We were in the midst of our daily cribbing session, where no one can escape our critical gaze. The conversation had turned a little too morbid, and so with the intention of channeling the discussion into a positive vein, I said, “If one does ones work with full honesty, one can make a difference.”
This seemingly harmless statement raised the hackles of all those present. Apparently we were the holy cows of the company, and my statement had questioned the devotion, the dedication and the selfless toil that we have been putting in. ‘We’ in the present instance stands for the motley group who share lunch-time together at the canteen. In the group are some HR juniors, a few Admin old hands and Phil, the balding HR veteran, who, as we all know, opted out of the rat race long ago.
“What do you mean, if one works with honesty? It is the top management that is looting the company and not putting in its best. They are always on the lookout for private gains – they have robbed the company dry,” retorted a disgruntled PR guy.
This effort to shift the focus back on ‘them’ irritated me. “But what have we done for the company? And what difference would it make if ‘we’ are at the helm, rather than ‘them’?” I asked.
“What powers do we have to do anything? All sensible proposals are shot down. We are forever covering up for the blunders of others, or doing useless work – work that we too know is just a waste of time. And how do you know that we won’t be different? In any case, we won’t be in those positions because we are wasting time thinking positive, and not buttering the bosses this very minute,” replied an agitated old hand.
“All this talk about others being the culprit is hardly a positive attitude,” I glared, my temper rising for no one seemed to be getting my point. “This attitude is what is keeping our country back,” I added, widening the scope of my allegation against ‘us’.
Things would have gone out of hand, and I would have been branded a turncoat, had Phil not intervened. “What David means to say is that we have let ourselves down by being demoralized by the self-servers, and we wait helplessly for some savior, rather than take matters in our own hands and rebel against the pettiness of those in power.”
This was exactly what I had not said. It was in fact the opposite of what I had wanted to say. But before I could butt in and clarify, the mollified bunch nodded, looked apologetically towards me and the crisis was past. I did not have it in me to make my protest, and I did not reiterate that what I meant was that ‘we’ are as bad as ‘them’.
But this point rankled and I decided to get the opinion of Mr A in the matter. The occasion arose when, a few days later, I took a proposal about a comprehensive reorganization of our division to Mr A, my immediate boss and the head of Special Services.
Special Services is, in fact, the new name given to our division which deals with relations with our agents and important customers. Earlier we were called Coordination, but because we have to be on the Social Media networks, our division was forced to adopt a more glamorous name. The need for reorganization had also been mooted. The proposal for this reorganization I had drafted, and this I was now pushing towards Mr A.
Eventually Mr A gave his verdict. “The proposal is good and logical but would not be accepted. I think we would have to rework it a little.”
I knew all this when I made the proposal. I had rationally analyzed the manpower requirements, made provisions for the projected expansion of our work, kept in mind the existing hierarchy and had even restrained myself in asking for too much resources in view of the fact that the company was passing though some financial turbulence. The present proposal was a logical way of making the division workable and efficient. And yet I knew, instinctively, that it would not be accepted.
“What is the problem?” I asked.
“Nothing much,’ replied Mr A, “Just that you have made the division too tight, too compartmentalized. You have left out many things that we have been doing – I don’t see where those jobs would fit in.”
“We have to leave the redundant functions if we are to do the new ones properly. Many things just don’t make sense now – technology and culture has changed,” I argued.
“I know. The problem will be in convincing the top about letting go of the work that can be abandoned or outsourced. You have also kept too little provision for the resources that we would be requiring.”
“That is because I did not want the proposal to be shot down because of financial issues. We desperately need to bring some order in our division,” I explained.
Mr A shook his head sadly. “Again you are getting emotionally attached to something that you are doing. Acceptance or rejection of the proposal is not in your hands and should not worry you. Also, you have to factor in the psychology of those who shall be evaluating your proposal. For example, a simple common sense logic says that you ask for at least five times the amount that you need. Finance would chop it to half, a portion would be diverted to other pet projects of the boss, and a portion would be needed as buffer for cost escalations. You realize that even if this proposal is accepted, by the time the money comes in, the costs would double?”
“All these games lead the company down. And that is why the guys claim that it is because of the stupidity of those in power that we are not forging ahead,” I said bitterly.
That got Mr A interested. Mr A is a thinker and a philosopher – he likes to go into the root-causes, and my tangent, because it did not make an immediate sense, appealed to the philosopher in him. “What was that?” he asked.
“Why should experienced managers make decision on basis of their personal interests? Finance wants to keep his hands clean – he would make safe ‘investments’ in every pie, not backing any project to its conclusion. Superboss selects some pet projects that would show him up. Even the CEO pays attention to the cash-rich zones and products, not wanting to invest in potential regions or research because that would give results in a few years’ time, when he is not around. And then all the workers are blamed equally for the slide.”
That was the jist of the grievance of my pals, as I understood it, and I had put the matter squarely before Mr A for his opinion.
“This feeling comes as a result of muddled thinking. Try to see the broad picture,” began Mr A, but I interrupted.
“The broad picture is that there is a leadership crisis in our society,” I said.
“No, the broad picture is that there is no crisis. The society is working on the principles on which all societies and all organizations have always worked,” he said.
“And that principle being?” I asked, sarcastically.
“Individual interest,” replied Mr A calmly. “Society is a collection of interests of people who got together. Complex structures evolved slowly to serve this interest. In the process some people got more powerful and made others serve their interest. Thus came the winners and losers, and the battle began. This battle is of epic proportions and goes on in the names of ideologies. But to survive within this battleground one must never forget that at the root is the individual interest, and we are the exclusive custodians of our own interests.”
“Total selfishness is the basic principle?”
“Some rare people may rise above self-interests, though I do not think that anyone actually does, but the majority takes all its decisions on selfish considerations only. Organizations have to be structured such that individual and organizational interests do not clash too much. As such, nobody is right or wrong, and nobody can be blamed.”
“And how to apply this principle in this proposal?”
“Try to see how many individual interests you can serve without compromising the basic goal,” he said.
“That would be wasteful, and not the best way to do it,” I said.
“It is a cost to be paid, not a waste. The fate of the company is dependent on a lot of factors, not just intelligence of the bosses. If the sector is doing well, even a duffer would seem a genius. In fact in the nineties we had many ‘geniuses’ because we did not have competition,” he pointed out.
“The principle looks craven and would only lead to slow decline. We are faced with a leadership crisis,” I said, not convinced.
“On the contrary, absence of crisis makes it look as if we do not have leaders,” Mr A said.
Now that was a new one and I urged him to elaborate.
“Crisis produces a situation where individual interests are aligned with the goals of larger social bodies. In war, you have to serve the state otherwise the enemy shall rape you too. In financial downturn, everybody has to work harder or he would be jobless along with everyone else. All contribute, and the nearest leader who is at hand, gets the credit,” Mr A explained in his inimitable style.
“There shall be a crisis soon, and we shall have a leader then,” I laughed at this circular logic, which also seemed irrefutable.
“Yes, it is a cyclical phenomenon. But get one thing clear in your head – at a time when there seems to be a lack of leadership, it is the best of times, and one should enjoy it. For such times do not last for long.”
A cynical theory that gives hope is a rare thing. But then Mr A is not a common thinker – I resolved to give his theory more thought. But I would be lying if I said that I had understood how to revise my proposal in tune with the philosophy of Mr A.