Sexuality, Work spaces and Me Too

This is a politically incorrect piece. It can easily be misconstrued as a defence for the predatory behaviour of several powerful men (and some women)and/or victim shaming of those who have suffered at their hands. My intent is to do neither but only to highlight how the present deluge of “victim-perpetrator” narratives can trivialise the very serious matter of sexual exploitation.

In the present deluge, there is a preponderance of the “victim-perpetrator” lens. The prevalent narrative is that these “victims” have at last found the courage to expose their predators. Not surprisingly, a counter narrative has begun to emerge viz. these are women who used their sexuality to get ahead in life and are now crying foul (significantly, in many cases, after reaching a stage when either they don’t need the patronage of their erstwhile perpetrators and/or when their sexual prowess is on the decline)

This bout of allegations-counter allegations is likely to be counter productive. One because these are rarely “black and white” situations but more importantly, because it is likely to create a situation where we may get desensitised to the severity of allegations. Admittedly, to begin with some heads will roll(which in turn may act as a deterrent) but simultaneously, we may start looking at them as “routine affair” and treating everything as ambiguous. This would be alarming as the “victim-predator” lens is crucial in some situations, but when it is applied indiscriminately, it becomes self-defeating.

Accident prone zone

Admittedly, there is a very thin dividing line between sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation, but it is important to differentiate between the two. A lewd comment and rape may stem from the same seed of “male entitlement” but putting the two together in the same basket, desensitises us about the severity of rape. Sexual exploitation is primarily concerned with use of coercive power (physical or positional) to gain sexual advantage over the “vulnerable other”. On the other hand, Sexual misconduct is an inappropriate action in a sexual situation. It may or may not have elements of exploitation, but when this misconduct occurs vis a vis a person who is lower in power/status hierarchy, it is likely to be seen as a case of sexual exploitation.

The complexity arises from the fact that a large part of the game called Sexuality is covert in nature. Very few women would blatantly seduce and very few men would directly woo or coerce. While in some cases the transactions are explicit and direct, in most others they are “implied” and hence subject to the ability of the parties involved to read the messages accurately. Just as there are many women who complain that their overtures were wrongly interpreted as “come on” signals, there are many men who feel surprised that what they considered as a “consensual arrangement” had a very different meaning for the other party.

Thus the realm of sexuality(particularly in work spaces) is highly “accident prone”. While many of these “accidents” have strong elements of sexual exploitation, not all of them do. If all such misconducts are viewed through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, unwittingly we end up reinforcing the source from which the problem emerges vis. the sexual codings which see Man as a predator and Woman as a prey

The predator and the Prey

There are many codings that we carry around sexuality. This is not the space for a detailed exploration of their origin and how they may differ between men and women. However to appreciate the complexity of the issue, it may be worthwhile to look at some of them.

1. The sexual act carries strong connotations of Dominance and Submission. Several everyday expressions like F You, got screwed, up yours etc. are a clear evidence of it. In the popular film Three Idiots, the friends of the protagonist acknowledge his superiority by “offering” their backside to him.

2. Powerful men often assume a certain “sexual entitlement” and many women in less powerful positions often assume “sexual obligation”

3. A certain amount of resistance by the woman is not just treated as “par for the course”, but is also held as desirable.It is also believed that it is the job of the male to overcome this resistance either through “wooing” or through “coercion”.

4. Men are assumed to be more promiscuous than women in sexual conduct.

5. Unwarranted sexual initiatives by men are likely to make the woman feel “violated” (e.g. expressions such as outraging the modesty of a woman). On the other hand, unwarranted sexual initiatives by a woman may seem offensive or disgusting but are less likely to be seen as “outraging the modesty of a man”

6. The sexual act is often seen as a “means to an end” for the woman and an “end in it self” for a man.

7. Physical attraction and sexual fidelity are of greater significance to men, whereas women put greater emphasis on resources/power/status and emotional commitment.

The important issue is not whether these codings are an accurate reflection of reality or not. So long as they exist in our minds we will see Man as “ever ready” and Woman as someone who has to be wooed or coerced. Note for instance that we generally use the term “sexual favours” in respect of what a Woman offers to a Man, and very rarely, the other way. Thus we almost take it for granted that proactive initiation belongs to Man and resistance/vulnerability to Woman. The most sinister side of this basic configuration is the motif of predator and prey. Sexual exploitation is a direct consequence of this basic configuration.

This configuration stems from both socio-cultural factors (such as patriarchy)and also bio-existential factors (e.g.role of the two genders in the propagation of the species)and is not likely to disappear in a hurry.However, by viewing all sexual misconduct of Men through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, we may unwittingly reinforce it even further. The more we strengthen the “predator-prey” motif, the more sexual exploitation are we likely to encounter.

Sexuality in the work space

Work spaces are human collectives where men and women bring their values, beliefs, orientations etc. including some of the codings described above. It is neither feasible nor perhaps desirable to make them sexually sterile. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Sexuality plays a huge role in the human dynamics of work spaces ( see my earlier piece on sexually charged workspaces)

In most part of human history, men and women have worked (and even lived) in segregated spaces with fairly clearly defined codes of engagement. The tight demarkation of roles is fast disappearing and increasingly men and women find themselves having to engage with each other in workspaces. This requires them to deal with sexuality in a hitherto unfamiliar space. Purely in evolutionary terms, we are ill-equipped to handle this in a mature, responsible and dignified manner.

Unfortunately most organisations pay very little attention to this need. While they invest heavily in promoting Diversity, these efforts rarely go beyond the usual rhetoric of bias, prejudice, equal opportunity and affirmative action. The only time sexuality enters the picture is in respect of transgressions and prevention of sexual harassment and misconduct. The basic assumption is that either sexuality does not exist in workspaces or that it is purely a personal matter. So long as there are no transgressions, we can all close our eyes to the impact of sexuality in workspaces.

The more we adhere to the perspective described above and push issues of sexuality under the carpet, the more prone we will become to looking at all sexual misadventures through the “victim predator” lens. Ironically, it will reinforce the codings described above and hence make us more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. It is high time that we accept that if men and women relate spontaneously with each other, sexuality will necessarily enter the picture and bring all its messy side along. Rather than getting embroiled in the “victim-perpetrator” frame, we need to invest into enhancing our ability to deal with sexuality in work spaces (including its messy side) in a responsible, mature and dignified manner

Symbols and Persons

Recently, I read a small book about Arnab Goswami, written by Vir Sanghvi. Till then, Arnab Goswami was merely a symbol for me- symbol of a certain kind of T.V. Journalism which I intensely dislike. The book helped me to see the person behind the symbol, but more importantly, it provided insights about the contextual forces which had created this symbol. 

Mr. Sanghvi looks at not just the personal background of Arnab Goswami but also at the ethos of T.V. journalism (specifically English news channels) prior to the Goswami era. It appears that several processes were at play which created a fertile ground for someone like Arnab Goswami to emerge. Some significant features of this context were –  pretence of neutrality, compulsive consensus, synthetic amiability, focus on a selective viewership, Delhi centricity, clannish elitism etc. In this scenario, it was to be expected that a strong counter point would emerge who is direct, blunt, populist, confrontational and very very loud. Mr. Goswami fitted the bill, but it is important to remember that what we see in him, is not just him. It is also a reaction to the processes which belong to the collective context. 

In our preoccupation with individual personalities, we often overlook how the person becomes a symbol who in a sense is not just his/her own person but a carrier of the wishes, hopes, frustrations, stresses, repressions etc. of the collective to which he/she belongs. This is not to deny the significance of personal attributes, differences, choice making or the Agency of the individual. Surely they play a part, but once the person concerned has swallowed the symbol placed upon him/her by the collective, there is very little choice left for the person. The person becomes a captive of the symbol and the entire collective puts its might behind ensuring that the person concerned sticks to the script which has been laid out for him/her.

This process is starkly visible in case of public figures but can be easily witnessed in day to day life as well. R.D. Laing in his path breaking research on mental illness found that “pathology does not belong to the individual alone but to the entire family”. In my own work with individuals and collectives (groups, families, organisations) I have often discovered that what is attributed to a person, generally belongs to the entire collective. At the very least, the collective ensures that the person remains fixed in the allotted symbol.

While this is a fairly normal process, some times the symbols become so powerful and exercise such a stronghold over everyone concerned, that both the person and collective are unable to break free, even in face of heavy cost to themselves. Let me take a few examples.

One of the widely prevalent symbols among leaders in the Indian context is that of the “distant father”. While there are other symbols as well (macho go-getter, brilliant visionary etc.) the distant father has a special appeal in the Indian psyche. Several CEO’s take it for granted that in order to be effective and also to maintain their authority, they have to act the distant father, lest they appear partial, vulnerable, unfair or be taken for granted. Invariably, the rest of the organisation, plays the complementary role of the “good obedient children”, putting their best foot forward, while dealing with the “father”

A direct consequence of this process is that the “distant father” remains blissfully unaware about the “messy” side of the organisation. I recall, once a CEO was sharing with me his sense of shock on learning that one of his bright stars had left the organisation because of “interpersonal problems” with his immediate boss. When I asked him as to how did he remain unaware of something happening right under his nose, his response was” but how was I to know? These things are never voiced in my presence- they behaved so normally in my presence that it was impossible for me to know that trouble was brewing”. When I suggested to him that it may be a good idea for him to spend some relaxed and informal time with his people, he was shocked because he felt that it could seriously impair his image as a fair and impartial authority figure.

The captivity of the symbol becomes so strong that it becomes impossible for the people concerned to operate in any other way. As a result, the entire collective remains caught in its unexamined fears about intimacy and how it can contaminate the sanctity of authority relationships.

Another symbol that I have frequently encountered is that of the “villain” . In many systems, I frequently hear people saying ” But for so and so, everything would be perfect and hunky dory– ” The belief is that all problems are arising out of a single source. Sometimes this source can be a group or collective and not just an individual. For example, one often comes across the symbol of “politician” as the villain. The central argument being that since politicians are supposed to be all powerful, all ills can be attributed to them. All religious tensions, communal/inter caste hostilities/corruption/ indiscipline etc. are sought to be placed at their doorsteps. I sometimes come across people who genuinely believe that but for these handful of crooked politicians, there will be bliss and prosperity for all concerned and different communities/religious groups will be living in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, in order to make the politician into a villain, the rest of us are required to play  the complementary role of “helpless accomplice” – we have no choice but to bribe/ seek favours/ bend the rules etc. etc. On the other hand, the politician has no other choice except to play the role of the all powerful demigod who is not constrained by “normal rules of conduct”. The beauty of symbols is that they lock the  parties concerned in a relationship which neither can escape.

Both the symbols described above, ensure maintenance of status quo. There are also symbols of disruption like Arnab Goswami. In this scenario the individual becomes the medium through which the repressed shadow of the system finds expression through a “counter point”.  For example, one may find a highly aggressive and violent person in an otherwise pacifist family. The person concerned holds the aggression and violence on behalf of the entire family.

The ‘counter point” disrupts the status quo but is sustained by the hope which the collective places on it.  The hope is that the ‘counter point’ will release the collective from its present entrapment and begin a new era.  While this may lead to sporadic outbursts and releases,  the apparent  shifts in the systems are generally of only an oscillatory kind ( pendulum moving from one point to another) with no real movement.

In case of Arnab Goswami, the hope was that the TV debates will become more substantive and real.  However, we can see that the “synthetic amiability” has been replaced by “in your face aggression”. But has it led to meaningful debate as was presumably the intent? It is intense and passionate alright but where is the listening to the other? Where is the space for calm discourse and dispassionate rationality? All that Mr. Goswami has succeeded in doing is that he has replaced “compulsive consensus” with a “shouting match”,where the louder you scream the better. Expectedly, this new “ethos” of shouting matches has become the norm for many other anchors/channels.

One of my learnings from my work is that in order to meaningfully engage with collectives(groups, families, organisations, society at large) one needs to go beyond the person and understand the “symbol” which the person has become. What plays out through the individual does not belong to the individual alone. In a sense, it is part of the collective psyche which is finding expression through the individual. In absence of this appreciation all that we are left with are blame games and scapegoating.

 

 

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.