Durga’s Lions

durgaslionsPublished 11th November 2013, in The Times of India

Palash and Jaideep never agree on a single issue. There is constant conflict between them. And this works well for their boss, Rajesh. It allows Rajesh to play judge and peacemaker. Rajesh keeps pointing out the shortcomings of Palash and Jaideep and asks them to work on it. He tells the management about these shortcomings too and informs them how he is working on the two men to ensure their development both personally and professionally. All this makes Rajesh appear like a really wise leader.

And yet, those who observe Rajesh carefully realize something else is happening here. They realize that Rajesh is the sole beneficiary of the conflicts between Palash and Jaideep. In fact, he goes out of his way to fuel it, never letting things be sorted out once and for all. The conflict distracts the energy of Palash and Jaideep. They focus on each other and neither every poses a threat to Rajesh. Thus Rajesh secures his position as the leader of the team.

Such politics is often part of organization. We frown upon them. We want work to be about targets and tasks, results and regulations, but these games invariably rear their ugly head, no matter how much we try to deny their existence. Why? Because we are humans. And where there are humans, there are emotions. And where there are emotions there are power struggles.

Modern management would like to see people in objective rational terms. We want people to be like machines, with a set of skills. So by focussing on targets and tasks, we take away attention from such power games. In the attempt to be professional, we end up dehumanizing the workforce. And this dehumanization leads to frustration, even rage, that works against organizations in the long run.

At the heart of these power games is human fear and our desire for Durga, or security. In temples, the goddess Durga is visualized riding a lion (or tiger). Lions have long been associated with kingship and power across Asia from India to China, even in lands where no lions exist.

This lion is the animal within us that seeks to dominate. Why does the lion seek to dominate? Because domination gives the lion access to more resources and because domination makes the lion feel safe.

There is a lion in Palash, Jaideep and Rajesh. Rajesh wants to be the alpha, the dominant ones. He wants Palash and Jaideep to be second officers: the beta. But he fears they might turn against him at any time, especially if they join forces. And so he gets them to fight each other for his favours. This distracts them and secures his position.

Yes, we want the Rajeshs of the world to be more mature and secure. But organizations do not allow it. With constant organizational restructuring and targets going higher and higher, organizations breed an ecosystem of fear. In this ecosystem of fear, we hire lions, aggressive executives and managers who fiercely run to get the lion’s share of the market.

Unfortunately, these lions often turn on each other, looking at everyone around them as rivals. The management wants them to focus on customers and competition, but they cannot help but focus on each other, see who will be favoured by the management, who will be given better positions, more responsibilities and more perks.

It is a good idea to recognize the lion inside everyone in our team. We are told that lions are brave. They strike fear in the heart of the prey. They are the ‘kings’ of the jungle. But we must forget, lions are also insecure. They fear rivals. And this fear is what makes them aggressive predators.

We can argue that instead of hiring lions we need to hire deer. We have romantic images of deer in our imagination. But even in a deer herd there is power play. The alpha bucks fight each other until a clear pecking order is established. And so it is amongst human-stags, organization rules, values, and structures notwithstanding.