Who gets the credit?

It was the eve of a festival and I was returning back home from another city. The gateway to my home town was choking with unusually high traffic with everyone trying to rush to meet their near and dear ones. A stretch of few kilometers took more than an hour. It is at this time I witnessed a miracle. There was a sound of an ambulance siren approaching, on hearing almost every one on the road made their best effort to make way for the ambulance. In such a dense choking traffic there was a pathway made under a minute good enough for the ambulance to pass through. The patient who must have survived her illness might not even realized how tons of strangers on the road help save her life.

We humans are altruistic by nature and some how from inside it makes us feel good when we help others. Reader’s digest also mentioned in one article that may be only humans who were helpful to each other survived droughts, war and other adversities so that trait is deeply ingrained within us. There are also some beliefs about collective intelligence being superior than the sum of all individual intelligence. This is very evident from team games like football where the understanding between the team members a mix of skills gets the team to win. I have observed the striker scores more goals than anyone else in the team and most of the times ends up being the most valuable player. In my opinion the striker who scores a goal is largely enabled by the other 10 in the team.

Workplaces are no different, at many workplaces team work always matters; and many of those workplaces have awards like employee of the month/quarter/year or super star awards. The awards definitely help a lot to life the spirits of those who win it but it also puts a dent in the rest of the team’s spirit as the winner is enabled by the team and hardly there is a credit to the team. It is better to do away with these kind of awards and much energy can be concentrated on removing negative influence in the team like someone who exploits the system and team setup. It takes only one selfish person to bring down the morale of a high performing team, we must make sure our workplace does not offer any dividends to someone who tries to exploit; instead make the workplace such a way that the more cohesive the team becomes the more rewarding and enjoyable it is to work.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Social responsibility

I never expected watching the movie ‘Spiderman’ would give me an insight about social responsibility. In the movie, Spiderman goes on to wrestle a strong opponent for a promised prize money of 3k$. When he finishes, he is cheated by the cashier and given only 100$ citing some lame reason. As he walks out of the room a burglar breaks into the room, steals all the cash and gets away. Even though the burglar was within the reach of Spiderman to get stopped, he chooses not to act which gives him a satisfaction that something bad happened to the cheater. The burglar’s future action kills the uncle (foster parent like) of Spiderman to get away with the cash. This event makes him feel guilty and makes him go on a mission to protect people in need through his new found powers.

We face many situations on a day to day basis where we may choose to remain inactive as we are not directly affected/influenced by it. In any social setting the loop is closed and our inactivity will hurt us sometime later.  We have social circles every where and there is an implicit responsibility to not cause hardships to others. The mutual feeling of getting protected by the others helps us grow in strength and channelize the energy into more productive tasks. The seemingly simple problem will soon grow to be a 800 pound gorilla or the elephant in the corner.

It is not necessary to sacrifice one’s dreams to do whats right like how Aunt May advises Spiderman but it is worth to nip the problems in front our eyes and it is our responsibility too.

In pursuit of happiness

Clayton M Christensen’s writing on ‘How will you measure your life?’ made me have a re-look at my priorities. In the year 2010 I had been doing so much that I had never been so busy, stressed and tired ,eventually fell too sick. Yet when I recollect that year, nothing good stands out barring a few high points and most of the time I had spent trying to squeeze in more and more. On the contrary when I identified some core areas to work & concentrate; and try not to pack myself, I see a remarkable improvement in efficiency and my sense of well being.

I inferred Clayton’s writing as below

  • Get the priorities right and use the resources wisely, we have only 12-14 hours in a day. We should learn to amplify the effectiveness in the tasks we will be involved in every day instead of trying to cram in more hours. Keep revisiting the priorities as they change very often and one plan is never good for long
  • Avoid succumbing the temptation of this one time. Some positive habits are hard to catch on and difficult to follow. Have something like a Seinfeld calendar and make sure not to break the chain.
  • Stay away from the power tools both at work and the family. The best way we can win the confidence of others is to create a level playing field and help each other. Collective intelligence is far more superior than the sum of individual intelligence put together, team work will take us to new height even in a learning mode.
  • Every person we meet has something to teach us, right or wrong is always a perception. By being humble we will be approachable and people will readily share experience and knowledge to help us out. Individuals who act overly assertive or arrogant can leave a wrong impression of being successful, we should be careful not to follow them because mostly their arrogant behavior is to mask their shortcomings. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves.
  • Have simple rules and values by which we would leave our place lot better than what we found.

Clayton M Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School. His work on which this blog is based on is available at HBR

Traffic jam

While travelling to office, I always take the inroads instead of the arterial ones to avoid the rush. Most of times, the travel is smooth but if there is one small break in the flow, then the narrow roads gets crowded and jammed in a matter of seconds. I observed the attitude among the bikers who want to keep moving at any cost, has contributed to the sudden jams. If all those on the road obeyed the rules and stayed on the left side of the road, then the chaos could be avoided or the traffic would not have jammed.

This behavior gets carried over to the workplace as well. When we are too concerned about our own learning and improvisation, without our knowledge we tend to create a situation like the traffic jam where the onus is on us individuals to pull ourselves up. Everything depends on the individual to claw her way up anywhere (school, workplace, even queues); doing something against the rules and getting an edge is considered to be great talent.

This creates an environment where team work is most likely to be division of labour and the learning is always an individual’s responsibility. Awards, recognitions follow for individual brilliance; but what is not realized is that sum of all individual efforts is always lesser than the collective output. One of my peers highlighted this very well by relating this to a story Birds that flock, seem to learn faster

We should realize that our own learning is dependent how much the peers also learn; individual learning and moving up the ladder is just an illusion or is beneficial only for the individual and that too it comes with a great cost.

Firemen theory

Mark Glouston in his book “Just listen” says

Every one has an invisble tag around their neck which says Make me feel that I am an important person

That quote made me recollect my experience at the work place and ended up coming with a theory to explain the behavior which I named as firemen theory. I classify firemen into two types based on their reaction to a scenario.

SCENARIO: A fireman is on duty in a shopping mall and notices a dustbin on fire….

TYPE A: He notices the fire from the bin, swiftly acts on putting the fire out. Not only he does that but investigates for the root cause by talking to people nearby about the incident and educating the people around what could have caused the fire. This act helps in putting the fire out easily and makes sure people are educated about it.

TYPE B: He notices the fire from the bin; runs around crying FIRE FIRE FIRE. People notice him and try to locate where the fire is and a mix of panic and curiosity sets in. In the meanwhile he announces that people need not bother as he is well trained to handle the situation and directs two civilians nearby to fetch water. The fire grows in size and looks like it will spread its wings to nearby locations. After a tough attempt the fireman manages to put the fire out along with some of the civilians and ends up getting standing ovation and countless compliments.

The regular workplace is no different, people like to be recognized and that makes them feel happy. Heroic efforts are well rewarded & recognized and hence some people resort to seek attention. As it takes a good deal of time to understand the system and the good effects of living in a symbiotic relationship with the environment; it is so easy for a type A person to become type B as the personal gain and the sense of well being is granted, but it comes at the expense of more work to everyone and loss to the overall system.

Every workplace has to nurture the symbiotic culture and educate people about the delayed feedback about the overall gains in such a setting. It is very evident from football games where every team member’s move counts and all it takes is one selfish person to spoil the goal. Sadly people have a narrow learning horizon that many don’t see the long term effects about immediate actions.

How to bring the mindset of type A firemen into everyone? My observation so far has been that it is a slow process which involves a lot of patient type A people educating every one around non intrusively and show immense perseverance to drive the culture up. They should also tackle type B people which will be an art in itself. We should also be very cautious because all it takes is one selfish person to spoil the entire effort of a well knit team.

Let us strive to make our workplace environment healthy.