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Case Study: Good Leaders Don’t Abuse

“A leader without a clear vision and plans only abuses his/[her] power [ … ] And where power is abused, there is manipulation instead of inspiration” — Israelmore Ayivor

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Radhika Menon and Gayatri Rai moved chairs around to create more space for their lady colleagues. Photogen had been buzzing the last few days about something that seemed to have gripped the employees.

There had been no formal communication, naturally, as Photogen was not making an issue of the matter. But one word here, one word there and there were whispers, "Did you hear….?’" Thus, some of the ladies had heard via Samyukta Das on the eighth floor that the Director of  Marketing had been talking to Taarika Sen, the eye of the storm, and all was not going well.

We saw so far that Taarika had verbally abused Malhar Gokhale (who nobody had heard of), which had disturbed him. But now as people asked,  "Kaun hai yeh Malhar?" attention moved to, "So? So he got upset?" And then to, "So? That’s become an issue?" To, "I guess, the time has come for us all to examine if we are right in passing the stress onward to others." To, "I don’t think it is stress; she is just easy to get abusive if she cannot have her way…. To, "We have all become too easy with our language; glad this thing has come to a head…."

A small faction was also saying, "It’s the sign of our times that women have started abusing too…." While many consciously and studiously avoided making gender statements, not wanting to define rules for women, many were delighted that women were being assertive. And there were others who took no sides but felt insane anger over the way women were spotlighted and examined. Meanwhile a light banter spread among the ladies preparing for lunch…

Lara Simoes: Last evening I watched a Bollywood film on TV only because it had Alia Bhatt…. But I was taken aback by what she has allowed.

Kaira: That Dulhaniya one?
Lara: Yeah. There is a scene where her brat of a boyfriend flies into Singapore and kidnaps her and throws her into the boot of a car. And Bhatt’s character only pouts and throws in some pointless logic about career. How did the censor board allow that a man can kidnap a girl because he must ‘have’ her? Or does that reflect the view of the collective male?

Gayatri: Funny but this is exactly what my husband commented on too. There is an aggression, a disrespect, an assumption of control, of self-righteousness, of superiority, of…

Lara: …of domination, of appropriateness maybe…. The whole idea that you are welcome to use brawn – be it bodily lifting or assault.
Kaira: I guess, because he is hero and will eventually marry the girl and bring her ‘respect’.

Lara (laughing): Correct. But women are able to bring themselves respect. So, is Bollywood in a time warp?

Gayatri: But truth is you are engaging with an audience that believes it is correct to take a woman by force. Movies like that are made for audiences like that.

All these stalkers and chasers…. Where do you think they are getting their endorsement from?

Janaki: Whatever the situation … but women should not lose their sense of values and respectful demeanour.

A thick silence gently rolled out over the 8-9 ladies like a winter dohar. They knew they were dangerously in the vicinity of Taarika. Nobody really wanted to opine or dissect what happened. But viewpoints simmered.

They had all heard about ‘a young trainee’ and something that had happened whereby Taarika had let out a volley of abuses. This trainee, was an unobtrusive, unnoticed, quiet, usually blending-with-the-woodwork sort; people had asked around and been told his name was Malhar, and all that many said was, "Nice name!" But most did not know him or of  him.

Malhar, it turned out was a most helpful person, and liked by his peers. But Taarika, his super boss had been rough. Apparently, they discovered, that had happened twice. The office grapevine reported that close on the heels of the first, something terrible happened. Nandita, a junior manager whose dad had been in ICU for a month, had come rushing to Malhar’s cubicle to say she was rushing off to the hospital as some procedure was to be performed on her dad. “I can’t find Taarika, but please tell her.”

When Malhar took the message to her, Taarika did not look up from her laptop but responded brusquely, “He is popping it for sure, and we are getting the bad end of the deal. She should quit if she cannot be serious.”

Malhar: I will convey this to her ma’am. Thank you.

Taarika jumped up, “Idiot, don’t go and tell her that.” And she backed that with a glare.

Malhar was deeply upset by what Taarika had said and that was when he set up a meeting with Prateik Vora, HR head. Prateik slapped him on the back and said, “Yeh sab hota hai … you must take it in your stride.”

Malhar: May we talk honestly about this, Sir?

Prateik: Of course.

Malhar: If that was your father?

Prateik: She wouldn’t tell me that.

Malhar: So, it will matter if it is your father and not somebody else’s? Sorry, I am trying to have a frank chat.

Prateik: N-o…. I mean… (and Prateik went silent)

Prateik realised he had spoken mindlessly. That the likes of  Taarika would say that to lesser folk, not to those who could affect/impact their careers. But he was not going to confess that to Malhar. Instead he said, “Look, organisation life is very competitive, aggressive, even unruly at times. Everyone here is trying to get ahead and everyone is impatient and ambitious. The organisation goals are oppressive and impossible. The rewards for achieving them are covet-able. People want bonuses and options. We are in a very tough market and our marketshare is tipping. The  farmaan from our parent companies is like a whiplash, we have each gro-aned and cried … but run we must…”

Malhar: It seems to me we must lay eggs like fish and grow ‘away’ without feelings, bonds or binds. I am worried that you did not find Taarika’s words for her junior’s father obnoxious.

Samyukta had heard all this through the open door of Prateik’s office, and the grapevine began to buzz. That was how the ladies got together in the lunch room ...

Janki: If she did say that, then Taarika is surprising us with her brazenness. And even more so, I am surprised HR is not flinching. How are we defining culture and leadership here at Photogen? Or don’t we care?

Gayatri: OK, firstly, this is not about gender but where we are willing to take our cultural paradigm. I hear that Prateik will not confront Taarika because she is a trophy manager. Where does Prateik get his sense of right and wrong? If Prateik does not confront her, then he is allowing a certain brashness to come to define who we are. “Yeh sab hota hai”? Is that how he sees organisation culture?

Janki: How is culture being defined at Photogen? Are we happy hiding behind metaphors? Have values changed and led to changed paradigms in leadership? Or has leadership not changed at all but our choice of  leaders has? Or have leaders too begun to go south in sync with falling values? Which one is it?

Gayatri: But does culture precede leadership? Or does leadership determine culture?

Janki: Having worked in culture-rich organisations, I can vouch for the symbiotic relationship between the two. But it does seem to me that the culture of  leadership is changing … we have leaders today who are irreverential. In some cases, it is the electorate that is choosing to look the other way. We don’t seem to mind leaders with questionable morals! Becasue we have begun to say ... ‘morals have nothing to do with governance’... This, this is what contributes to the trickle down effect. Now, you will see why leaders like Prateik are willing to look the other way when growing leaders like Taarika behave badly.

Lara: It’s a new market with women rubbing shoulders with the men. The question is, are you going to sell out or be who you are? You can hold out and be your essential self. I see a parallel in brands. Some 25 years ago when foreign brands entered India, liberalisation trained the spotlight on Indian-ness. It also brought a lot of chatter on how strong is the Indian brand, which went on to tell a different story: the leadership on these brands – Milkfoods, Amul, Britannia, Mother Dairy, Thums Up, Kwality were the stuff of India-ness. These brands also stood for the essential Indian. They did not try and speak a different script, they did not try to be like the others. Brands like Thums Up showed that India lay in the India thought, Indian vision, Indian palate. They willed themselves to take on the foreign brands.

Likewise, brand ‘woman’ can enter the workplace without choosing to be like men.

Gayatri: Why are we wary of calling a spade a spade? Lara, you may think there is a woman-ness to conduct and demeanour; someone else might not think so.

Kaira: OK, then, let me lay it out. One, is there a role for good language, direction setting, coaching, guiding, etc., that managers need to adopt?

Two, have women become impatient and restless in a bid to perform and be seen as capable and effective?

Is it natural for women to use abusive words or is this posturing in the new age? Is there a sanctity to women remaining women-like and well-mannered as they are known to be? Or are we saying no, all this part of the turf and the work pressure stokes the devil in you?

Achha, this has just gotten very interesting. I am going to ask Varun Vashisht and Deven Athreya to join us.

RADHIKA made a few calls and presently the two men joined the ladies. She briefed them and urged them that the idea was not to judge Taarika but to understand what was changing. “Let us keep this a private chat please?” she said.

Deven (Financial Controller): That’s OK. But there is dust flying high on the eighth floor, if you want to know.

Varun (Head of Sales):
I am cool.

Janki: I know these are tough questions and you could be seen as gender harsh if you opine in some given way. But we are all grappling with this behaviour thing.
Deven: OK … I believe that a leader, irrespective of gender, should lead. Simple. That includes direction and context setting, coaching communication, including civility. These are basics for any leader.

Gayatri: Deven, it is sad that we have not shown respect and patience, an ability to talk with a certain decorum to treat a junior with care. That said, the disappointment being felt by some is this: have women become impatient and restless in a bid to perform and be seen as capable and effective? There does appear to be a belief that it is not ladylike to cuss.

Varun: Like women have an image of good men, men have an image of good women. OK, go hang me. But, with women now running shoulder-to-shoulder in the workplace, there is indeed pressure on women to demonstrate performance, objectivity and the fact that they play a powerful role in organisations, and not seem to be occupying position of power only for reasons of diversity, gender balance etc. Having worked with many women managers, I have seen them as capable and as effective as men.

Janki: Deven, take this one please. In your opinion, is it natural for women to use abusive words or is this posturing in the new age?

Deven: Absolutely not. In fact women are far more circumspect in language than are men. However, I see no reason why sharp words – not abusive – cannot be used when required. Women can wield the stick, and we have known our mothers to be toughies when they needed to be. Mine definitely was, but I guess three sons and a husband can make a beast of anyone!

Kaira (laughing): There is an underlying image of good-natured, soft-spoken women. So, we do have this imagery of genteel, polite, sensitive. Is there a sanctity we place on the well-mannered woman manager, especially since Varun talks about men having an image of women?

Varun: We may have images but they are just that, images. We are in no way denouncing those who ‘fall short’ of the images. But women need to be ‘better men’! The Dalai Lama once said, “Biologically, females have more potential; Females have more sensitivity about others’ wellbeing.” There is an expectation that women will make for more compassionate managers in the workplace. I mean this. Of course, psychologists will not support these claims. But the point is, compassion is not gender specific. It’s just that both genders experience compassion and express it differently. It just might be that the feminine expression of compassion is full of feeling. But how we grow up, how we are conditioned, how we are socialised, all this has a bearing on how we express compassion.

Deven: I do not think this is a gender related issue – in the work place, women are and should be as demanding as men are. In my book and my workplace I don’t distinguish between men and women. They should be equally empowered and be as demanding as they need to be. For, work is finally work. At the end of  the day, everyone has goals to deliver on.

Radhika: Hang on. There was a different viewpoint that Rajat (Head of Design) expressed. I am waiting for him to join us. He will soon, but say, are we saying no, all this part of the turf and the work pressure raises the devil in you?

Deven: Radhika, perhaps I have been raised differently, and worked in global and culturally diverse organisations where women constitute a large part of the workforce, though not necessarily in senior leadership positions. Both my wife and daughters are firm, assertive, speak their mind in their own way, and are very successful. You have to seize opportunities and women can do that, today more so than earlier. They are often in demanding situations; very stressful jobs they both have. But I have never heard them abuse. And if I won’t permit them to, it’s because I don’t either.

That was when Rajat Adhikari joined them. “So many women? Let me sit next to you, Varun, I will feel safer…” he said as everyone laughed.

Gayatri: Radhika was telling us, you had shared with her some thoughts on women in the workplace.

Rajat: Look, everything is changing a little every day and we are unwilling to observe and accept change. We demand that some things should not change. How can we accept women in the workplace but not women losing their temper? It goes with the turf, now, does it not?

Gayatri: Women are known to deal tremendously with stress, they are not known to ‘freak out’ unless disrespected or talked down to.

Kaira: Talking of stress, I have read that men and women handle stress very differently. While men are known to ‘fight’, women are known to reach out and seek friends, nurture, bond … this itself arises from their role as protectors, caregivers … the ‘love-heals’ type.

Varun: I guess we expect it from women unquestioningly because we have each – without exception – known women first as caregivers, nurturers. And that role does come with compassion and care. But if you watch carefully, these days men are donning the role of nurturing parents, from the earlier one where they only came home and frightened the children. Now, as we watch them change diapers, coo to the baby, make funny faces ... we are seeing men become more gentle.

Rajat: My point to Radhika was: Women in workplaces will always have gender issues. Men and women are biologically different, their brains are wired differently. A man’s interface with woman starts with his mother as nurturer, etc. This is further reinforced in the kind of society we live in and the gender roles that the average Indian grows up with over the formative years. Worse, the social barriers define gender boundaries.

And then suddenly, the workplace is forced to equate the genders but is reluctant. So, women are not preferred in sales roles in large companies, neither are they in maintenance services, for example. The man finds it difficult to reconcile the conflict between reality and his early scripting.

All this leads to one big problem: the reptilian brain response of men towards women are guided by mating or mothering instincts. Given the power of the reptilian brain over the thinking brain, the results are there for everyone to see: adventurous propositioning to downright harassment at all levels.

The women in workplaces are getting increasingly aware of this. And the aggressive behaviour is possibly a manifestation of their conflicts in dealing with these subconscious pressures in workplaces . Don’t you experience this, all of you?

So, this phase is one where women are in a cusp; what they need are solid role models from among women. There are some in the industry, but you ladies must help from within too.

Deven: I agree. And be role models for the aggressive male too! Of course, behaviour could also be a function of a lady’s inherently aggressive personality – that is different. So, there could be many reasons for this kind of behaviour that the young boy faced from Taarika. Or just an aberration due to the pressure of the job.

Which is not to say I condone that. Fact is, you are a leader in the making. You learn and you let learn. You owe the organisation that integrity, that care in handling people, that patience and that good conduct. That is what you are there for. Man or woman, respect is your duty. Completely non-negotiable.

Janki: Exactly my thought, Deven!                                                                                                                              
Also read: Hema HattangadyMala Sinha