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.