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Case Analysis: Dig Deep, Learn Big

It is important for the coach and the captain to present a united front before the team as well as the public

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What a coach, Fr Bon! Malhar, an intern, is upset after being shouted at in crass language by his super boss. He wishes to quit but is uncomfortable telling interviewers that Photogen’s language culture is behind his decision. He seeks advice from Fr Bon, his ex-basketball coach. Fr Bon understands Malhar; his inexperience and sensitivity yes, but also his idealism and genuine puzzlement. Giving due legitimacy to his issues, Fr Bon sets Malhar off “to find out what circumstances lead people to uncouthly express anger”, believing that Malhar will grow and benefit from this understanding. As to himself, with all his experience, Fr Bon yet has the humility to explore Malhar’s issues with his past students. This textbook perfect coach-player relationship is open, mutually respectful and reflective, going well beyond the sport that brought them together. If Malhar were to dig deep and sincerely, his discoveries would help him achieve disruptive personal growth.

First ball, clean bowled? Part of life and living is learning to deal with and grow from all experiences. The good, bad and ugly. Clearly Malhar has little prior experience of unjustified or improper expressions of anger. Wanting to quit was his immediate emotional response to flee. But as an aspiring manager, he must learn to deal with all kinds of people, situations and challenges. To be able to step back, dig deep and gain perspective which will allow him to grow into an effective manager.

Talk to your captain and teammates: Malhar is a junior player in the organisation. When verbally attacked, he needed to have discussed the episode with his boss. To have sought his captain’s perspective on what else might have been at play. Spoken to some close teammates. Thus he would:

Understand the super boss: Was this a one-off or were flare-ups commonplace? What sort of issues caused anger and upset Taarika Sen? What work ethic did she expect from her team?

Understand the super boss-boss equation: Was she really shooting at his boss (who wasn’t even there) through him? Indeed, from her earlier reaction on the racist cues a picture could send off, super boss seems frustrated by her team’s incompetence-- and could be venting her anger and stress through overreactions.

Understand the boss: What did his boss think about the episode? What advice did the boss offer Malhar? What was his role through the episode?

Understand the language culture: Is rough language and verbal bullying the norm at Photogen or is Taarika an exception? Why are her outbursts accepted? What are the other senior leaders like?

Understand the work culture: Is Photogen’s culture to expect workers to turn up punctually, irrespective of what time they finished work? Is there any leeway? Malhar believes that since he had worked late anyway, he was justified in walking in late. Had he cleared this with his boss?

Why is Malhar in the team? Malhar is an intern, no doubt. But we must assume he joined Photogen because he wanted to be there. What work ethic is he displaying? Is he seeing himself as a very junior cog, who feels his work is done with the tweets he helped write the previous night? That he must do exactly and only as he is told… “study as per syllabus”? Doesn’t he want to do more, learn more? Feel the rush of excitement of wanting to exploit the opportunity presented by a new launch, by simply doing all that he can?

A great work ethic to adopt to become the most preferred intern is to do all you have been asked to, do it on time and with utmost attention to detail, and then volunteer to do more!

Anger issues at workplace: All of us experience disappointments and frustrations in the workplace- over outcomes, behaviours, commitments. Anger has to arise. It is a legitimate feeling, not a sign of unhappiness, as Malhar believes.

But what is a legitimate, professional way to express this anger? To deal with the issue without making personal attacks?

Escalation channels: Photogen must have a Code of Business Conduct, mandated by the Companies Act. If Malhar were to complain to the company ombudsman, the resulting investigation would assess the circumstances leading to the flare up, how extreme was the language, the underlying intent, whether the super boss was a habitual offender, what action needed to be taken, a reprimand, a cut in salary, a rating drop -- or even be asked to leave.

No one can get away with poor language and behaviour in a contemporary, professional organisation. There are too many possible fallouts and consequences.

At the very least, the personal brand gets tarnished, at worst, companies have to let such people go even if they be founders, for example Uber’s Travis Kalanick.

Anger can corrode a team: Everyone must feel safe at the workplace. If the mind is wrestling with anxiety and fear, how is it to do justice to the output expected? Would performance be better driven by a whiplash and crude language or by shared goals and professional teamplay? Anger can break teams into politically charged camps, once again undermining result orientation.

It is instructive to note that Taarika seems unaware of the effect of her words on her team. Underlining again that the only common denominator to ensure workplace decorum is the Code of Business Conduct.

This player barks (and bites?):
Sometimes, the use of certain words and style are part of a consciously adopted persona. Language can be a coarse cloak- and sometimes a suave cloak. For instance, “a boss must not be seen as soft but as a toughie”. Over time, the cloak may become the man (or the woman).

And there are situations that make the filter fall off. The trigger could be a tardy employee, or a big mistake, a business tumble or shoddy output. Deep-seated beliefs and long running behaviour patterns come from social conditioning. It is difficult, but of course possible, to relearn what is right.

Learning a new way to play: In a workplace, we learn discipline through manuals and codes of conduct, through training programmes, but also from observing leaders, seniors, bosses and peers function. Seeing, assimilating and learning right from wrong. Enforcement of the code is a good way to ensure compliance. But for long lasting fundamental shifts, the individual must take personal responsibility for change. Which comes from observation, reflection, discussion, assimilation.

The coach learnt from his boss: Interesting to note how positivity can be just as contagious as negativity, with similar long term consequences. Though Fr Bon grew up with a default “fight” mode amongst many stressors, his first boss helped rewrite his circuitry.

His boss gave him rope to work, trusted him to learn from his errors, did not humiliate him for his mistakes -- and encouraged him to introspect, learn and grow.

Malhar is enjoying the benefits of that early experience of great leadership that shaped Fr Bon.

Spot the CEO: Malhar refers to the Indian cricket team and wonders what differences between the Captain and the Coach could have led to the latter’s exit. Some reflections:

Role understanding: The truth is there is one CEO in the cricket team. And that is the Captain. Unlike another popular team sport like football, where the manager (coach) is the true CEO, in cricket, many strategic and almost all tactical decisions are the Captain’s, who holds primary responsibility for the team’s performance.

As coach, the ask is different. The requisite skillsets are different. A coach has to ensure that mentally and physically, the players are well prepared, so they have the best chance to succeed. Whatever his prior career success, the Coach has to shed his personal ego, guide team ethics, manage processes within the team, ensure stability, and help make the captain and the team’s job easy. Foremost, is ensuring dressing room ease. For off field tensions can and do effect on field performance.

If the coach saw his role thus, where would be the place for verbal dressing downs?  I am reminded of parents getting so emotionally invested in performance outcomes from their children, they forget their own role and responsibility, which is to ensure a caring, supportive, foundational environment for the child to grow. They cannot live out their lives again through their children.

Last, while face-offs are natural between strong personalities, it is important for the coach and captain to present a united front before the team as well as the public, again akin to parents being advised not to quarrel before their children. For strongly expressed differences cause anxiety, confuse and politicise the rest of the team.

And detract from winning play. Which is as much about winning the game as enjoying the play.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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case study case analysis magazine 1 oct 2017

Preeti Sawhney

The writer is a brand and business strategist and a mentor to startups, with a special focus on women entrepreneurs. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta and Delhi University, previously she was an Associate Director at Lowe Lintas

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