Decoding conduct


Published on 3rd October, 2015, in the Economic Times

God gave Moses a set of commandments to give to his chosen people. These were set in stone, meaning they were non-negotiable. Yet, the Bible is full of stories of non-compliance. For example, there is the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ yet King David has an affair with his commander’s wife, angering God. There is the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’ yet Judaic, Christian and Islamic history is full of violence.

Besides God’s commandments, every religion based on Abrahamic mythology has elaborate sets of codes of conduct. There is the Talmud, which compiles laws of the landless, migrating Jewish people, along with arguments about their interpretation by experts at different times and in different geographies. There is the dogma of the Catholic Church, which continues to see homosexuality as incorrect and feels women are not worthy of becoming the Pope. Then there is the Hadith of the Muslims, collections of quotes of Prophet Muhammad on various topics, which is often seen as non-violable law.

The Hindus also have such a code, known as Manu-Smriti — at least that is what the British and Indian judicial system believes, though historians are not so sure if this dharma shastra was ever seen as a ‘code.’

Corporations have adopted this religious practice. Every company has a code of conduct plastered on its walls, websites and files. This is now seen as a ‘legal’ requirement. The assumption being: if an employee steals, you cannot accuse him of theft unless your code of conduct explicitly states that they are not supposed to steal. This may sound corny, but it seems to be the trend. And so, corporations actually have to tell their people that they value ‘integrity’ and declare that they are ‘value-based’ organisations. So, what is a value-based organisation? One that does not get caught? Or one that expressly states that it cherishes ‘values’?

Or one where people behave as the management wants them to — obediently always, yet innovatively when necessary? At the heart of this need to expressly state codes of conduct is our desire to control the behaviour of people or to clarify what behaviour is valued and what is not. In the Vedic scheme of things, however, rules were never valued. Or rather, rules were not seen as the major tool for cultural control. What mattered was context. A person’s behaviour is an outcome of the ecosystem in which he lives and his own personality. Hence, the constant refrain, even in the Manu-Smriti, that behaviour is an outcome of place (desha), time (kala) and guna (personality). Hence the concept of yugas: with Ram, the eldest son of a royal family expected to behave very differently from Krishna, the youngest son of a not-so-royal family. Rules, at best, serve as hygiene.

You cannot control one whose gunas (natural propensity) propel him to be dishonest, but you can create an ecosystem that encourages honesty. Here, the ownership falls not on judges and lawyers, but on leaders, on how they behave and how they treat their followers. While you can compel people to be obedient, you cannot compel people to trust.

For that, you have to make yourself trustworthy. An act of breach of trust is hurtful as it strikes at our notion of self. It is more an emotional injury than a legal one. What matters more than rules is intent. But intent is not measurable and hence of no use in the corporate world. So codes of conduct and value-training workshops are just one of the many levers that create culture.

To depend on them is an indicator that the management believes in domesticating people, like farm animals. After all, the Lord is my shepherd, or cowherd!