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.


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.




Diversity & Inclusion – an endless journey

Most organisations today recognise the need for Diversity and Inclusion, particularly in the area of gender.Consequently many of them have set up D&I cells to ensure that it receives the necessary attention. Part of this awareness has become necessary due to external pressure (social/legal requirements, diktats from the corporate office etc.)  and part of it stems from a genuine appreciation of the benefits of D&I. However,  most organisations  find it difficult to translate this appreciation into action. The D&I agenda remains primarily a baby of the D&I cell and is rarely owned up by the rest of the organisation. Even when there is a strong commitment to it at the leadership level, it is not very easy to percolate it down.  l believe, this is so, because most of the present endeavours in this area are inadequate to deal with the real roadblocks. In my experience and understanding there are five major roadblocks to D&I and unless they are understood, appreciated and engaged with, it will be very difficult to pursue D&I in a meaningful way. These roadblocks are as follows-

  1. Glib Acceptance

A glib acceptance of D&I has done more harm than good. It has become “politically incorrect” to voice any doubts or reservations about D&I. The person who does so, runs the risk of being regarded as backward, rigid and not progressive. Hence most people find it prudent to keep their doubts and reservations to themselves and just make the “right noises”. The doubts and reservations are mostly discharged in the galleries and rarely expressed in open formal forums except through indirect passive resistance. Those who “dare “to voice their opposition are generally regarded as “problematic” and the anchors of D&I endeavour either “ignore” them or try to “manage” them.It is rarely recognised that they are in fact expressing “on behalf of” the larger community and can be extremely valuable resources, provided their doubts and concerns are acknowledged and addressed rather than being dismissed as “regressive”

I recall once a colleague and I were working with an organisation, wherein we were told that a particular individual was the major bottleneck in the pursuit of D&I agenda. As we worked with the person, we found that he was one of the few people in the system who had a clear and cogent understanding of what D&I entailed. Once his doubts and reservations were engaged with, he became one of the most committed supporters of the D&I agenda.

Assimilation of anything which is accepted without adequate challenge can only be “skin deep” and hence it is not surprising that while a lot of lip service is paid to D&I, it is rarely pursued with the seriousness that it deserves. Thus anchors of D&I agenda, need to particularly guard against the sabotage which comes under the garb of “glib acceptance”

2. Urgent over Important

Managers have to constantly walk the tight rope between that which is urgent and that which is important. They  can scarcely ignore either. However the increasing emphasis on “quarter to quarter” deliverables, short term career goals, unwillingness to make long term commitments have tilted the scale significantly on side of the “urgent”.By its very nature the D&I agenda falls in the category of “important” and not “urgent”. It has no bearing on the immediate quarterly results but is crucial for the long term health, viability and success of the organisation. Thus often, the managers are required to transcend their “urgency preoccupations” in order to pursue D&I agenda. It is most clearly visible in situations of recruitment and placement, where the primary concern is to get someone who is immediately available and usable. In such a scenario D&I will necessarily be seen as an impediment.

Most organisations deal with this tension by creating a greater sense of urgency around the D&I agenda. This is done through mechanisms such as setting specific diversity targets, monitoring progress and sometimes making them an integral part of performance appraisal. While this helps in creating some urgency around D&I agenda, it also has a huge backlash of resentment. The larger issues of organisation policies  and culture which result in “urgent” taking precedence over “important”remain unexamined. In such a scenario,  pursuit of D&I agenda becomes a compulsion rather than an act of conviction and commitment.

3. Comfort with Similarity

While dealing with some one who is different from ourselves may be potentially exciting and beneficial, it requires us to move out of our comfort zone. Engaging with people who are “our own kind” is a lot easier. The discomfort in dealing with some one who does not belong to our reference group (in terms of gender, class, ethnic group, attitudes, values&beliefs, etc.) is generally dealt with either through-

  • Accentuating the difference and developing stereotypes(e.g. North Indians are brash, Women are emotional, social class equals sophistication etc.) OR
  • Becoming insensitive to the difference (e.g.what is true for me is also true for the other,  men and women are just the same, social background/ethnicity has no bearing on the individual,  etc)
  • Often, both these work hand in hand. This is most clearly visible in case of Gender relations. On one hand, women are resented for behaving in ways which are against the gender stereotypes (e.g. being aggressive, demanding, ambitious etc.) On the other hand it is expected that they would assert, network and work late hours just like their male colleagues.

Many organisations try to address these issues through training and development interventions for both men and women. However, most of these interventions rarely go beyond emphasising the need to transcend biases and prejudices inherited from a patriarchal social structure. The underlying fears, anxieties, excitements and discomforts of engaging with differences are rarely acknowledged let alone being addressed.

4.   Over crystallised notions  of Effectiveness

At a collective level, the discomfort of dealing with differences is managed through an over crystallised notion of an effective member/manager/leader. While there are obvious differences across functions, roles and levels; the broad pictures have a high degree of commonality. This broad picture is that of a suave, articulate,ambitious, self-assured person who is governed by objective rationality and who can maintain smooth interfaces in his/her dealings with others. People who don’t fit the mould (i.e. eccentric, socially awkward, introverted, sentimental, temperamental and volatile people) can at best be tolerated but are unlikely to go very far unless of course they are exceptionally gifted.

It is easy to see that this picture of effectiveness is heavily loaded in favour of people of a certain background. The upper middle-class, english educated, upper caste, urban male has a clear advantage over others. Even when the person concerned comes from a different background, he/she is socialised into this mould. Today many BPO’s in Bengaluru are having to recruit from small towns, but part of their induction includes converting them into Bangaloreans. Inclusion of more women in organisations has not led to any significant enhancement of femininity, on the contrary it has led to masculinisation of women.

Thus the assumption that greater representation of people from varying backgrounds will lead to diversity may not be totally valid. On the contrary, it is more likely to lead to converting a diverse set of people into an identical mould. Pursuit of D&I agenda will require going beyond the obvious tangible factors like gender, race, ethnicity etc. and paying attention to the frozen pictures of managerial effectiveness that we carry.

5. Management Education

Strange as it may seem, the present frames of management education (both formal and informal) are not particularly conducive to D&I. These frame are designed for, and work well when applied to people who are more or less alike. In such scenarios what one needs are a set of principles which can be applied in a fair, rational and objective manner across the board. One only needs to ensure consistency and uniform application of these principles. Not surprisingly “firm and fair” has been a favourite expression of many managers.

Managing a diverse set of people is a different ball game. What works well in case of one person may be disastrous in case of another. Contextual sensitivity is crucial in handling diversity and for this managers need to move out of their comfort zone of consistency and and rely on their subjective wisdom. The present approaches in management education lay considerable emphasis on development of analytical skills and data based decision making. They do precious little to enhance the sensing, intuitive abilities and subjective wisdom which play a crucial role in dealing with a diverse set of people.

It is therefore not surprising that often the professionally educated managers have very little understanding of what D&I entails. They tend to hold a  naive belief that D&I  is simply a matter of being sufficiently “broad-minded” and “sincere” to treat people equitably irrespective of their class, race, gender and ethnic background. Thus while they demonstrate high degree of comfort in dealing with people of “diverse backgrounds”, they are completely at a loss when they have to deal with people who are not “their type” i.e. people who do not share their way of looking at things and/or people whose values,beliefs and priorities are different than their own .

In the ultimate analysis it is this naive belief (that D&I is simply a matter of being broad minded and equitable)  which is the biggest obstacle in the pursuit of D&I agenda. The reality is a lot more complex than that. D&I is a quality of individual and collective mind which recognises the toxicity inherent in excessive uniformity. It entails willingness to go beyond one’s comfort zone. It requires the ability to co-hold urgent with important, it entails respecting the “difference” between ourselves and the other without stereotyping, it requires re-examination of some of our frozen frames of effectiveness, but above all it requires us to invest in our “contextual- sensitivity” and subjective wisdom” rather than relying on “fixed rules” which can be applied uniformly and consistently.

The large complex organisations of today need general principles and rules which can be applied across the board irrespective of the context. To that extent, a certain degree of hegemony is inevitable. The difficulty arises when this hegemony becomes so oppressive that it leaves no space for individual sensing, subjectivity, discretion and wisdom. The co-holding of universal objective principles with contextual subjective wisdom is too large an issue to be addressed here. For the limited purpose of this piece, we only need to appreciate that meaningful engagement with D&I agenda, necessarily entails stepping out of the hegemony of the current management thinking.

In this sense, D&I is a never ending journey. If we do not understand the nature of this journey and the road blocks inherent in it, we run the risk of replacing one type of hegemony with another.








Paradox of Frameworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.








Sexually charged workplaces

Human beings in the present day world have to learn something which our ancestors did not need to, namely, how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender. On the face of it , this seems like simply a matter of overcoming our  socialised prejudices about gender roles, but the actual reality may be a lot more complex. Let us begin by  imagining the following scenario-

There is a group of 8 to 10 people sitting in the conference room of a multinational IT company. Their demeanour suggests that they are discussing some important issues around which there are strong opinions. In this group there are two attractive youngsters Abhishek and Madhabi. Both of them are participating in the discussion but every now and then, their eyes keep finding each other. They both seem to be aware that they are being noticed by the “other” and keep acknowledging it through their eyes and occasional smiles. Mr. Mehta who is the senior most member of the group has noticed these subtle exchanges between the two. Mr Mehta who is quite fond of Madhabi, keeps giving disapproving looks to both of them which remain largely unnoticed by the couple. At some stage in the discussion, Madhabi expresses an idea about which Abhishek has some reservations. However he does not want to offend Madhabi and puts forth his objection in a tentative and confused manner. Mr Mehta reacts sharply to him and says in a stern tone “I am unable to understand anything of what you are saying and fail to understand your objection to Madhabi’s excellent suggestion”. The rest of the group members silently look at each other and smile in a “knowing” manner- tacitly agreeing that it would be futile to discuss the issue any further.

This is a fairly common place occurrence and could be happening in several places right at this moment. What is interesting about it is that it so commonplace that its significance eludes us. We are likely to see it as “par for the course” and think nothing about it. Just like the members of the group described above, we recognise that what is visible is only the “tip of the iceberg” and the “real issues” lie elsewhere; but also believe that the prudent approach is to ignore them. This is the prevalent approach of most organisation towards issues of Sexual dynamics unless of course they manifest themselves as cases of sexual harassment.

Whenever Men and Women come together in any space, some sexual energy is triggered. It is not always overt and may not even be experienced by the people concerned as having anything to do with Sexuality. Often it manifests itself in a subtle manner like heightened self-consciousness, preoccupation with how one is being received, subtle competitiveness with members of one’s own gender, shifts in language/body postures etc. Even without our realising, we also convey messages about our Gender Ideology. For example, when a woman sitting in a group generally speaks in soft tones and keeps her gaze down, she  communicates a strong adherence to prescribed gender roles. On the other hand when a woman talks in loud voice, uses rough language and looks other people in the eye, she communicates her indifference/defiance of prevalent gender roles. These “unstated statements” invariably generate strong  feeling responses in others including attraction, repulsion, anger and hostility or tenderness and protective instinct.

Simply put, when Men and Women share a space, there is plenty which is happening below the surface.  In most systems, unless this dynamics manifests itself through blatant violations like sexual harassment, it is pushed under the carpet. Even in cases of Sexual harassment, the general preference is to overlook minor aberrations and subtle indicators. Thus till the proverbial “shit” hits the ceiling, we tend to ignore  it or dismiss it as not very significant. Needless to say, just because we close our eyes to it, it does not go away. It continues to operate below the surface and impacts the ambience of the work space as illustrated in the scenario described above, and/or finds release in unbridled sexual encounters.

In some ways this tendency to ignore or pushing under the carpet is not unique to sexual dynamics of. In most work systems almost all human dynamics  is treated in a similar fashion. The general belief being that work systems must be governed by “rationality” and the “emotional” side is the “private affair “of the individual and must be dealt by him/her alone.  However there are some factors which make the dynamics of Sexual tension very distinct from other forms of human dynamics. These are as follows-

  1. The primal energy associated with sexuality triggers a much higher levels of emotional intensities and passion than what may occur in other forms of human dynamics.
  2. The sexual urges are particularly prone to being suppressed/repressed, and hence it is very difficult for the individual to acknowledge them or own them up. In the scenario described earlier, it is quite likely that Mr. Mehta may have no clue about the link between his  sexual jealousy and his need to “put down Abhishek”.
  3. The social embarrassment makes it extremely difficult to bring these issues into the open and generally there is strong collective collusion to remain silent and pretend as though nothing is happening.
  4. Most importantly, as a species we have developed very little capability of sharing a work space with members of the other gender. In large part of human history, men and women have worked and often also lived in segregated spaces. In Indian joint family system, there was very little interaction between Men and Women . Even between husband and wife, the interaction was confined to the privacy of their bedroom, if they had one. Their work spaces were clearly demarcated with virtually no interference/involvement of the other. The domains of their leisure activities were also separate, and hence they had very little opportunity to learn how to manage the Sexual tension which is an inevitable part of any Man-Woman relationship.                                                                                                                                                                                     Admittedly, with changes in social design, child rearing practices, co-educational institutions and reconfiguration of gender roles, we are getting some experience of sharing a space with each other, but the codings received through a long evolutionary history can not be thrown away just like that. Further,there are many conflicting messages which the individual imbibes through these different sources,which creates considerable confusion around gender roles and relations. Thus while on one hand there is a celebration of ambition and need for achievement in women, on the other hand popular T.V. serials continue to project them as infrastructure/martyrs whose only concern is the well-being of their family. It is therefore not surprising that this confusion is played out in work spaces where both Men and Women carry conflicting expectations both of themselves and the “other”.


Quite clearly, in the days to come the need for men and women to share their work spaces is likely to increase greatly. Consequently, healthy and effective engagement with Sexual dynamics is likely to have a significant impact both for the individual as also for the total system. Unfortunately most of the prevalent approaches in the area of gender diversity/dynamics either side-step the issue of sexual dynamics or treat it as an illegitimate intruder into work space. Their essential position being that in the sphere of work space , Gender is (or at least should be) irrelevant. All that matters is the skills and competencies that the person brings to the table  and whether it is a Man or a Woman is of no consequences. The emphasis is on treating one self and others as People rather than as Men and Women. This stance is neither feasible nor very healthy because it leads to further repression/suppression of sexual urges and/or their indiscriminate discharge.  After all, work spaces are formed, nourished and fostered by communities of Men and Women and not by de-sexualised robots of skills and competencies.  Undoubtedly  Men and Women are not just sexual objects. Equally they have a gender/sexual identity which is an integral part of them and will necessarily manifests itself in their interaction with each other.

Thus we have no real choice other than to learn how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender without de-sexualising either ourselves or the other person.What this entails is a significant reconfiguration of our gender/sexual identities. Hitherto these have evolved in the context of certain bifurcation of socio-economic roles of the two genders. These bifurcations are fast losing their relevance, but our gender/sexual identities are still caught with them. A typical example of this is the difficulty which many Men experience when their advance are turned down by a Woman who is lower to them in power  and status hierarchy.While some high profile cases of this nature may attract considerable attention, it is generally overlooked that it is a fairly common occurrence.  Mere moral indignation about such occurrences does not take us very far. What this require of us is serious work with ourselves-particularly around the question as to what does it mean to be a Man or a Woman in today’s world where traditional bifurcation of social roles are no longer applicable?

Do share your insights about Sexual dynamics  as you have experienced it  in the work spaces that you are/have been a part of.