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.




Beyond Peaceful Co-existence

In early 60’s Sahir Ludhianvi wrote one of my  favourite songs “tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega ( you will neither become a hindu nor a moslem, being a human offspring, you will become a human being). I loved it then and I love it now, but there is a difference. Somewhere along the line, the word “banega” (will become) got reconfigured as “rahega” (will remain). Let me explain- as an adolescent, I believed that sectoral identities based on region, religion, race etc. are an impediment to embracing humanness.Today, I think that embracing my hindu-ness or moslem-ness is a necessary first step to embracing  my human-ness. The problem arises when the hindu-ness or moslem-ness becomes a prison and I remain its captive. The emphasis has therefore shifted from denial/rejection of sectoral identity to  accepting it,valuing it  and transcending it in order to embrace a larger identity.

I often  come across people who are more comfortable being a “person” rather than being a “man” or a “woman”. Similarly I find many people who find it easier to identify with the notion of “global citizenship” rather than with their national, linguistic, racial, religious identity. There seems to be some anxiety/discomfort with acknowledging differences of any kind lest they become a source of discord and discrimination.  I recall several years back, I came across a hoarding which had been put up either by UNICEF or by some NGO working in the area of social harmony. It showed 5 or 6 infants of different ethnic backgrounds with their eyes closed. The caption read “Don’t open their eyes to the differences that they can not see”. It left me wondering as to how could negation or denial be seen as an effective way of dealing with difference.

The fear of combat and violence between different sectoral identities is very real  and hence “closing one’s eyes to the difference” becomes a tempting choice.However just because we choose to close our eyes,  the differences(and associated feelings)   do not disappear, in fact like all repressed phenomenon, they become even more virulent. The rise in religious fundamentalism and racial sensitivities, across the world, is a clear evidence that sectoral identities can not be denied or repressed.

The traditional Indian way of dealing with differences between sectoral identities has been through “segregation”.  The basic assumption being that if different identity groups can be kept separated from each other and their interaction regulated ,then they can co-exist peacefully.This is the basic rationale behind the rigid caste-system and the strong prohibitions in inter-community relations. Some time back Mani Ratnam had made a film called Bombay about communal tensions and violence. The film starts with life in a village where Hindus and Moslems live in harmony, amiability and good-will, but maintain the requisite prohibitions particularly in respect of inter-dinning and inter-marriage. However all hell breaks loose when a hindu boy and a moslem girl fall in love with each other. I think this was an excellent portrayal of peaceful co-existence through segregation and controlled interaction.

Dealing with differences through segregation can be witnessed in virtually all facets of life in India including corporate world. Fragmentation into silos(based on function, department, region, ethnicity etc.) has been a wide spread phenomenon in Indian organisations. By and large, these fragmented groups follow the policy of “non-interference” and “peaceful co-existence”. Thus difficulties in collaboration in India, are less due to “in-fighting” and more due to “indifference”. This is not to suggest that inter-group conflicts and rivalries are not present, but only that they are generally expressed through subtle sabotage and undercutting than a direct combat. At the manifest level, the relationships are marked by the principle of “live and let live”, and compromise/collusion play a huge role in conflict resolution.

The complex design of modern day organisations is more like an intertwined web in which neat segregations are a virtual impossibility. In this design, the individual does not have the choice of belonging to a stable well bounded fragment. On the other hand, the individual has to belong to multiple groups and forge many relationships. It is therefore not surprising that most Indian organisation today are struggling to make the transition from a simple pyramid to a complex matrix structure.

Even at the macro social level, It is becoming increasingly clear that the choice of keeping the other at “an arm’s length” and hoping for peaceful co-existence is no longer feasible. Whether we like it or not, in an interdependent world, we are in each other’s  way. Add to this the factor of discrimination which is an inevitable fall out of segregation (as in the case of caste-system) and the conclusion is inescapable viz. the traditional Indian ways of dealing with differences through segregation have serious limitations in the present day world. Simultaneously, we can not eliminate differences through combat and violence. Closing our eyes to them and pretending that they do not exist is equally problematic, as argued earlier.

That leaves us with only one choice- learning to cherish differences rather than treating them as a threat. This is easier said than done. It is fashionable to extol the virtues of diversity, but the fears, anxieties and discomfort of dealing with “differences” are rarely acknowledged and addressed. Mostly they are denied by pretending that they do not exist OR the other is kept at an arm’s length in the spirit of “live and let live”. This approach is no longer feasible,but more importantly it does not allow the different fragmented groups to interact with each other, learn from each other, and enrich each other .If this is to happen then segregation and peaceful co-existence is not enough. It will require a more pro-active engagement- a greater willingness to experience each other, dialogue with each other and assimilation of each other.

A more proactive and intense engagement with the “other” will necessary be a bumpy ride. To expect it to be hassle free and smooth is to deny its very essence. It will necessarily be accompanied by some tension, chaos and conflict. Thus it can only regard peaceful co-existence as a basic value and not as an absolute operative principle. Peaceful co-existence can help in living with diversity, but cherishing diversity also requires valuing conflict and chaos.




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.








Where is the Bhartiya Purush?

Bhartiya Nari is a powerful symbol. It evokes/provokes both reverence and derision. To some people it symbolises all that is great and beautiful about our culture and to others it depicts our misogyny and hypocrisy whereby women are simultaneously deified and oppressed.The symbol represents all the virtues which are associated with a woman and hence an ideal  for every  Indian woman.  Interestingly, there is no male equivalent of this symbol.  I have not come across any term like  Bhartiya Purush in any discourse. Often,all wrong-doings by a woman are treated as a slur on Indian womanhood, whereas in case of men they are treated as personal failures/shortcomings and not in any way reflective of the collective  . Thus it seems that while we have a fairly clearly defined notion of what an ideal Indian woman ought to be, the culture seems to be relatively silent on what an ideal Indian man ought to be.

The obvious explanation for this discrepancy lies in the power/status difference between the two genders. In any system(family, work organisation, society at large) the code of conduct is more strictly enforced for those who are lower in the power hierarchy. People at higher levels, generally have more flexibility and leeway for transgressing boundaries. Their primary task being to ensure that people below them adhere to the prescribed norms by disciplining them.  A patriarchal social design creates power inequity between men and women. Hence it is not surprising that the demands for preserving the culture and its values is placed on women and men can act as the gatekeepers and monitors.

However, there may be another complication in the Indian context. In my understanding (which is also supported by insights gained from scholars like Ashish Nandy) Indian culture is essentially androgynous (integration of the masculine and feminine principle) If anything, it leans more towards the feminine side. Most of the cherished Indian values e.g. primacy of familial ties, peaceful co-existence, looking at nature as a living entity, treating guests as god, faith in cosmic benevolence, respect for wisdom and innocence and not an exclusive worship of youthful virility etc.,have a distinct feminine flavour. These values may not necessarily translate into actual behaviour but they do have a strong normative pull in the Indian Psyche.

On the other hand, the Indian social design is highly patriarchal and reinforces the superior status of men over women. This tension between the essence of the culture (tilt towards the feminine) and social design (tilt towards the masculine) is perhaps resolved through excessive codification for women and ambiguity in the notion of an ideal man.

Thus, while a woman is expected to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good wife, and a good mother; for men the injunctions go rarely beyond being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. Depictions of ideal husbands and ideal fathers are conspicuously absent from most Indian mythology and folklore.  There are many stories about a son sacrificing for the sake of father (e.g. Rama going into exile for 14 years to honour his father’s word, Puru sacrificing his youth for his father Yayati, Bhishma giving up his claim to throne and accepting a life of celibacy so that his father can marry) one hardly comes across similar sacrifices made by fathers. Similarly there are countless stories about a wife’s love and devotion towards a husband but hardly any the other way. It would seem that the underlying message is that while women must grow into multiple roles,men must remain stuck in their “son” role and thereby never truly embrace mature masculinity.

This leads to an uneasy relationship between Indian men and their masculinity. The cultural tilt towards femininity becomes more a source of shame and smallness rather than something to be celebrated. Often these feelings of shame and smallness are discharged through insensitive oppression of not just women but of anyone who is seen as lower in status hierarchy.

Centuries of external aggression and dominance have fuelled the feelings of inferiority even further and left us with a sense of not being sufficiently manly. Thus it is not surprising that the cultural tilt towards femininity becomes even more burdensome for Indian men and they often seek refuge in culturally alien forms of masculinity. What we need to recognise, accept and cherish is the reality that the only form of masculinity which will be meaningful for us will be of an androgynous variety i.e. which has a strong integration with the feminine principle. In recent history a powerful example of this was provided by Swami Vivekanand whose masculinity was accompanied by  strong compassion and service orientation.

In this sense, there ought to be no difference between our notions of an ideal Indian Woman and and an ideal Indian Man, because both are essentially a derivative of the androgynous construct of Ardhnarishwar. By over- codifying  the notion of Bhartiya Nari, we seem to have passed on the entire responsibility of preserving Bhartiyta (Indianness) on to the women. Is it any surprise that it has become a caricature and invites more derision and defiance than respect and inspiration. It is high time that Indian Men start embracing the values which they associate with the construct of Bhartiya Nari. This interestingly may be the only viable way for them to come to terms with their masculinity. The first step in this endeavour is perhaps to go beyond the limited definition of being an obedient son and a protector of family honour. The multiplicity of roles which they associate with an ideal Woman (daughter, sister, wife, mother) needs to come alive for themselves as well ,particularly in terms of their husband and father roles.






Guilt Vs. Shame- The Indian Context

Guilt and Shame are not very pleasant feelings, but they play a significant role in fostering Individual and Social health. The popular Psychology particularly of the American variety tends to treat both Guilt and Shame as undesirable but has a marked preference for Guilt. It is argued that Guilt has some redeeming features whereas Shame has none. The basic argument goes something like as follows-

  1. Shame is focussed on the Self (e.g. I feel ashamed because of my poor looks) as against Guilt which is focused on specific actions( e.g. I feel guilty because I cheated)
  2. Shame has a stronger link with other’s perception (e.g. loss of face) as against Guilt which is focused on one’s own realisation (e.g. remorse)
  3. Guilt has a direct link with ethics and morality(e.g. I violated a code of norms and values) whereas Shame is more generic (e.g.I feel awkward in social interaction)
  4. In Guilt, there is a recognition of the “other” as a separate person and concern about the impact of our action on him/her. In Shame, the only preoccupation is with one’s own “self-image” either in the eyes of others or oneself.
  5. In Guilt, there is greater accountability whereas in Shame one tends to look at oneself as a “helpless victim”
  6. Consequently, Guilt can be utilised productively, whereas Shame only leads to withdrawal, passivity, substance abuse, self-beating etc.
  7. Shame is associated with the second stage of Erikson’s model and Guilt with the third. Similarly Shame is seen as linked to pre-oedipal stage in the Freudian frame and Guilt with the Oedipal stage. Hence there has been a tendency to look at Guilt as a more “advanced” feeling than Shame.

More than half a century ago, anthropologist Ruth Benedict used the distinction between Guilt and Shame to contrast American and Japanese cultures and labeled them as “Guilt Culture” and “Shame Culture” respectively. Since there was an implicit superiority of “Guilt” over “Shame” some degree of controversy around her work was inevitable. However it opened up the possibility of going beyond the simplistic lens with which we look at these two and also how it is important to look at them in relation to the salience of different cultures. Some significant issues in this regard are as follows-

  1. Many of the differences between Guilt and Shame rest on the “assumed volition” by the person, which is highly subjective in nature and also has a strong cultural dimension. There are people who believe that almost everything that happens to them is linked to their own choices and action; simultaneously there are people who believe that their own choices and actions are of very little significance. Thus the same phenomenon can be seen as “guilt inducing” by the first group and “shame inducing” by the other. Similarly cultures differ in the significance that they attach to “individual volition”. For instance, in the traditional Indian culture, the distinction between “what is of your choice” and “what is not” is not very relevant. The theory of reincarnation being a classical example of how “individual volition” can be regarded as completely irrelevant (it is all because of your deeds in the past births) and also  the only important factor (after all, it is all because of your own deeds though in an earlier birth) Thus to look at Guilt and Shame through the lens of accountability may not be very relevant for cultures like India.
  2. There is perhaps some validity to associating Guilt with a later stage of Psycho-social development,but that does not make it into a more advanced feeling. If anything, it suggests that Shame is the more basic of the two and Guilt is in a way, a kind of shame. However the more important question is as to what does it tell us about the two. As has been suggested by some scholars, it is likely that Shame is linked to “fear of abandonment” whereas Guilt is linked to “fear of punishment”.Putting it in the Indian context, it is significant to note that threat of exclusion has been the most powerful way of dealing with deviant behaviour in traditional Indian society. “Hukka Paani Band” ( exclusion from social intercourse) was a common practice in most Indian villages. In a more subtle form, use of exclusion/isolation continues to be deployed even in the more modern urban society to control individual deviance.
  3. Another significant factor is the relative emphasis which a cultures places on Individualism and Independence as against Collectivism and Interdependence. Cultures which place more emphasis on Individualism/Independence are like to clearly bifurcate between “what belongs to the Self” and “what belongs to others/context”. In cultures like India which have a greater focus on Collectivism/Interdependence, the notion of Self is a lot more fluid and hence it is virtually impossible to differentiate  one’s notions about oneself, from the notions that significant others have about us. This has significant implications for both Shame and Guilt.Shame goes beyond a mere “loss of face” and gets linked to one’s expectations of oneself. Similarly Guilt does not remain an abstract ethical/moral construct but gets linked to “other people’s expectations from one self”
  4. Another dubious distinction between Shame and Guilt is that the former pertains to the Self and later to one’s actions. In Indian tradition, Feeling, Thought and Action are seen as a composite whole and not distinct from each other. Thus it is not very uncommon for a person to feel ashamed/guilty for having an inappropriate thought/feeling even if it is not translated into action.

The central point that I wish to make is that the Western belief that Guilt is a more “productive” feeling than Shame may not be very applicable in the Indian context. Perhaps in the western context, Guilt has played a more proactive role in “self-regulation” and “social -control”; whereas Shame has been seen as something which one only suffers silently and passively. This may not be true for other cultures like India. In fact, it appears that in our tradition, Shame has been the main vehicle for both self-regulation and social-control. Simultaneously, one can not escape the reality that the modern-day societies are built on the premise that Shame is essentially a personal/private affair whereas Guilt entails accountability to others/culpability and is therefore more amenable for self-regulation and social control.

This places us in a very difficult position. On one hand, our traditional (Shame based)ways of self-regulation and social-control are no longer applicable and on the other our psychic orientation is not very receptive to the modern (Guilt based) ways. Thus any attempt to induce guilt creates strong defiance and counter-reaction. This is often witnessed in the perennial tussle between “law enforcing” agencies and  mobs/clans representing “popular sentiment”. Simply put we seem to be losing our sensitivity to Shame and becoming increasingly defiant and violent in dealing with Guilt

This becomes particularly stark when the issues involved pertain to collective pathologies like caste/gender based oppression. The more they are sought to be addressed through “Inducing Guilt” the more virulent the response becomes. Needless to say, there are no easy answers. Perhaps what we need is a judicious mix of both Guilt based strategies and Shame based strategies. The main difference between the two is that while Guilt based strategies focus on the “wrong doings” of the individual/group/ community; the Shame based strategies focus on the “failure” of the individual/group/community to live up to its own “idealised image”

In my work with myself, other people, groups, organisations, I have found that an over-reliance on either of the two strategies becomes counter-productive. Also their efficacy is at least partly dependent upon fear of exclusion (in case of Shame) and fear of punishment (in case of Guilt) Fortunately, there is much more to human existence than these fears. Human beings also have innate needs for self-reflexivity,integrity, meaningfulness, concern and compassion, which perhaps play an even greater role in self-regulation and social control. However it would be utopian to dismiss the role of Guilt and Shame in this respect. The best that one can possibly hope for is to deploy them in ways which take into account the salient cultural context.

Look forward to hearing from you how you have experienced the interplay of Guilt and Shame in yourself and your context.



The Mythical Majority

Whenever I hear the term Majority Community, I feel a little lost. I am not sure as to who does it include and who does it exclude? I presume that term is intended for people who are branded as Hindus, and since I am one such person it should include me. While I strongly resonate with the philosophical underpinnings of what are considered Hindu Religion(s) as also the way religiosity is engaged with in our civilisation, I am not a religious person, have very little faith in many of the practices which are followed in the name of Hinduism and most importantly, do not subscribe to the Varnashram- which is an integral part of most Hindu Religion(s). In fact so pervasive is the influence of Varnashram that it has been able to make significant in roads even in religions which are not supposed to be Hindu e.g. Sikhism, Islam, christianity etc. Keeping all this in mind, I do not know whether I should consider myself as a Hindu and whether or not I should consider myself  as part of the so-called majority community. Further, all my sectoral identities(based on caste,language, region etc) make me into a minority with varying degrees of strength. As a hindi-speaking person I am part of a significantly large minority and as a Punjabi Khatri Arya -samaji, a relatively smaller one. However, since I do not have any significant emotive pull towards my sectoral identities (except the linguistic one) I can not consider my self a minority either. Hence I am in this strange place where I can neither consider myself as part of the majority nor a part of the minority.

This see-saw of majority-minority had not been of any great significance for large part of my life. I had assumed rightly or wrongly that most of my other countrymen are in the same situation. I had assumed that we are a collation of minorities who have done a reasonably good job of living together. (please see my post on the principle of limited consensus) This had been made possible partly because of tightly defined codes of behaviour for social engagement(e,g. restrictions on who one can marry) which are neither feasible nor desirable in the present context. Simultaneously there was a philosophy of life and psychological orientation (what I call Indian-ness)  which helped us to live with differences. Unfortunately I see this fast eroding. I feel very sad about this erosion but I am not sure how my fellow countrymen feel about it. Hence here again I do not know whether I am part of the majority or the minority.

What I am most concerned about it is that in absence of the traditional ways of living together, how will these different minority groups relate with each other. In this context, even groups who claim to be the voice of the majority community are in fact only a minority. If they really believed that they represented the majority voice, they would not need to resort to the tactics which they do. What I see happening around me is heightened anxiety bordering on paranoia in every minority group, quick closing of ranks, a complete refusal to listen to others except to the extent of forging alliances. This process has surfaced very prominently in the last few days but it has been going on for a considerable period of time. Thus  strife has come to define the basic relationship between minority groups and all co-operation is for the purpose of fighting a common enemy (the principle of enemy’s enemy being a friend) In today’s newspaper I was horrified to see the expression of “ideological war” being attributed to Sh. Arun Jaitely . I do not know whether he actually used the term, but his statement certainly had a win-lose flavour. If people who are supposed to integrate, synthesise and hold the total picture, talk in terms of a win-lose language, then we are in deep trouble. Let me also point out that Mr. jaitely is no exception in this regard.Most others (including the so-called liberals) have been doing the same thing.Several people who are talking today of the need to protect the right to dissent, have had no problems with crushing dissent when it suited them. This is  an inevitable consequence of forging alliances on the basis of animosity towards a common enemy. Today the minority group which wants religious/cultural hegemony has made a convenient alliance with another minority group which wants to convert India into Singapore,and found a common enemy in the liberal left. . I am sure in time there contra-pulls will surface and a new set of alliances/enemies will emerge. Similarly groups which have come together on the basis of their animosity towards the Sangh Pariwar will also have to deal with their animosity towards each other. The central point I wish to make is that when anxiety/paranoia of being a minority is fuelled then all relatedness gets determined by strife and animosity.

The win-lose paradigm seems to have now gone beyond the main actors and infiltrated among all of us also.Thus I find that it is becoming extremely difficult to talk to anyone on these issues without taking sides. The kind of mails a person reads, forwards, likes ,comments upon has a distinct stamp of which side the individual is on. Most of the writings of intellectuals  have a clear one-sided position. Even those who claim to provide a “balanced view” are only using relatively moderate language and taking extra effort to sound “reasonable”, though their basic position is the same as that of the group that they represent. The comments posted are close-ended and made from frozen positions. Any attempt to explore/raise questions (as I have sometimes tried to do) remains un-responded . I wonder whether anyone is really interested in a dialogue or do we only want to fight-sometimes in tones which sound reasonable and sometimes in loud/shrill and abusive ways.  I am afraid, in absence of dialogue, the anxiety of being a minority will push every group into forging a mythical majority with continual strife and hostility

I would very much like to hear how you have experienced the majority-minority dynamics for yourself and in the larger context


Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

One fall out of the present crisis linked to the JNU issue is that it has brought to the surface a significant question as to what does it mean to be an Indian? Large part of this discourse is around meaning of Nationalism. However constructs like Nationalism have to be contextualised. Meaning of Nationalism for a country which has a long history of uninterrupted Nationhood and which consists of people who belong to the same race, language, religion etc. can not be the same as in case of a plural society with huge diversity and at best a sporadic history of Nationhood.


I am not a student of history and can not comment about the competing accounts regarding constructs like Aaryavrata, Akhaand Bharat etc. All I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that in 1947 when we came together as a nation, our primary anchors of belonging were more sectoral (based on province, language, religion etc.) than national. Thus at that time it was not uncommon in Punjabi households to use the term hindustani for people in U.P. The official clarion call was to transcend our sectoral belonging, embrace a national identity and participate in the task of building a fair, progressive, equitable and secular society. However the notion of what this Indian identity was remained abstract and could at best be linked with what we wished to become rather than who we were. The end result was that the Indian identity got split into two parts-one part was what my friend Raghu Ananthnaraynan calls the “ urban, english speaking, featureless, odourless, colorless Indian” who has no link with either his heritage or his context. In many ways this part of ourselves is very much like what Macaulay wanted us to become. The other part remained deeply entrenched in the sectoral identity ( and its associated fears, anxieties and prejudice) and mechanically adhered to all its prescribed ways. This split was inevitable since we had a narrative for our sectoral identity, we had none for our national identity. The only way we can deal with it is by building a meaningful narrative of being an Indian which resonates with us both emotionally and intellectually. A narrative which we feel/think understands who we are and who we wish to become.

Continue reading “Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative”

Principle of Relative Consensus

Principle of Relative Consensus

In India it is almost impossible to have everyone agree on anything. We have our opinions on virtually all matters- whether or not we know anything about the issue is of little consequence. Thus the good old Addas ( an expression used in Kolkata for gathering of friends in street corners, tea shops, verandas etc. where there is endless discussion on local/ national/international affairs, politics, sports, films, literature, religion and spirituality etc. etc. ) are extremely colorful spaces with high decibel levels and heated exchanges of both ideas and feelings. Invariably, these Addas do not lead to any final outcome. Nor do they end with bitter acrimony. They usually end when they reach a point which all parties can “live with” and are willing to give up/postpone their need to establish the supremacy of their view point.

I have come to believe that this is the only viable way of living with differences in the Indian context, if we wish to retain our ethos of diversity and plurality. I have called it the principle of relative consensus i.e. some thing around which there may not be complete consensus but something that every one can live with. This is fundamentally different from the concept of “majority rule”. Majority rule is a quantitative construct whereas the principle of Relative Consensus has a strong qualitative dimension.Let me illustrate the difference with a help of an example. Continue reading “Principle of Relative Consensus”