scream “on behalf of the nation”. Similarly, we have vigilantes for culture, religion, freedom of speech, democratic rights and so on. Needless to say each group of vigilantes creates the need for counter-vigilance , which is great news for VV .

Most systems recognise that the  collective sloth can easily become a breeding ground for VV.Hence,  in order to ensure that VV does not become epidemic, organisations undertake periodic scavenging exercises.  As a consultant, I am often called upon to act as a scavenger to clean the emotional residues accumulated over time and restore the systemic hygiene. Some times this scavenging is done by HR departments, particularly through their training programs. One of the main functions of many of these programs is to provide cathartic release to the participants.While such spring cleaning is a useful way of maintaining systemic hygiene, the question which is rarely asked is – why do we allow the sloth to accumulate?

Sudhir Kakkar and Katharina Kakkar have given us a clue through their suggestion that there is a basic difference between India and west in handling of that which is considered dirty. According to them “Whereas in the west there is much effort expended in masking the dirty inside, in India it is directed towards shifting the dirt outside”. Thus we are more prone to accumulating sloth in collective spaces. Not surprisingly  it is often said that Indians are a very clean people who live in a filthy country.

This is the real challenge in front of Swatch Bharat. Defecating outside is not just an economic/infrastructure issue- it is a distinct psychological preference. To complicate matters, a large part of modern urban living and prevalent organisation cultures are fairly westernised. Thus we often suffer on both counts. On one hand we try and mask the dirt inside and on the other try to shift it outside.This peculiar mix of masking and dumping allows us to defecate in public not with the innocence of a child but with the stubbornness and reactivity of an irresponsible adult. One often comes across expressions such as “Why should we be required to segregate our waste? Don’t we pay taxes for this purpose? ” The callousness with which even the so-called educated people sully the collective spaces is far too well known.

At another level, we rarely acknowledge our obnoxious behaviour , let alone taking responsibility for it. Instead, we blame someone else for it and justify our behaviour as a reaction to what the other did and often gloat about having taught an appropriate lesson to the other person.Teaching someone a lesson, is a favourite activity of the people infected by VV. In doing so they try to get rid of what they regard as dirty within themselves (their own rage, sadistic impulse, punitiveness etc.) in a perfectly righteous manner. Thus that which is regarded as dirty  within ourselves is simultaneously masked and dumped outside.

It is this simultaneity of masking and dumping of sloth in which VV breeds. It creates an illusion that sloth can be eliminated  and hence there is no need for us to learn to manage it. Hygiene is all about effective dealing with sloth and not about eliminating it. When the focus shifts to getting rid of what is regarded as dirty, we only get destruction. Those of us who are old enough, will recall the horrors of Turkman gate, when a whole lot of destruction was unleashed in the name of a clean up drive.

Imagine a system (home, workplace, city,country) which has no sloth- no rage, no hatred, no envy, no lust,no greed, and where every person is only “clean and pure”. Such a place can only be fit for robots and I wonder if any human life can survive in such a place. Life is messy and can not be sustained without the sloth which is an integral part of it. Be it Swatchh Bharat or other endeavours of healthy, hygienic homes and work spaces, they can only be meaningful if they befriend sloth rather than try to get rid of it.

To sum up, we can neither resort to masking nor dumping that which we regard as “dirty”. Our only choice is to acknowledge it, befriend it and take care of it. I believe, this is what Gandhi ji tried to teach us but like in all other spheres we have chosen to worship him rather than try to live by his teachings.




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.






“Madam Sir”!!

Priyanka Chopra in Jai Gangaajal – a poster from the film


Saw “Jai Gangajal”,.It is a typical Prakash Jha film and the structure of the plot is almost the same as the earlier film Gangajal- A brave and honest cop in a small town, taking on the combined might of corrupt feudalistic politicians and economic interests with collusion of the law and order machinery.  She moves forward by triggering off forces of vigilante justice and negotiating his/her way through this mess to finally establish that Law must prevail for both the oppressors and the victims. The main difference is that in this case, the protagonist is a woman who is addressed by her subordinates and also many others as “Madam Sir” I do not know whether or not it is a prevalent practice in at least some parts of the country but that is not very important. What stayed with me is the symbolic significance of this oxymoron.

At one level, it is nothing more than a somewhat cute but silly way of the people concerned to come to terms with a situation that they may not be accustomed to. However, it also tells us how strong is the hold of “gender roles” in our psyche and how deep our entrenchments are. The simplest explanation of this oxymoron is that the two words are signifying two completely different things. While ‘Madam’ acknowledges her gender, ‘Sir’ on the other hand is an affirmation of her status and authority. By obvious implication, ‘Sir” is seen as having a strong co-relation with power and authority as compared to “Madam”. If this be so, then it is a strong statement about our difficulty in associating power and authority with the female gender.

There is another factor which makes the issue more complex  – the nature of the profession itself. Had the protagonist been a politician or a bureaucrat or a corporate executive perhaps an expression like “Madam Ji” may have sufficed. Here we are talking of a profession which is largely regarded as masculine. There is a strong link between the picture of an “ideal police officer” that we carry in our mind with qualities that we associate with masculinity. Thus, in many languages, words like courage, valour etc are often used interchangeably with manliness.  At one time people described Indira Gandhi as the only man in the cabinet, and this was meant as a complement and as a sign of her effectiveness. Similarly expressions like “hathon mein choodiyan pehnan” (wearing bangles in ones wrist) are regarded as symbols of cowardice. The term “Namard”(Impotent)  signifies  lack of courage in a man and inability to stand up for what is right. In this context, the term “Madam Sir” can be interpreted as a “Woman who is showing all the qualities associated with masculinity”

The term “Madam- Sir” can also be seen as an integration of the feminine and masculine principles. The portrayal of the protagonist does incorporate the qualities normally associated with the two genders. The soft, gracious and dignified way in which she holds her own ground in relating to her “patron” is indicative of her approach in dealing with both explicit and implicit oppression. However the most interesting element in this context was the contrast with one of the other main characters-  the Circle Inspector (called Circuit Babu) B.N.Singh-the totally masculine but corrupt police officer who had been helping the Bablu/Dablu duo in their political/economic misdeeds. Singh eventually turns the corner and joins the fight against Bablu/Dablu, but the trigger for this change is the betrayal from them and the disrespect shown towards his uniform. In fact “Wardi Par hath nahi lagana chahiye tha” (Don’t show disrespect to the uniform) is a sentiment which he expresses more than once. I think, Jha missed an opportunity by not contrasting the preoccupation with concern for “Wardi Pe Hath” (disrespect from others) with “Wardi Pe Daag” ( sanctity of the uniform).

Nonetheless, the two different ways one can look at “honour” is of significance. The masculine way where the concern is with extra-spective lens (how one is seen and treated by others) and the feminine way where the concern is with the introspective lens (maintaining one’s sanctity in one’s own eyes) Sadly, like in all other spheres of life, it is only the masculine way which is focused upon by most of us including women.

In its own way “Madam-Sir” says a lot about the times we are living in. On one hand, the traditional bifurcation of socio-economic roles associated with the two genders are fast disappearing and we find women who are playing roles associated with men (e.g.police force) and to a lesser extent men playing roles associated with women (e.g. house-keeping, child-care etc.). Simultaneously the gender roles configured in our minds are still determined by the social arrangements of an earlier era. . The expression “Madam-Sir” is only the tip of the ice-berg. Beneath lies a complex world of power inequities, gender roles and relationship between the masculine/feminine principles which are part of every human being irrespective of his/her gender. While to some extent the issues of inequality are being recognised and dealt with , all other issues are either ignored or treated as “problems” to be taken care off.

The issue of the co-holding of the masculine and feminine aspects is almost totally ignored. Hence while the world is becoming a little less patriarchal (with slightly reduced difference between the relative status and power of the two genders) , it is simultaneously becoming more Patri-centric i.e. governed by masculine principles.Femininity is seen as a weakness with which even women do not want to identify. While, many of them may proclaim as how they value their femininity, scratch the surface and you will find that this “valuing” is of “Women with balls” variety.

The issue of frozen gender roles is relatively easier to see, but it is often denied in oneself and projected on others like we do with all such uncomfortable phenomenon. Thus it is not uncommon to find people who claim that while they themselves are free of all such biases and prejudices, most other people are not and hence they are forced to compromise. On the other hand, there are people who believe that these “frozen gender roles” are how things ought to be and in the name of women’s liberation we are playing havoc with the existing social order. There are also people who own up these frozen roles, feel guilty and ashamed about them and work hard towards getting rid of them. Personally, I have not been able to resonate with any of these and have found them counter-productive. The more I deny them or the more I project them on to others or the more I try to fight them, the more virulent they become.

I am a product of a patriarchal heritage. While the family I grew up in was reasonably liberal and progressive for its time, the basic codings that I received about gender roles were essentially based upon patriarchy e.g. associating the role of a provider/protector with male gender and associating the role of an ambience builder with the female gender. Rationally, I know that these codings are no longer relevant in the present day world, but these codings have an emotive force which I can not deny. In fact, the more I repress/suppress this force, the more I push it into my psychic under-belly and the more lethal it becomes. I would like to say a gentle and gracious good bye to these codings but it is not easy. So far I have only been able to convince them that they have already over-stayed and taken them to the threshold. I do not intend to push them out of the door. Instead, I will patiently wait for them to leave of their own accord.

I would like to hear your experiences with gender roles and dynamics between masculine/feminine principles both within your self and the larger context.