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Case Study: Managing The ‘Manager’ Brand

“Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save people; Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers” — Simon Sinek, British/American author and marketing consultant

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Malhar stood by and watched the in-house think-team present an ad for the new colour laser printer that they were launching. Much excitement followed as they pinned up one campaign after another for Taarika Sen to see. Taarika was the marketing manager for the Photogen18 range of colour printers and presently she squinted as she walked closer to see an image used in one of the campaigns.

The lady in the ad had a face that was dark and scarred and the copy line said: “Not good enough? Use Photogen!”

Malhar heard her say, “That is a hugely gender insensitive remark alluding to the need for women to necessarily look delightful. Two, it is insensitive on a second count – colour of skin. Our brand cannot be talking in a manner that is rude, ignorant and insensitive! There is a subtle racial subtext, especially since you have shown caste marks that is a clear giveaway of the region you are referring to. I don’t want to hear that you didn’t know… this is the kind of ignorance that we cannot afford! Sorry? ….

Rubbish! It will cost us 10 times in brand image and the last thing we want is that we started off a new brand in India with complete lack of judgement and sense!

“Bringing up a brand is serious business. Every word, every utterance builds or breaks the brand. It is like a life script that you write today!”

As Taarika hauled the team over the coals, Malhar grew pensive. He had not a role there; he had merely come by to get her to sign on a letter she was sending out to the marketing finance team. This seemed like a ‘personal’ moment for the team… Malhar quietly left the audio-visual room.

Waiting in the lobby to be called, he checked his phone for messages. The last few days, he had been reading and re-reading what two online friends ‘Redwing705’ and ‘motherearthspain’ had to say about a certain topic they were discussing on a site called David’s Prophecy, a book about a certain civilisation dating back many thousand years and how the ruler had tried to secure 40 prisoners to be sacrificed for his coronation ceremony. Malhar had followed their chatter intensely. A certain bonhomie had grown among six or seven in the group and occasionally they chatted casually too. That was how Malhar had entered into a discussion on how to treat people in the workplace, cheap labour and respect for the underdog, alluding etc., alluding to his life at Photogen. For Malhar was all of 22 and wary.

Malhar’s story: Malhar worked at Savanna Photogen where he was an intern. They were a team of five on Photogen18, a new ink cartridge they were launching. Malhar was the youngest and the dogsbody who did a lot of work for everyone as he was an intern. He did not mind that for he knew he was there to learn. But mostly the work was interesting for all work was new.

Now, Malhar was assigned a portion of the evaluation which he completed. A small portion remained – developing small bite sizes for Tweeting – which depended on four others to bring in data. That night he had left for home at 2 a.m. after his senior took over the fine tuning of the tweets. The next day Malhar reached work late, having woken up late. As he entered the hall, he ran into his senior’s boss, Sen, who raised her eyebrows and looked at the wall clock. Malhar shuddered and gently mumbled that he had overslept. Then, assuming she was also asking about the tweets, he told her that his senior was to hand in the list by 11 a.m. To that, she banged the nearby table and let out a harsh abuse, adding in a mix of Hindi and English, “This is not your father’s office! (which, in Hindi, sounded crass and painful to Malhar who winced. Then…) Move your &%* and bring me the list!”

Young Malhar was taken aback. It was not just the covert allegation of truancy, but the entire package of the encounter, the slum-talk, which was so reminiscent of the shouts he heard everyday from the basti behind his home. The rest of the day had been a blur as he smarted again and again shuddering at the recollection of the tone, tenor, content and language. Malhar was not used to anyone talking like that. But when he thought about the super boss’ reaction, he wondered what it was that made her outburst so acidic. That night he met a senior family friend, an elder, and this gent told him, “Welcome to the corporate world, my son! Get used to this….”

That only made things worse. Malhar wished he knew what was his mistake and whether the lady’s response was not rather disproportionate. The more he thought about it and the family elder’s remark, the worse his condition grew. This world of work and business was unusually rude and rough, he thought; but he was not sure… he had interacted with many polite folks at Savanna Photogen.

His online friend Redwing said, “This is the way competitive businesses and people are; why don’t you find some coping mechanisms? In high pitched careers, people who are on a high horse tend to be beasts… but you can be a wild lamb, demand respect! You need to find a way to be able to tell people most politely where they get off… just try. Read some books, I gotta go now. Tell me in two days how you are doing, I hope to find you a specific way forward.”

Dissatisfied, Malhar went to his school on Sunday and found Fr. Bonaventure after mass. Fr. Bon, as they called him, was their basketball coach too and Malhar, like many of his friends, quite liked the young priest. They sat on the gallery watching the teams practice and Malhar said, “Father, the world outside is not like school, people are rough, rude too… you did not tell us that!”

Fr. Bon: The world changes every day even as we talk, Malhar. We taught you to be kind and polite. How do we teach about rude people? They don’t matter…!

I know… I am having difficulty…

And Malhar told him in brief. Then added, “I need to understand, Father. My parents have no clue about this, I have not shared with them.”

Fr. Bon:  I understand. What would you like to do?
Malhar: I don’t know. I don’t enjoy even waking up the last few days, let alone going to work.

Fr. Bon: Some in your place will quietly resign, but I think an assertive and a positive confrontational interaction with the lady before handing in the letter is one good choice.

Malhar: Father I am not thinking of quitting but I am definitely looking at other organisations. My thought is, if people are usually enduring this then I too will have to. If I leave here, it will repeat somewhere else. You don’t think so? I find it very strange that I am being made to feel like I am wrong to expect polite behaviour. But that ill-mannered behaviour is right. I am not able to sort this out.

Fr. Bon: But should you ever decide to leave, then I think you must let the lady know your precise reason. But I hear you now… and I feel there is another choice you have, albeit an unusual one.

Malhar: And what is that?

Fr. Bon: Get into an enquiry, exploratory mode. Here is your chance to understand the world you are stepping into. So, why is it that the lady lost her cool and humiliated me and are there any deeper lessons that I can learn? Because, in life, you do not often come across people who cause you such intense discomfort. And if life is going to have such discomfort and sorrows, is there somehow I can come on top of this negative experience by trying to understand much more deeply, the nature and character of people like this lady, even going to a teacher of psychology, to try and educate me to understand needs, drives and perception, and so what drives people to behave the way they do? What are some of the perceptions that people hold about each other, what are some of the pitfalls in some of these perceptions that comes in the way of communicating?

Malhar was spellbound.

Fr. Bon: Can I understand empathy and respect? Why are there customers for respect but not many sellers? What are the coping mechanisms for me to confront and assert? Therefore, there are some fundamentals, which the science of psychology has found that are being taught all over the world. Can I use this as an exploratory to understand and conquer myself (on my own) by having a deeper understanding of my boss? And finally can I improve my observation skills?

Malhar: Father, it seems odd to me – no, no, not your suggestion, but the idea that it is I who must look for a solution and not the one who spoke badly. That people who seek polite company must justify their shock when faced with rudeness…

Fr. Bon: That is how the world is today, son. At the end of it, you need to see how she interacts with others how she communicates, how those interactions are any different, if at all. Are you the only person or are there others who get the short end of the stick? Or are there, in fact, people she gets along well with, if so how come? Importantly, is she always like this? Or what did I lack that caused her to go off the deep end? And all this requires the capacity to observe. Use this as a learning experience.

Malhar: My online friend Redwing705 says (and Malhar read out from his phone), “You go to a workplace not just to learn brand building or quantum analysis… you also learn life there, life in its raw form, teeth and claws… greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy... you see a lot of that in the work place garbed under fancy suits and chic wear. Money you will make, son, but grab that extra, learn life, learn to manage it without letting it manage you…”

Fr. B, you seem to think exactly as Redwing705 does, for he adds, “For any kid to walk out is easy. But if this is opening up an opportunity to learn life skills, then learn!” I just feel a little discouraged, sort of. I was so excited when I started work at Photogen five months ago….

Fr. Bon: Life will show different facets to us on different days. You don’t have to retaliate but you can learn to manage: How do I renew myself and learn new skills. And when life is mean, do I fall back and weep and say, ‘Aww that was unfair?’ Or do I probe into the situation with skill and examine what caused this person to behave badly with me?

Malhar (reading out from his phone): That is somewhat like Redwing705 says, “Finally life is about people. If you can develop the right attitude to deal with people, you will rock!”

Fr. Bon: Who is Redwing705?

Malhar: Someone I befriended online

Fr. Bon: You be careful my lad, there are strange humans out there…

Malhar (laughing mildly): Yes, Father, I am careful. He is a deep historian, so must be a decent guy. He himself had revealed that sometime ago.

Fr. Bon smiled deeply. “The world out there is unusual… as long as you take care…”

Malhar: I will. I think I will use this opportunity to learn about humans. If nothing, it will make a better person out of me because if I be confronted with a similar emotion, I will know how NOT to respond.

Fr. Bon: This does get interesting, now, does it not? It also means that I also need to introspect myself about what were the triggers in me or in that exchange that caused that reaction from her. Don’t you agree?

Malhar: I agree. Because Physics says there is a relation between cause and effect. My aunt, Channi maasi yells at her maid often and I hear many others speak poorly about their house help. But none of the friends she discusses with ever say, “Hey, I know so much about your house help Moni but I know nothing about what your role was in that situation….”

Fr. Bon: There is this life skill too that we need to cultivate. Well said, my boy! You should have studied Humanities. I told you to, but you took business studies!

Malhar (laughing): My grandfather’s table has this steel plate with a nice imprint of Mahatma Gandhi and the words say, “Be the change you want to see…” or something similar. Today that makes sense…

Fr. Bon: We can do this, son. I can ask Patricia Williams, our Head of Psychology, to guide you on this exploration, but the spirit has to be exploration not pinning blame. There is that risk. You may find out through all this that your lady boss is maybe vain, has a history of bad behaviour and so on… but that should not make you complacent. You must yet look at what is it that Peter needs to work on to be able to understand a difficult human like Paul. Get it?

Malhar: Got it, Father. But you know so much, how is that? I thought you were a physicist.

Fr. Bon: 
I learnt Transactional Analysis from a Jesuit priest. He said some people actually take to playing games based on the experience they have had in their first 10 years, and they can position themselves into playing three roles, which they continue into their adulthood into senior management, into even older age. So, they can play persecutor, rescuer or victim. Or all three too!

You will see this in families, or in places of worship when people pray they are crying, “Oh, Lord why me, what did I do? Why aren’t you protecting me? Save me.”

That is the victim.

Integrity comes when you take charge of your life and examine your experiences. Where you see things as they are, where you are transparent, courageous and don’t play games.

Malhar Met Williams on Saturday as it was his day off. When Fr. Bon briefed Williams, she was upset. “Is this how people talk in the workplace? I am appalled! But I have also seen that the moment you take to conversing in Hindi or mother tongue, something goes away, you lose balance and sense of propriety. A workplace is sacred and language should be the one formally accepted as workplace medium of communication!”

Malhar: But ma’am people usually break into Hindi. It’s common.

Then they also use slang, I guess? Naturally you pave the way for abusive talk! The language you speak outside the workplace cannot be the language you use in the workplace. You don’t wear shorts to work, do you? At the workplace you are serving shareholders, consumers. Not partying. Let me ask you, Father, what is the value of language in the workplace? If it is communication, then is expression important? And if expression is important, then how should your tone be? If you think tone is important, then is not demeanour of value?

Fr. Bon: The issue is beyond language. Respect goes beyond language and sets the tone for engagement, collaboration and growth.

Critical responses are a healthy part of an organization – no proposal or idea is so perfect that it cannot have downsides. Therefore criticism is an essential part of collaboration. Having said that, most of us have learnt that criticism is negative and also that somehow it is ‘wrong’. Thus, very few of us have learnt to receive it well. To counter this, people often sweeten the communication to a point where it becomes confusing. One may even wish for the straight from the shoulder feedback, criticism.

The new generation often has an in-your-face approach to things and respond directly. The older generation sometimes find this difficult.

Malhar: Father! I am 22 and I find it difficult too!

Fr. Bon(laughing): So you are! While the lady boss has spoken poorly, I must tell you Ms Williams, I have had younger colleagues tell me, “You have to give me this subject next year or I will leave!” And I have said, “You have to leave this to the Principal. Please leave if my choice does not suit you.”

You said it. So, what we are seeing is a general view out there, of course, that politeness does not count or add value; but impoliteness, uncouthness adds value to business? If expression, tone, tenor, demeanour, courtesy all are important, then do they all go to make up who we are?

Fr. Bon: As a rule, a culture of respect and ease go together in an organisation. As people loosen up, different styles and metaphors find expression adding to the richness of the space. However, it always seems to me that seniors and elders should not be uncouth, and provocation can never be reason to slip.

Malhar, in my life, I have learnt that all happenings have a logic and a reason. No one out of the blue says something like this… What could be the reason why this lady spoke thus? While her metaphor is crude, it says something directly and forcefully. If I were you, after my ire subsides, I would try to go over the previous conversations. Have I been insisting on getting some work done in a particular way? Had I listened to her? If after this examination I find that I have not given any provocation for such a retort, I would then try and see if this is a pattern.

I would then seek a conversation with this person and say, “I found your communication to me hurtful the other day. I wish you had communicated differently. As a new entrant into the organisation, I found your communication was not helpful. Let me know what you thought was my mistake in that episode. I would like to learn and soon hope to be quite productive.”

Redwing705 posted that evening, “I doubt your boss is going to like the messiah in you. She is likely to abhor angels in her den. Simply sharpen your teeth and claws!”

To be continued...

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