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Mind The Gap

“The art of communication is the language of leadership” — James Humes, author and former presidential speechwriter

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Raghav Kashyap parked his car and walked towards the coffee shop where he was to meet Madhav Saha. They had met briefly the previous evening, in the office of Shamsher Rao, the chairman of Lafette Industries, and it was Madhav’s idea that they meet away from the office. So, here they were at Starbucks at IFFCO Chowk in Gurgaon.

Raghav, a coach, had been reconnected to Shamsher by an old college friend, after almost 30 years. Shamsher had wanted help and guidance with a senior manager at Lafette whose promotion was being delayed on grounds that he lacked assertiveness and hence unfit for the role that the promotion would take him to. Shamsher, on the other hand, felt Madhav, the manager in question, was good and capable for that job. However, since others were reticent, he wished to examine if Madhav could use the help of a coach and work on his attitude or nature and thus win his bosses’ approval.

Raghav had been of the opinion that while assertiveness does not come naturally to one who is not essentially assertive, such a person could consciously construct that attitude and style.

Today’s meeting with Madhav was thus, not a coaching session but a warm up to understanding Madhav and his thoughts. And that was how they were at Starbucks.

Madhav: Will this be a coaching session?

Raghav: Not at all. Just a friendly chat about what you would like, what you think, what you are.

Raghav noticed that Madhav was reading the sports pages and their eyes fell on the article together: “I need to adjust to Kohli’s ‘aggressive’ leadership style: Ashwin’.

Raghav made no comment but Madhav, noticing that Raghav’s interest had been raised, said, “This is very up your street,” and he read out the shoulder line of that article, “Ace Indian off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin has said that he would be looking forward to adjust to the ‘aggressive’ leadership style of newly appointed limited-overs skipper Virat Kohli in the upcoming series against England starting 15 January.”

As Raghav looked at him, Madhav said, “How does one adjust? How is Ashwin planning to adjust, I wonder.”

Raghav: Do you think there is a difference between Dhoni’s style and Virat’s style of leadership?

Madhav: I really don’t know Virat’s leadership – he is a great player undoubtedly – but then, all great marketing men don’t make for great CEOs, yes? But having watched Dhoni through his leadership, I feel he is very aware, very alert to team needs, respectful of seniority… it was heart gripping how he placed the mantle of victory for the 2011 World Cup on Sachin’s shoulders… And stepped aside to let the team celebrate Sachin Tendulkar… These are what stand out about his leadership. Team driven than self driven… There is space for every performer. His accomplishment was a natural, not seen through a haze of aggression and whatnot, the theatrics of ‘wearing’ leadership! So composed! It helps working under such a person… Who knows Virat might be similar or his difference may be refreshing… I don’t know. But Ashwin has described his leadership as ‘aggressive’.

Raghav: ‘Aggressive’ has various connotations.

Madhav: Negative?

Raghav: Not always.

Madhav: All the same, adjusting can be difficult.

Raghav: Leadership depends on the led too. As in a jigsaw puzzle, the two have to complement each other; if not, neither will fit.

Madhav: And how do you suggest Ashwin begin?

Raghav: A start point would be, to be more understanding that Kohli’s aggression is natural and not specifically directed at Ashwin or any individual in the team. That his overarching goal still is the same as Ashwin’s – to win the game. That Virat’s aggression is simply behaviour to be understood, and not to be held against him, the person.

Madhav: What do you mean – ‘not held against him’? Now it sounds like it is a flaw that Virat is aggressive!

Raghav: Not at all… To my mind it seems that it is not Virat who is aggressive but the situation that demands aggressive behaviour. Leadership is that quality that is exerted in a situation; in the process of influencing behaviour. Yes, this is it: Leadership lies in the process of influencing behaviour. If he has managed to influence behaviour towards the goal he envisions, then a leader’s leadership has worked.

Madhav: So, leadership is situational?

Raghav: Leadership is a process that connects all situations to a single organisational goal. But we came here to talk about you! So, tell me your story!

Madhav: I just want to bounce some thoughts off you. Let me start at the beginning. I have read through all my 360-degrees evaluations. I am surprised that they feel the way they do but they did not show it at that time… I have even examined my surprise to see if I was being vain… you know, it is so easy to be vain… But it concerns me because they said this last year also and then I had a one-on-one with my boss.

Madhav became thoughtful, then he said, “ I have been here long enough to know Lafette’s constitution; I see we are mostly made up of Alpha type people… ha ha… does not miss me! Yet, I do not think that I am not cut out for this organisation, because I have what it needs to perform, deliver. I like my job I like the products, I like everything, but I am finding that time and again I am hitting against a wall you know, people are all type A type here. It is as if a cult agreement, you know…

Raghav: So, what do they tell you?

And Madhav shared feedback in bits and pieces: “That I am introvert, I don’t talk much. That I engage with people out of necessity. Truth is, it is contrary to my nature to be chatting up people. I even have a MBTI report that says I am introvert. Some psychometric instrument, that looks at personality attributes. I am an introvert and it tallies with MBTI for that is the feedback I have got from everyone - boss, peers and subordinates. So, what do I do about it? I don’t like these meetings where everyone shouts and thumps tables... it is just so much noise like the news channels, lot of yelling, trying to attract attention. I am just tired of all this. That’s not me.

Raghav: Think about this: Can our nature be a valid reason for justifying our behaviour? Let’s say, by nature I am intolerant of mediocrity. I see bad work, mindless work, I get angry. I find I cannot tolerate even a small departure from perfection. That means I am not even cognizant of circumstances that contribute to imperfection and getting angry with staff causes them to think of me as rude and brutish. I know I am not rude or brutish by nature, My insulting nature is driving my team away from me. Would you not want me to put in effort into molding my nature to develop better behaviour?

You now have to make that journey from nature to behaviour and this can be achieved by sheer self- effort.

Madhav: When you put it that way… I know… I am consciously trying to be assertive. But that is not me. Sometimes it is disconcerting to behave like that.

Raghav: I think there are many ways of being assertive. You don’t have to thump the table and say Tarzan bundolo; you can do it in your own way, which you can evolve for yourself, your unique way of being assertive. People will slowly wake up to your changed behaviour and will find that you are managing time much better and can handle many more things.

seeing that Madhav was not entirely buying in, Raghav pulled out a paper napkin from its holder and drew a diagram. It was an iceberg submerged in water, just the top showing above the water level.

“What you see above is behaviour,” Raghav said as he tried to make his diagram perfect. “Behaviour is what is visible to the outer world. What the world sees and experiences of you. The layer immediately below the water line, is capability. Yes, neuro-linguistic programming consultant Robert Dilts proposed this thought and this has been adapted by several people. I like to call this capability level, the knowledge layer. Point is, if you must exhibit a certain behaviour you must be capable of it. You must have learnt it. So, if you have to display knowledge of Excel or Word, you have to first have the knowledge of it. Get my point? “Below capability are values and attitudes.”

Madhav: Why is it below capability?

Raghav: I think values and attitudes are subtler than capability. It is that part of our self that we have not reached into yet but which lie within us, not tested, not put to use, not developed. Whereas capability shows.

So, for example, if you hold the value that technology is all rubbish, then you will not consciously develop the capability to use it because you will not go seeking to know it. Or if you think, technology is not necessary at your age, then you will not seek to know it and your capability will be suspect, nor will you develop the competence to learn excel or technology. Consequently, you will not be able to display the behaviour, that is, the comfort and readiness to use excel sheet as a solution at work.

Madhav: Interesting… and are there more layers?

Raghav: Yes, below values and attitudes is the last layer: Identity. This is how you define yourself. If your self-concept is anti-technology, you will acquire the values of a dislike of technology. In that case, you will lack competency and, as a result, you will not display the required behaviour for technology. I am stating some simple examples for you to understand the layers, and for you to plot where you stand and what guides you.

Now Madhav, this is where you come. Outside the tip of the iceberg, is called the environment. What you see of your surroundings, where you exist, impacts how you feel in that surrounding. When doctors at a hospital smile readily, there is an instant change in how we feel. Grim faces make us feel worse in hospitals.

Extrapolate this thought to cleanliness, ventilation, sense of colours used for the decor, this is the physical appearance of the environment. Then, there is the feeling that an environment exudes. If people are secretive and conspiratorial the air feels wrong. If the leader is a clean, straightforward, strong person, the environment reflects that. So, it is possible for you to display a certain behaviour in a certain environment but not in another. So, behaviour is contextual.

Madhav: So, you are now going to tell me that certain environments demand a certain behaviour? I see where this is going.

Raghav: I am about to tell you…

Madhav: It is like asking me to wear skirts to work daily, or for lunch, or something like that!

Raghav: And that is a good thought. If you had to, would you?

Madhav: Why should there be a ‘had to’ situation?

Raghav: Isn’t there one usually? Like I know there are some temples where the men can enter only if they remove their shirt, or only if they wear a dhoti. It’s a prerequisite, let’s say. Why, there is a whole comedy show where three men have assumed female personalities. It is their job! You see? When they come to work, they step into their roles and then they remain in their roles as women, till they pack up for the day. Once they get out of their costumes and make up, they go back to their essential identities as men.

Madhav (smiling): Yeah… I know.

Raghav: Are you the same person at home as you are at work? No? So now, treat this as a change in environment. Like that fellow Ali dons his female garb and plays at being a bright, breezy and blithesome grandmother, you too get into garb and enact the role of the assertive manager. Become that alpha male because that is what your environment needs. Simple. Your role in this play requires you to behave in a particular way so that you can deliver a certain attitude. So, we will learn how to behave like that. Like that actor who made a blithesome, flippant grandmother a reality for the duration of his act, you too learn how to be assertive for the duration of a transaction.

Madhav thought about this. He smiled. He would have to learn to behave like an assertive person. But a doubt came up. He said, “How can I behave like I am assertive when in my head, I am not? I cannot thump tables!”

Raghav: This is where capability comes in, learning to say ‘No’ in a nice way? Let’s practice that. Just because you are not intrinsically an assertive person, does not mean that you cannot behave like one. You can be who you are: unassertive, unaggressive, agreeable, and yet behave in a manner that is different from who you are. Simply because your role requires you to be like that. You simply need to identify with your role hereafter while performing your role.

Madhav (shaking his head determinedly): I can’t do all this. I am not like that. They should be the ones changing and you are changing me.

Raghav: Nobody is changing anyone, for no one can be changed by another; but we need to look at the task at hand and do what we are required to.

But Madhav’s mind was a riot of confusion, as Raghav was saying, ‘This is not about good and bad, but right and wrong. In that situation, you are required to be assertive! I am talking about duty to your role, your function, your department, your organisation. So, you see, your role requires you to be assertive.

A job, a role has a certain requirement. Among those, you have the education, the experience, the track record, the training. One factor remains and that is assertiveness. That assertiveness, is needed because the environment in which that job is being ‘performed’, has a certain quality which obstructs the job from being done efficiently, effectively. Because the environ is made up of men and machines of varying attitudes, natures, capabilities, to manage which you have to be assertive. In a leadership role, the assertiveness factor is very important because you are no more going to be just doing, you are also going to be responsible for top line numbers, for bottom line numbers, for turnover, for ethical execution of systems and so on.

To ensure ‘harmony’, honesty, smooth workflow you need to know very clearly what your work needs and what it does not need and to protect the work environment and the work itself, you need to be assertive.

Now coming to you. You want that promotion, you want to, therefore, be seen as capable. The organisation has defined capability for that job to include assertiveness which you lack. So, you need to start behaving in an assertive manner. Are you with me? Academically, functionally, experience-wise, everyone reckons you have the capability. But the job performance needs the ability to be assertive ; so, you are going to feel a bit out of whack now and then as you force the assertive act. It will cause you temporary stress when your behaviour is out of line. Over time, you can act your way into a new style of thinking.

But it is imperative that behaviour changes now. Because you are already in the environment by the mere fact that your name is being considered for that role, your visible behaviour must change.

Madhav: How do I do it with a clean heart – with a clean conscience?

Raghav: I am trying to put myself in your shoes: I would analyse what is being asked of me, be honest to the transaction and not to myself, that is when I will get the right behaviour.

Madhav, in the Mahabharat, Arjuna had a near similar dilemma: "These are all my brethren, how can I kill them." And Krishna has to remind him: "You are a warrior right now, not a brother, not a cousin, not a nephew, not a disciple." Role play!

Right now, you are a warrior too. Be precise about your role play, and be honest to that role. Period. What is your duty at this point? Be honest to that and forget your inherent nature and do what is the right thing to do. It is about what you have to do to do the job right. If you are coming with selfishness to gain and all, then you will experience fantastic dissonance. That also means, dear, Madhav, you have to be extremely honest. Only then, you will recognise your feelings correctly.

Finally it is all about intention, Madhav; know, with what intention you are acting. Is it for personal gain or greater good? Organisational good or my personal good?

Madhav: You are separating nature from behaviour and I find that interesting.

Raghav: Because it is very comforting to hide under the blanket of your inherent nature. At some point, especially as you become senior in the organisation, the role demands that you do a lot of things. But as long as there is a very clear dividing line between what is ethical and what is unethical, you can abandon nature where behaviour will work better.

As long as your connection with your intention, your duty, is right, then even if you have to adopt a particular behaviour to perform that duty, then you adopt it. You now need to discover the joys of a new way of thinking, Madhav!

Madhav: Sounds good to me. My dilemma right now is not how to be more assertive but to be sure that I am always coming from the right place.

Raghav: Good thought. And that is when the assertion and everything will fall in place, for it will have become your attitude – not towards people but towards situations.

Madhav: Ah. That’s what I would tell Ashwin then. Virat’s style is situational, not behavioural, yeah?

Raghav: Nail on the head!

Madhav: Got it. So, when do we begin?

Raghav: You have got it, Madhav! You let me know if you need help.

Also read case analysis: Atul Mathur | Mala Sinha