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Analysis: Conscience Over Rules

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‘Do unto others as you would like for others do unto you'. As per this statement, every one of us should be honest in our thoughts and deeds.

But interestingly, the corollary seems to be more in vogue: ‘Do unto others what others do unto you.' Fierce cut-throat competition today is leading to ready use of unethical and unlawful means to achieve results. The most common defence from a non-conformist would be "I did not violate by choice", "I am not the only one who did so" and "I did not break the queue till I found a whole lot of people doing so".

Honking and switching lanes is not unlawful but considered inappropriate in most countries, and is religiously monitored. But the same people are tempted to break the norms while in other countries. An individual will tend to cut loose from the system when the consequences create a prospect of earning. So, one would be provoked to follow the path of least resistance.

Kerala has the highest literacy levels, yet the most strikes and lockouts. The same employees from Kerala are regarded as versatile, flexible and adaptive in their work style by their employers in West Asia.

In both cases, what has changed is the environment in the form of peer pressure. "One swallow does not make the summer, and given that I cannot change the world all by myself! Why should I stick my neck out?"

In this case study, those responsible for the malba fiasco probably have no idea of the inconvenience they have caused others, not once but twice! They were, after all, just doing their job. Sharing views and thoughts, the consultants in the office point us to reasons that make us the kind of people we are. From loyalty and pride for our country to mental sluggishness, it comes down to our history, society and upbringing.

Historically, we were always fragmented and never had an integrated unified approach to our governance. The Maharajas and heads of states saw only what was good for them and their state, and never as one country. External powers came, saw and conquered our land several times and successfully implemented the ‘Divide and Rule' policy. The seeds of today's insecurity, selfishness, laziness, lack of respect for others and their work, a deep sense of deprivation, a lax attitude and low self belief were sown then.

The result? Generations of Indians born to a country that is so diverse it makes unity sound impossible, given a protected upbringing, taught to be a part of the herd and, at times, pull others down in order to make some space for themselves in the rat race. Culturally, we are taught to not challenge elders, traditions, customs, sentiments, etc. However, these teachings get interpreted and implemented at convenience and are misused and abused. The ‘babu culture' is glorified and encouraged; Indians are used to pushing wads of currency notes under the table to get their work done. Simply put, no one has the time to follow the processes as are laid down. And since work gets done, rules and processes are not seen as necessary.

We tend to be more focused on our personal goals, and would not hesitate to aggressively pursue them even at the cost of the goals of the team, unit and organisation and community.

Crime, on the other hand, is not really treated with the seriousness that it should be. Our Indian Penal Code covers all varieties of crime. However, the approach continues to be that one is innocent until proven guilty and the onus of proof is on the prosecution. By the time a person is finally convicted or acquitted, the entire reference to context is lost. People's trust in the system is so low that many crimes go unreported. Regardless of the degree of crime, the message to the public is, "The law will take its course." Nothing seems urgent or important enough! Lack of ownership by law makers and the implementers points to the mess we are in today.

In a corporate set-up, there is always a fine line between encouraging healthy competition and discouraging a crab mentality. We, as Indians and managers face the same challenge — that of building a collective, positive and productive approach among our people. Perhaps the solution lies in the endless circle of responsibility, accountability, ownership, introspection and improvement. This is definitely an evolving process and needs time to show results. However, ‘time' needs a healthy leadership, robust culture and well-defined processes to develop and nurture a positive and collective attitude of accomplishment, while displaying dignity of labour and instilling a firm sense of self-security in the employees' minds.

The moot question remains: will more compliant people lead to better conformance or does the ‘compliance culture' influence more people to conform? If we have to create a more compliant community, our focus should be on increasing the cost of non-conformance, educating masses on benefits of conformance and bringing about a shift from control to self-discipline.

J.M. Prasad is chief of human resources at ING Vysya Bank

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-08-2011)