Published on 24th October, 2015, in the Economic Times.
Durga is the goddess of kings, worshipped by both Ram and Ravana in the Ramayana. It is to her that the Navaratri celebrations are dedicated to. She is visualized riding a lion, holding many weapons in her hand and doing battle with a buffalo-demon. The word Durga is rooted in the word ‘durg’ which refers to a fortress that we build to protect ourselves from marauders. This fortress can be seen literally or metaphorically. Durga then is the psychological fortress we build to cope with the corporate world.
No matter what is said about the corporate world, it is voluntary submission to a system that repeatedly humiliates and controls us, denies us freedom, all posters of ownership and empowerment notwithstanding.
Consider the process: once we agree to join the company, we have to have sign a memorandum of agreement, then we have to be inducted into the company through a series of training programs and meetings that tell us how we are expected to behave in the company if we wish to thrive. Then we have to submit to the processes of the organisation, everything from when we are supposed to arrive, and when we are supposed to leave, and how we are supposed to conduct yourself when inside. There are guidelines on how we are supposed to conduct meetings, conduct interviews, hire people, engage with them, appraise them, recognize them and even fire them. We really don’t have a voice and have to submit to the processes deemed appropriate by people in more senior positions than you. Even leave is granted as a favour and is accompanied by the fear that we may be declared invalid during our absence.
This disempowerment is least in startups and increases as organisations grow larger. Since modern management is rooted in monotheistic mythologies, we prefer central control and are aided to do so by technology. Thus we send templates and forms to organize how we think and how we present data. Makers of the template always feel more powerful than those who have to fill the template. But we are told this is for the larger good, of the organisation and the customer.
And so employees seek escape. They seek ways to block out the disempowerment they have to endure constantly. The simplest method is to simply switch off that phone when one is with family, even if that means organisational censure. The more complex method is to switch off while the boss is talking and being indifferent to the various organisational rituals like town hall meetings, or organisational initiatives like corporate social responsibility.
A good leader is sensitive to the disempowering ecosystem created by large technology-based corporations. He brings in the emotion that corporations are incapable of having. He has the power to bring joy to the team, discuss their issues, vent their frustrations — not because that is the ‘expected leadership process’ but simply because he is human. He can create a tiny oasis of freedom without stirring insecurity of the corporation and its process auditors. Little else is in his control and that is what middle level managers need to aspire to if they really wish to bring value to their colleagues: give Durga, not just instructions, enable teams to survive the fetters that are an inevitable part of corporate life, and not feel entirely domesticated, stripped of all free will.