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Case Study: Different Strokes, Different Folks

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Maya Kini slowed down  as she headed for the coffee tent, her arms laden with a tray with a pot of coffee and some muffins. Tripti and Suyash were standing on the steps leading up and sharing a joke, probably. Suyash was saying something to Tripti in his characteristic sutradhar style, narrating now, pointing to something now, narrating some more, then cracking a joke.... Tripti was laughing listening to him mimic something.

….when Maya caught up with them. Suyash greeted her exuberantly between bouts of laughter, and said, “Okay, you take over, Maya. I can stand here forever and bore her with our inane office anecdotes!” and made off towards the coffee service. Maya greeted Tripti warmly, but lingered, unsure of what to say. “Hey, glad to see you! Uh... wanted to have a 20-odd minute chat with you. Tell me when, and I will be there.”

Tripti: How about now? This coffee break is for that! Besides, we reconvene only after lunch, so...

They took their trays and chose a table outside the tent. After some preamble…

Maya: The training has ended today. I know you will be making evaluations, etc. Umm... this is difficult, so bear with me. I am about to inherit one of the players,  Suyash. I want you to help me. I am unable to deal with the fact that he will be on my team. (Laughs nervously) I know, I know! And this is what makes it doubly difficult for me. What has been your finding — to be fair, both with regard to me and him. Tell me what I need to do to make this combo work, to stop cribbing, to be resilient and, you know, deal with this sensibly? I am sure you have insights that will help. 

Tripti: Technically, I am not supposed to share but I am allowed some liberties as part of my professional judgement. So, yes, we can talk.

Maya: Oh God! I hope I am not breaking rules and stuff? Ha ha ha… okay. Tripti, I come from a different point in space and time. This is also what makes it difficult to talk about this with a conventional HR, because what I want to say is about what I am and less to do with Suyash or anybody else.

I will come to the point without the frills and scallops, it will be easier, ha ha ha... I have been really desperate to not have Suyash on my team, and I reacted very badly when told he was moving to my team, because his negativity kills me. I have worked with him as a colleague for the same boss when we were both consultants — that must be 2008-09-ish. He derailed, I got ahead. So, today I am team leader, he will be team player, which in itself can be upsetting for him, but that’s not the issue here.

The point I am making is: I need to be able to deal with the likes of Suyash. And I am really sincere about this.

Tripti: So you want to be Miss Goody-two-shoes?

Maya: Oh! If that was possible! I am wired with toughened glass, which makes me difficult even for myself! But more than that, I have created some useless pickets in my mind which trip me when I am walking. ‘Negative thoughts’ is one such. I dread negative thoughts because I believe I have a propensity for them; and I think they for me. So I shudder, turn around and run for my life when I encounter them.

Tripti: But I thought this is about Suyash. Why are you telling me about yourself?

Maya: Because I feel we need to see Suyash through my mind. If not, there is a risk.

Tripti: Leave that to me. First, we will talk about Suyash, okay? I don’t want to know about you. When I need, I will tell you.

Maya: Tripti, just a little bit, please. Remember, I came to you, so I get to call the drift of this chat. (Tripti smiles) All I ask is that you break my defences about Maya and Suyash, and see where I need to change.

Tripti: We’ll see. I have been watching him, and Suyash does seem to delight in making people look small, inconsequential. He comes across as critical, obtrusive, someone who will see how something cannot be done…

Maya:
Oh! That’s harsh! He is not vicious like that; he is just negative. Or maybe he has a small mean streak. I never noticed it myself but two others labelled him thus. Yes, true that he will tell you why something cannot be done, why it should not be done, why everything is a fraud, why it is based on cunning minds... he is like that. Oh God! Maybe he is just like me?

Tripti: Why don’t I make some observations on Suyash, and you can veto them or endorse them based on your experience. Okay? Alright, here’s the first:  a) ‘I know deep in my heart that I am not good but must project otherwise, confidently.’

Maya: The Suyash I know believes he is good, except his true goodness is never visible because upfront he does present his negative views. I’m not sure why he does that; maybe because what he sees is so negative. Who knows?

Tripti: b) ‘I can become popular by being witty. Being superficial is (i) good and (ii) an easy way to live.’

Maya: I think it is a mask, a cover! He is not cunning, at least not in my opinion.

Tripti: c) ‘I can project intelligence by giving ‘motherhood statements’ and many will remain fooled for always.’
 
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Maya: Ha ha ha… Yes, he does make these huge ‘motherhood statements’. But don’t be fooled. I have felt that he wants to be accepted or known or recognised, maybe. Suyash is not out to fool anyone. He is a small town guy with a desire to be liked.
Tripti: Will you say his knowledge is may be superficial?

Maya: I wouldn’t say that; his knowledge is not deep enough, but it is very good knowledge. In my view, even as he stares at facts, he is hammering them down as ‘wrong, can’t be, useless’. A lot of his problem lies in the way he sees things.

Tripti: d) Value system ‘iffy’?

Maya: No, he is not valueless, but I’d say, ‘can be swayed’. For example, he could break the signal lights and laugh it off. Small stuff, a bit of a collegian approach. But never on big stuff.
Tripti: Is honesty a lesson he has to learn?

Maya: Look I don’t know him that well that I can carry a flag for him. What I can say is that I don’t think he is dishonest. But I do not work with him currently; he was in my group four years ago. Then we moved to different offices. I have been at the Shoulder Road office for the past nine months. I meet him socially, at joint meetings on Vision and Values, stuff like that, where you can freewheel. Occasionally we meet at lunch, with the old group. But I don’t have to work with him.

Once we had a joint proposal to submit to a waste management company. He threw one spanner after another into the works; rejected all our ideas; went slow on his part of the work, which was critical for us to deliver the strategy too; dug in his heels; blamed the client for not revealing information… In short, he was infuriating. He doesn’t do his part of the work, but sits around throwing blame. Meanwhile, the others complete the work.

Tripti: So it can be said that he adopts the ‘I can’t do’ tack, more because he needs to work on his ‘how to do’ skills.

Maya (after thinking for a long time): Is that how you see it? I am not sure. This is clearly your skill area, but what I have seen is this: If you present a method, he will want to change that. He will want to air seven different ways of doing the same thing. Then, even if you accept one of those, he will instantly tell you why that is a lame duck and why there is a point that everyone is missing.

And, yet, when the question is first thrown open to the group, he will not list down the problems or difficulties that he perceives so that everyone can think about it. He will wait for you to suggest something and then demolish it.
 
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Tripti pondered. Her conclusion so far had been that Suyash was insecure, that he wanted to be liked, wanted to be popular, and likely sought short cuts (she didn’t have any proof for this, but his general demeanour seemed to indicate as much). She also felt that he was incapable of good execution, or what Maya called ‘implementation’ in consulting language. So, felt Tripti, it was likely that Suyash sought to show off his talent through just the use of words.

So far she was happy with her talk with Maya. It was clear that Maya simply feared a slowing down with Suyash added to her baggage. But Maya was also very clear about her need for help with how to handle this. Tripti needed to turn this around now.

Tripti: Okay Maya, tell me, when Suyash acts difficult, how does it make you feel?

Maya: To be honest, he is not working with me yet, but I have interacted with him at corporate meetings, etc., and it is extraordinary how frustrated I feel with his attitude. Just when we think we are making progress, seeing the light at the tunnel’s end, Suyash will say in his soft voice, ‘guys, lest we pat our backs too easily, has it struck you...’ blah!

You know, Tripti, it is not his objections but his style of presenting them! He will say nothing when everyone is frothing at the mouth, but just when we all agree and decide to move to point number two of the agenda, Suyash will interject softly, eyebrows raised, looking grim and gloomy like bad weather! Oh Gawwwwd... how he slows me down!

Tripti: Maya, have you come across anyone who you have seen dealing with Suyash or with people like him admirably?

Maya: I don’t know about admirably, but Apurva accomplishes his work. Is his approach right or not? Ask Apurva that. But Suyash hates him.

Tripti: Yet Suyash does as he is told to, no? Why? Also, if it is effective, then why do you not deal with him the same way?

Maya: Just because it works does not mean it is not broke! It can be said to work if it works for Suyash too. Apurva has been his boss for five years and Suyash has not moved anywhere, neither up nor down; he is now moving sideways!

As for Apurva’s methods, he uses abusive language, complete gutter language. Can I use the same tactics on Suyash? I do not use abusive language. Women do not use abusive language, and never on subordinates. Never. Women do not ogle, sexually harass, tease, nothing. And women’s management style is called ‘soft’. Gosh I hate all this...

(After a short pause) I asked two other chaps at work how come Apurva was so abusive. They said it was a man thing; that men talk to each other like that. So you get work done abusing your subordinate’s mother and sister, eh? Give me a break, Tripti! If this is ‘effective’, then I am a monkey’s uncle!

Tripti: Now think about this and reply: If you decide to be effective with people like Suyash, what do you need to learn for it? Something that is neither soft nor vicious?

Maya: Look, I don’t know. I go to work because I enjoy it, because I want to build organisations and systems. Because I want to earn some money, to be reasonably safe. I don’t have any delusions of greatness. I love people, I like many of them at my workplace. Those I do not like, mercifully, I don’t need to deal with them. Suyash is okay socially, as I told you. Introducing him into my team sounds like bad news only because the rhythm is going to wobble...

I think I want Suyash to know this is what he does. I want him to know that he can be very good if he doesn’t trample all over and treat work like a joke. He needs to get serious! And I do not have it in me to play mom. Nobody mothers me, nobody says, ‘oh you poor thing’. I take it on the chin, okay? But I examine criticism and correct myself. Teach me how to talk tough without abusing, without sounding like a surrogate mom, without also compromising with my essential nature where I cannot be rude or abusive.

Tripti: Maya, you have just solved your own problem. And quite effectively, too. Do just what you have said.

Call him. Sit him down and tell him exactly what you said to me. Tell him: ‘Suyash, I want you to know that this is what you do.’ Tell him, ‘I want you to know that you can be very good if you do not trample all over and treat work like a joke.’ Tell him that the proof of how it bothers others, especially bosses, is the fact that for the last x number of years, he has not ‘moved’.

Tell him, as the talk progresses, what your expectation of a team player is. Tell him the good you have seen in him, but add that he needs to get serious. That you do not want disruption, delay and dithering. Tell him nobody mothers anyone in the office, but abusive talk will not be condoned either. Woman to woman, I think it is important to acknowledge wrongdoing and stand up against it… abusive language does to men what sexual harassment does to women — it demeans them, intrudes into and demolishes their inner space.

Your style need not come from traditional management styles. In this case, definitely not, since it has not helped Suyash’s career or organisation building. I often wonder if the abusive management style is a learned cultural behaviour or a natural one. As a parent, I can say it does not bring out the best in a child. I don’t see why it should in an adult.

A nurturing style is eminently suitable and is the bedrock on which HR is supposed to stand. If it gets to be seen as mothering, I will take pride and not feel ashamed or less. Go for it. Men use authority to create hierarchical management styles to elicit obedience and supplication.

Go, be a natural… But there is a risk. You will be perceived as possessing less leadership ability than men and hence not having leadership skills…. Or even ‘trying to be a man’! After all, didn’t this very world refer to Margaret Thatcher as the ‘best man’ in Great Britain?

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-07-2013)