About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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And what about the business of tolerance?

The following article was first published was on www.foundingfuel.com

The discourse on respecting plurality, diversity, criticism, dissent and contrarianism has dominated the public space in India during the last couple of months. Various people who have received public acclaim have voiced the need for a culture that is tolerant and gives space for fearless expression of thoughts and opinions. Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy joined in with his views on preserving the culture of valuing minority rights and concerns. RBI governor Raghuram Rajan also weighed in, voicing caution about the danger of being excessively politically correct in our social discourse.

This set me thinking about how much space businesses have for employees to fearlessly articulate their thoughts and opinions without having to face punitive repercussions.

How often do we see a culture in any business organisation where minority groups that are adversely impacted by a policy can fearlessly engage their business leadership? Intolerance to the concerns of minority groups is what drove employees about 150 years ago to find safety in numbers—trade unions. We know that the law forbids having employees work more than nine hours in a day and 48 hours in a week. Yet, in most organisations that do not have trade unions, employees are required to work much longer.

The dividing line between personal space and work space has blurred. People often have to work during their personal time. Given the stretch in targets, no employee can meet his performance expectations by working for the legally specified time. This is especially true of the sales and logistics teams. How much space do companies give these employees at the bottom of the ladder to express their concerns without serious retribution? Is it not the right of every individual or minority group in an organisation to seek redressal for the distress these practices cause them?

Let us take another example. We eulogise the performance culture that modern-day organisations have established with performance-linked pay and other consequence management measures. But is there room for employees to have a say in the performance targets that have life or death consequences for them?

My argument is not that every employee should set his own performance target; however, should there not be a culture for employees to engage their leaders fearlessly and demand the rational for the targets? Should there not be a debate on how reasonable are the aspirations given the economic and market factors, especially because employees can lose their jobs if they fail? The final call should still be with the leaders, but should they not hear the voices from the field that may have different perspectives? Without giving our employees voice, how will a culture engender ownership and inclusiveness?

When employees see that the consequence management for low performance is harsh and ruthless at the coalface and lenient at the senior levels, where is the space in modern businesses that do not have trade unions, to seek an open and transparent debate? How fair can a system be when there is no avenue for its members to draw the attention of their leaders to this inequity? Harsh reprisals are unleashed even on leaders who seek to notify these issues and seek an open debate. Such is our tolerance in business establishments.

How much space for plurality do you think exists in business organisations on issues like strategy? Practically very little. Occasionally an odd inclusive business leader creates a platform for consultation. Even this leader rarely goes beyond consultation. Do not be fooled by the strategy workshops and meetings. Usually there is little room for different views on issues like forging a common understanding on the state of the economy or the state of market competitiveness or appropriateness of products and services, resource allocation, etc. in most organisations.

How much to grow, how fast, in which business and which market are governed solely by the business leader’s aspiration and risk appetite; often others in the meeting are expected to merely endorse it. Any attempt to seriously challenge the underlying assumptions, the institution’s existing capabilities or the prioritisation of resources, is foolhardy.

People who join start-ups from established corporates come with a romantic notion that there the culture will be more tolerant to challenge and debate. They fail to understand that in most start-ups, which are driven by value extraction, this space is reserved for the promoters and their small coterie. The PR machinery can spin any tale; the truth is, in both established majors and start-ups, there is very little scope for challenging the business leader’s position on an issue or expressing a contrarian position.

The publicly articulated position of most leaders is that innovation thrives when there is divergent thinking. However, as Raghuram Rajan advices, if I were to be politically incorrect, in most organisations, the plurality is limited to lodging the ideas. The idea that innovation is not possible without disrupting an existing product, service or practice is well accepted. However, the million dollar question always is, who will bell the cat where the business leader is the patron of the dying product, service or practice? Banks’ hesitation to jettison the current branch model, when banking is fast becoming digital, is a case in point. Similarly, it is seriously risky in business to initiate a debate on whether an innovation where the CEO is the sponsor, has indeed failed in the market. Nano is a case in point.

As with political issues that are deeply ideological, where challenge is dangerous, so too it is with ideas where the CEO is the patron. That is why it takes a new CEO to break free from the hallowed past model and adopt new approaches. Take the Indian IT sector for instance. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the innovation or break with the past usually happens after an open debate and after examining past practice. This often is because the new CEO is the patron of the new approach and you dare not challenge it openly if you have a differing point of view. Of course, there is always the rare leader who is an exception to this approach.

In most organisations, leaders rarely seek out alternate views from their colleagues on their business models or strategies. In meetings often the expectation is that each business leader will have a bilateral engagement with the CEO, without their ignorant and mischievous colleagues’ interventions. An endorsement and political support in fact will be appreciated. Many also desire that this is left as a series of bilateral equations, where each business leader sits quietly in the meeting when his business is not being discussed. Worse is if the politically incorrect intervention were to challenge the preferred outcome of the CEO.

Wherever a leader prefers a bilateral engagement with his team members, it should be clear that this leader is uncomfortable with plurality of views and healthy challenge to ideas and opinions.

Once the leader sets the tone, this culture is mirrored across engagements at all levels. Say in a review, a particular market or product is under discussion. It will be unwelcome for other managers to join in with alternate takes on the issue. It will be seen as unwarranted interference. So it is not only the CEO who is responsible for intolerance to alternate views.

A friend of mine, a thought leader, narrated to me how she was made to feel unwelcome as an independent director on the board of one of India’s globally acclaimed business organisations. She told me that the chair of the organisation had very little patience for any challenge or contrarian views. Her mistake was that she understood the role of the independent director as examining all propositions closely by challenging them.

I am also aware of another incidence where another friend on the board of another business establishment was involved. It appears that the board sought a 360-degree feedback on its members’ performance. They then found the feedback to be critical of the board’s functioning. This distressed the powers on the board. They sent a not-too-subtle message that they did not appreciate the feedback.

Just like citizens who take a contrarian position to the political establishment are accused of being anti-national and traitors, companies too brand contrarian thinkers and challengers as mischief mongers or disruptors. Unlike the political establishment, companies are not brazen in neutralising these contrarians. They are more suave in their methods of retribution. People soon learn the true meaning of pluralism and tolerance.

We as a nation are caught in a transition from a feudal society to being a pluralistic democracy. Distance from power, masculinity and normative behaviour are the fingerprints of feudal culture. Egalitarianism, human rights and pluralism are the fingerprints of a mature democracy. Like our socio-political system, a dominant part of our economic system is transitioning from proprietary mind-set to custodial mind-set. A widely publically held business enterprise cannot be run by leaders who are deeply rooted in a proprietary mind-set.

The essence of governance is to socialise the power and eliminate the conflict of interest, which larger-than-life CEOs and business leaders unwittingly slip into. They suffer the delusion of being the owner with hardly any personal capital investment.

The feudal qualities of loyalty, obedience and hero worship rule in most business institutions. Healthy challenge, debate and contrarianism can be experienced only in very few business establishments. So the confluence of feudal remnants in the socio-political system, the proprietary delusion of the business leaders and half-hearted governance, create the climate of intolerance in companies which I have illustrated in this article.

The heart of intolerance is the threat of retribution. Feudal and proprietary mind-sets are predicated upon the notion of unquestionable nature of authority. In this social dynamics power devolves from one’s position and/or allegiance to an ideology. Thus the pay-off is dominance and reverence/subservience to the leader—religious, political, social or business leader.

No wonder that leaders are thrilled to be on the various power lists that business magazines publish. While many business leaders will deny that they bring in either a feudal or proprietary mind-set, the truth is only very few have matured into being custodial leaders who submit themselves in true spirit to the governance structure of the board. Without this transition it is impossible to create an egalitarian and collegial culture of tolerance.

It will do us in the business good to initiate a debate on how do we guide our business institutions to a custodial structure and nurture boards that are not in awe of the CEOs, especially the iconic ones. It is when business leaders experience the board as a challenger and healthy critic and not an awestruck cheer leading group, that the business environment will value pluralism and egalitarianism. The fear that boards will become obstructionist and intrusive when they challenge is a misplaced feudal mind-set. Seeing every challenge and critic as obstructive or intrusive is the heart of intolerance.

I believe that the first step is initiating a public debate on the current culture in business organisations, especially the role that the independent board members are required to play, to make business establishments more tolerant.

9 comments on “And what about the business of tolerance?
  1. Devorshi Bhattacharjee says:

    Sir,Its a deep subject but approach is pragmatic and that makes it very interesting…but should we really bother about intolerance or leave it to the balancing forces? Whether our table is the country or organisation or team , friends or even family a feudal approach is unwelcome and dissent gradually starts from within..dissent so very volatile and ready to explode at the first suitable change in environment….So is an ultra democratic setup where one is frowned upon for differentiating between progressive and disruptive…infact an progressive mind is booed down and succumbs to the noise makers and finally into a submissive lot. But if something was missing in the blog, wonder why you would have not written a few words on Lee Kuan Yew.. after all Singapore has flourished in this crucible where they believed and supported in being led with a iron fist…yet they are a successful democracy

    • N Prakash says:

      Hi Devorshi,

      You fondly remembered one of the greatest leaders in the last 100 years – Lee Kuan Yew. Having said that, I would like to tell you that late Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself quoted once that Singapore is ‘a stroke of luck’ – though, personally, I don’t believe that. Singapore is a reflection to the world of grit and determination of a set of leaders at senior level and diligently guided, accepted and followed by a majority of people. Taking further cue from the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, how far a leader can go in leading (from a small group of members to running a business to leading a country) is determined by how much can an individual influence the followers. As long as the decisions of the leader is acceptable (not favourable) to a majority of the society, there will be peace at large. There will always be someone / minority somewhere unhappy with the proceedings which will have to be addressed at a different plane rather than politicising. Also, Singapore is evolving as it moves on under leadership of next generation. Singapore as a country is not the same as it was in 1990 when Lee Kuan Yew stepped down.

  2. K.Ramkumar says:

    The question to both of you is would you like your vouce to be heard and you not subjected to the threat of reprisal or would you submit yourself to the authority and will of this great hereoic leader no matter what it means to your dignity, personal well being, emotional balance and above all your just rights. This debate is not about decision making or submitting oneself for the larger good. It is about the threat of reprisal for someone expressing his thoughts. But on this platform you can differ with me and other weiters without the fear of being abused, threatened or ridiculed. That is the heart of the matter.

  3. K.Ramkumar says:

    Let me add the issue at core is whether leader’s actions and decisions however great they may be are open to be reviewed, critisised or even challenged by an employee. Or is our mindset that every such act is disobedience, obstruction or intrusiveness. We should remember that the shoe pinches when it is on our feet. So only when we get impacted by a decision adversely and are told that we cannot even fearlessly state our unhappiness we will realise how indignfying it can be. My proposal is not a licence to challenge or disparage leaders. It is more subtle. Finally we should be careful when we elect for development over liberty and human dignity be it a nation or a commercial institution. But in my book it is an individual’s choice. So if someone chooses to relinquish their right to review or challenge a leader so be it. Equally if some one does challenge or review and is punished or threatened with reprisals in my book it is intolerance. Look at the beauty here we all can debate this issue without any fear that is the heart of tolerance.

  4. Gulshan Narula says:

    Dear Sir, we missed your blog for a long time. Happy to see you back on the blog. The subject is quite thoughtful and quite relevant in today’s context. Look forward to your book release.
    Regards.

  5. K.Ramkumar says:

    Let me shut up after this last point. There are loads of examples of pluralistic and liberal economies and nations who have achieved a lot more than Singapore without capturing a nation for its family. Franklin Rosevelt, Abe Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchil, all were leaders who knew how to balance the majoritarian needs with out being insensitive to the minoritarian concerns. If the only way to achieve is to uphold all majoritarian expectations gender, race and caste equality in every nation would have been an impossibility. In commercial organisations we would never have given dignity and voice to the coal face employee and would have trampled upon them. We have ro be careful when we express stary eyed adulation for leaders. We then make them intolerant even if they to start with were tolerant.

  6. Abhitabh Dixit says:

    Sir,

    Indeed a completely different perspective to the entire tolerance debate. I guess the moot point today is not so much whether we are open to alternate views or not, more often than not the establishment, whether it is an organization or a sovereign entity is not forthcoming, as rightly pointed out by you. But I guess the moot point today is the way alternate views are termed anarchist or anti social or anti national in the context of nation & indiscipline in case of organizations. Retributions are invariably disguised and become a part of the larger perspective based assessments. Surely at this juncture when we face a dilemma of high growth with challenging macro economics there should be room for higher consensus based long term objectives rather than short term business numbers

  7. N Prakash says:

    Sir,

    I think it all depends on what is at stake when an individual choose or not choose to provide an alternate view. While I may not care about losing a job or a Board Membership, I will be mindful about alternative views in the country in which I live is notorious for crucification publicly. Similarly, a soldier may dare to give alternate views without bothering about his life being at stake, but probably bothers about his dear ones. There will always be threatening reprisals, bricks and bats for alternate views. Same as you, I am not dwelling on which side is winning or should win – Majority or Minority (alternate views).

    It is better to be wise than brave under certain circumstances. ‘Wise’ need not be just keeping quiet. ‘Wise’ could be a ‘Trade Union’ act where one start bringing consensus among the people on the idea lodged so as to convert into innovation. In my view, fighting the battle solely can happen only in LIFE OF PI – Not in the Organisations.

    As an individual, I have always put across my point whenever I feel it is right to and learnt lessons as well !!!

    Like many, I am also looking forward to your book, sir.

    • Colonel Naresh Sinha says:

      “Tolerance should be taught at all levels in the Corporate ”

      Getting down straight to the aspect of building tolerance in leaders in organisation; I would like to share my views on the role of leadership development. A lot of time is invested in debating the qualities and selecting candidates for talent management in the hope to nurture it and use it in the organisation. Though a legacy of the World Wars where most of the manpower was utilised those days; this aspect of talent assessment like other management concepts has been absorbed in the corporate world.
      Traditionally the qualities looked for today are similar to the ones of those days however today a pressing need to ensure that all talent is suitably layered with that unmeasurable quality of humility is imperative to build tolerant leaders. Sometimes a looked down trait the ability to be open to other’s opinions with that subtle touch of humbleness seems to be the key to tolerance.
      Young leaders like to question everything which is very good. Some good questioning of status quo leads to development. The problem creeps in when an open acknowledgement by senior powerful leaders of some of these behaviours in a selected few results in a sanction to these young leaders to become arrogant resulting in a blunt out spoken leader who is never corrected. No one else dares to correct this ‘young leader’ who is always spoken of very highly to be in the good books of the powerful leader.
      In the organisation like in every family there need to be the values of “humility, empathy & respect” embedded , practised, displayed and assessed. There should be a culture where these value/dna/credo is elaborated and the community is empowered to check it whenever/ wherever they find a deviation. The values need to be rewarded and punished at all levels.
      We were taught to be professionally arrogant but were admonished/ corrected / pointed out by anyone if even a hint of arrogance was displayed in personal behavior.
      We need therefore to mentor future leaders not only in areas of business but also in the areas of empathy and EQ . We have to build the ability in them to understand divergent views, be open to them, and encourage them.
      Tolerance can be a taught thing let us teach it as a curriculum in our development programs

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About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
Read more »