Monday, January 28, 2008

Spade and the Rose, Buddy and the Boss

Bablu had a lot of buddies at his workplace. He and his friends were a great gang who always used to hang out together. They worked for one of the 30 companies that comprise the Sensex, so life was a poor-fit sine curve of hectic days at the workplace and chilling out at parties and vacations. All of them had been recruited on campus in the same batch and now it was almost three years since. One fine morning, Bablu was called by their boss and asked to "mentor" the others in the gang and review parts of their work from time to time, as part of these leadership grooming exercises they have from time to time, percolating succession planning right upto the grassroots level. He suddenly found there were plenty of issues to be sorted out and needed review. Efficiency needed improvement, he had "discovered". Till recently he had been one of those who needed to be "sorted out" by his boss, but now he had to sort things out. Bablu was what they call the "soft-type" guy and often wondered how to tell the guys about the areas about their work. Hey we all grew up in the same farm, man, we had our meal from the same plate, that kind of feeling. During a riverside walk, He meekly put this question to another friend of his, Munna.

Munna is a one-man university. He always answers questions at any forum he comes across. He jumps with glee to hear the phrase "to anyone who has a point of view", even though he may not have any. When he sees "to whomsoever it may concern" on an invoice envelope meant for the checkpost, he naively thinks it's for him. He uses a customized version of an old adage and believes: Preach today what you want to practise some day. The riverside dust rose to give a hazy halo to Munna as he started doling out advice by the dozen, as if Gabriel had just deliberated with him inside the cave on this very topic and the whole duniya had gathered on the sands to listen to his gyaan. It was the Republic Day, and though the chat had nothing to do with patriotism, he used a red bench on the riverside as a pedestal to get a feeling of addressing the multitudes from Red Fort.

It's usually tough, but only in the beginning. After a while, the "dog eats dog" world teaches the goodie softie folks the lessons in aggression and they, after having learnt them, have to "moderate" it with the goodness they have learnt before in their "pure" times. First of all, these buddies come in 2 types. One is a set of buddies whom we start out by occasional nice interactions but later graduate to a well-formed friendship. The other is a set of buddies who have come together "just like that", here to stay only for a short while with us and go their way after the temporary phases get over. And you can try the same way of interaction with both types, though the output will be different, I'll come to that later. In these situations, they say, it's better to be the natural YOU, however good or bad that might be. And grow as a person, over a period of time. If you are irritated because others are being unfair to you, there is nothing wrong in letting people know. A certain amount of anger, well-expressed, might actually be good for the body, the mind and even for the profession, the longterm health of the workplace and quality of work. You shouldn't rock the boat, of course, but that doesn't mean you have to suppress all your feelings to the level of indignation and compromise on basic objectives at the workplace. If you are uncomfortable, you should let people know about it. If you are uncomfortable doing even that, then, well, you shouldn't and probably wait for patience to wear out a little more, (not fully tear out), so you are better off expressing it. Others may be worse off by your expressing it, but thats fine, because you would have already decided that you have reached a threshold level. If at that time, still some part of you wants to be nice and not direct, (God help !)then you can try to minimize the embarrassment by hinting or sarcasm or trying to tell in a nice way.

The only problem might be : If we straightaway mention whatever comes to our mind aggressively and harshly, it's quite possible we get wrong and we are expressing our impulses without thinking like a brakeless bell-less bicycle. Not recommended. But if there is a pattern that is repeatedly happening and if you have thought about it coolly and fair to all parties, true to your basic objective and quality of work, then you should communicate your displeasure. There is nothing wrong with this. ( I have told you this before, but again, because removing guilt requires repeated scrubbing). Don't get "worked up" and "get mean" when you are communicating, although others might react in that way. Remember, if something has started to build up that recurs and haunts you, and if you know you are being fair to both sides, then it has to be expressed. In fact, if you don't express, you might be contributing to the inefficiency in the system and if you express, you will be acting true to your basic objectives although you may not please individuals. It's good that small mistakes have to be corrected immediately, sometimes, even with big punishments so that those small mistakes do not proliferate to become big mistakes one day. Like the robber in prison who blamed his mother because she never chided him for stealing a pencil as a kid in school.

The harsh extreme stance is that, each one is there to move their muscle and do a decent amount of work for the plump pay they receive. Managers who are ruthless are usually more efficient and well-defined but not without demerits. They either get "worked up" with impulsive anger and lose out on the personal touch (care a damn even if someone is sick or mourning). They will actually be a boon in handling "real thugs" or "junk idlers" by whipping them up a bit with their outbursts and threats, but if they try the same with another employee who has average motivation already, they might be harming the existing morale. Why are you always looking over my shoulder and breathing down my neck ?. And more often than not, their ruthlessness usually works only with their subordinates, and when it comes to interacting with their superiors, they will be forced to "moderate" their aggression. Or made to learn !! After all, they can't be ruthless with their boss, they would say ! Also, these are usually good at "technical" areas of work where things are usually well-defined as X or Y. They can, for example, demonstrate and snub their superior, by showing, that other things remaining the same, an X query, written by A runs thrice as fast as a poorly written Y query written by B. And to be fair and promote better quality work, you have to agree with that. But when it comes to people-driven work like team projects and management skills, a balance between how you speak and how you get work done, matters a lot for getting further work done :) !! There may be situations, when you call spade a spade, it might fall on your neck, next time you see it, you will start calling it a rose !! :)

That said, the actual methods may vary based on the circumstances. Assume, you want to mention to your buddies that quality of work is suffering. You can do that over a cup of tea. Or mention it in the office cubicle when all are present. You can even mention it when some are present, anyway it will reach the other intended recipients !! You can mention it to whomever you think is "closest" among the lot and whom you expect to be more understanding. You can say, "Hey, Of late, these things are happening, ya. It's not proper, no?. I mean, we can chill out all the time, but work is suffering.". Or you can make a logical appeal of the consequences of inefficiency. "see folks,if we keep on postponing carelessly then issues will unnecessarily build up, and later we only have to sit and sort out each of them painfully. Suddenly one fine morning, boss will wake up from hibernation :) there will be plenty of pressure and that time not a single soul will help us. So why not, finish off then are there. Not only that, we will also get some satisfaction that some parts of work are already finished, tied up and kept aside, right ?". In higher levels of management, they do this efficiency review talk at team meetings, they have to do the harsh talk at the office and attempt to make it up at parties and get-togethers. :) But it may be, that at your junta level, your office cubicle or the coffee machine is the maximum you can think of !.

Another approach is, to act like a pukka team lead or manager while in office and be a friend or a buddy outside. This is not to say, you should lose out on all the fun in the workplace. But along with all the fun in between, you can also (do some work) make and present the task list, give instructions, review things. In the beginning, your behaviour may be confusing, people wonder are you a buddy or are you a boss. But over a period of time, people know you for "work is work and fun is fun".

Either ways, be prepared for different types of reactions (in the short term) from different kinds of people. Might quite happen, some buddies start buzzing that "you have begun to show off" or "you have started to boss around" or "the power thing has gotten to your head" or "you want to impress your boss about your leadership". It is said, Power corrupts, Absolute Power corrupts absolutely. One can actually add here, "So say the powerless !! ". And probably the anyway corrupt. Hopefully, these should be a smaller segment. "Ignore them" would have been the easier thing to say, but in reality, it's tough to ignore an entire lot of people. Ignore their meanness, is a better way to put it. Be fair to them, whenever possible be kind and fish out their good suggestions from mean behaviour and show them you value those. That day I differed from you, that was different, but today you have a valid point. Even if it's about me. Who knows, they might even graduate upwards, depending on how you handle them and how you react to their mix of meanness and goodness.

The second kind often realise that you have become a boss and therefore, can no more be a buddy, and start interacting formally. They do their work properly and make sure work doesn't suffer but they may not chill out with you anymore and go on to find other buddies. Let go, no silly feelings, dont bid them farewell as buddies but they have a human reason to act in the way they do. Understandable, because it's actually tough to have someone as both buddy and boss. If one can achieve this, it will be great. Thats the third kind, people who know you are fair, you are friendly, but work is important so you might act in a particular unpleasant way for the sake of work and you don't keep things to heart, you don't carry emotional baggage. This produces the maximum team results along with maximum personal relationships, though it's rare to find, takes long time to build and usually involves a continuous personal growth of the manager himself.

When we are fair, and don't mean to be harsh, it's quite possible, people still find us harsh. We are not harsh, but strangely, we sound harsh to them. No one wants to be "told", so if someone "points out", the fairness fades behind and harshness hops in the front.
Remember, when you are straightforward, Good friends usually understand. Or rather, those that understand go on to become good friends. Sometimes, we also have to allow for friends to be "not understanding", if we believe they are good friends anyway, and probably their "not understanding" is one-time or short-term behaviour. Probably he got up on the wrong side of the bed which led to a fight with his wife which led to his driving on the wrong side of the road which led to... and so on.. You think you are straightforward, they might return the favour in the same straightforward currency and as good friends, we will end up being understanding!!.

Along with fairness, allowing traffic from the opposite side helps. When someone points out your inefficiencies, bring the same fairness and "technical" detachment to the table and take it by the merit of the argument. Laugh at yourself. Instead of empty defence, blame game or "you-rub-me-wrong-side-now its-my-turn", you might actually move on with a plain realisation "Oh yeah man, thats a goofup" or "my battery is down today" or "I am a joker" or "I better be careful next time" even if you don't want to "profusely" apologize. You can quip/joke by saying things like "It seems software companies give away t-shirts to people who find the best bugs, in my case, I have to buy an entire showroom". "Do unto others...." , the old adage, still has its value.

Some say, "Stop worrying about what others think of you. It's impossible to please everyone all the time". True, but it's better to keep this on the back of your mind and "moderate" it in practice to allow for team work and feedback. Because it allows you to correct yourself in case you are wrong. If you entirely stop worrying about what others think, then you never know when things "get onto your head" and will be the proverbial emperor in new clothes. You might spend crores to shoot a movie entirely on brilliant sets, have a great music score, but seriously believe the audience would surely appreciate the hero's new towel, only to lose the audience out in the first 15 minutes.

It's important to differentiate between long-term response to your leadership style and short-term response from smaller segments. Also to differentiate between responses from mature minds and responses from mean minds. And to allow the possibility for someone who is mean today to grow up and become mature tomorrow and hence the label is not for the person but for the response. That will train you to give value to a valid point from a mature mind and not fret too much about the outpourings of a mean mind. Long-term responses are a result of your effort to practise whatever you think are long-term values and your continuous effort to grow as a person and as a manager . By the time you grow up, you may not have the same team that sulked earlier to appreciate your growth now, but you would now make better teams and thereby, a better world. Amen !!

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THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.