Objective Realities And Optical Illusions

Objective Realities And Optical Illusions

In the corridors of organisations, few leaders walk with grace while some slide past in awkwardness and the rest strut in insolence, reminding us of the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than to ‘try to be a little kinder.” - Aldous Huxley


Being a leader is about being aware and trustworthy - creating safe environments that allow team members to thrive. In the corridors of organisations, few leaders walk with grace while some slide past in awkwardness and the rest strut in insolence, reminding us of the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Power is like that invisible clothing the emperor wore, which was professed as the most beautiful by everyone, and took a mere child to call out that the emperor was naked to turn him to dust, and that his perceived dress was obnoxious and fictional. The damage was irreparable. Irrelevance can be that quick, and final.


It is important for leaders to realise that they are meant to be in the service of the organisation. Power is an optical illusion. What is real is leadership demonstrated through the commitment towards building a great organisation, which in turn, requires resilience and a willingness to be vulnerable.


Circling the Source of Power


An HR Head in one of the organisations in the BFSI sector invited an OD consultant to design an intervention. Soon, the consultant side-lined the HR Head and his team and tried to work directly with the CEO.


One grouse of HR folks is that consultants who are identified in the space of L&D or OD add to the negative power dynamics. Power is so seductive that most consultants think that they have to align only with the CEO, and are in service to the CEO. The fact is that they are invited for an intervention because the system desperately requires one, and that they are, in reality, in the service of the organisation.


If an HR Head invites a consultant, it could be because of the competence that they provide, or because a neutral entity’s suggestions could sink in deeper than the HR team saying it to the leaders or the larger organisation. However, when introduced to the CEOs, the consultants do exactly what they are hired to change - bypass the chain of command and ask the CEO to make a decision. “Can we talk to the business leaders and CEO separately to assess the situation?”


There might be a reasoning to this, but what I think bugs the larger HR community is the tone or the construct that the consultant sets, indicating that the internal HR is incapable, only making things harder for the consultant. They also carry the notion that the HR team does not understand business leaders well enough. Forgetting that the internal HR team was the one that realised the need and identified these consultants and onboarded them in the first place.


In 2009, I was in a NASSCOM HR Summit, and one of the keynote speakers was the Head of an IT Services organisation. He mentioned how he found a solution to the most significant problem he had - not getting the right HR Head and how he made a business head into an HR Head and how it turned out to be a tremendous success. Mind you, this was in a room full of HR folks obediently taking notes. No one challenged him on what he meant when he said he did not get the right HR Head.


Right HR Head or Control Over HR Head?


How come organisations struggle to identify and hire the right HR Head? If finally, they do get one, why do they struggle to retain them?


Who is the “right” HR Head in the minds of the Chairpeople, CEOs, CXOs, Founders, Co-Founders and Managers? Someone who aligns with them? Or someone who executes their plan? Someone who never stands up to tell them that they are messing with the culture?


The CHRO’s job is at the intersection of human behaviour and values. It is also at the intersection between fairness to the employees and fairness to the organisation. There is the science of compensation, capability-building, governance, and policy making. It also covers the vast territory of leadership. Organisation heads often want to hold these close with a tight leash. In many cases, they do not wish to commit to standing on fairness and values. They prefer to keep it grey so that they have more room to manoeuvre.


Often, CEOs assume they know what is best for the organisation, and they might be right. But to reduce the HR Head to execute what they have already decided is diminishing the purpose of the role. When they presume that the HR Heads are incompetent or do not understand the business context, it sets the position up for failure.


Greed and its Manifestation


Every quarter, a listed software services company would look at headcount figures. A month before the results were due to be published, the requirement of reducing the headcount would be sent to the HR department by the Strategy team. There were internal jokes on how the Strategy team’s only job is to come up with the numbers on reduction. But the HR Head never challenged the Strategy head or the CEO.


In a month, some employees would be retrenched and in another month’s again. The way the CEO operated was to ensure that he got all the answers right for the stock market analysts. So, the role of the CEO became in service of the markets and not the organisation. The decay, thereafter, is what we see in the markets today.


The greed of the markets wanting to see only growth quarter-onquarter, and of projecting a CEO as a great leader if he is able to bring in the revenues. This ensured that organisations over-indexed on growth - growth at any cost. The role of the CEO became all about managing the board and analysts from the stock market. Customers and employees are an afterthought. The focus on building sustainable organisations was relegated to some backburner.


An Idea called HR Management


An HR Head’s position is comparable to a traffic commissioner’s job. Everyone has an opinion on how to manage the traffic. They also think it is a straightforward job and that they know it better than the commissioner. In the same way, CEOs, Founders, and even the leadership team in organisations think they know the HR Heads’ job better than the HR Head. Yes! They all have an idea and, in many cases, an opinion. It is like me having an idea and opinion on hedge funds. The science that is needed to deliver the role is often discounted. They undervalue what the HR leader brings to the table and think it is a generic skill. The belief is that all one needs is smarts (brains) and business acumen, and then one can perform the role. Probably true, or is it really?


One can talk of how important people are for their organisation, but in a tough quarter, the HR Head is looking at the leaders to see what they cut and what they did not. It gives an indication of what is held sacred. When there are no lights and cameras, and in a conference room, or in a nerve-wracking budget meeting - which budget is to be compromised?


There are times when the organisation goes through a very difficult financial position. There are many options to solve it. Whatever path we take, the questions are: -


Are we willing to go out and talk about it in the organisation’s town-hall meeting?


Are we willing to inform people what went wrong and why we are deciding on something drastic?


When things come back to normalcy, are we willing to roll back on these measures?


These are the issues that an HR head grapples with. Answers to these questions can help team members trust the system better.


Messiness of Truth


A captive software development centre, that had more than a century of history, struggled to replace an awful CEO. He was a narcissist. He did not allow any second-line leaders to grow. He never received feedback from any source - be it his leadership team or the HR. He ran the team in India as if it was his fiefdom. The decay in the system started showing signs with CFOs and HR Heads leaving very fast. But the leadership team sitting in another continent believed that the CEO knew the culture, and since he had been part of the system for long, nothing would go wrong. It could also be that no one had the time to deal with the mess that follows a hard decision.


One day, the HR Head was asked by the CEO to approve one of his insurance claims, which the HR Head thought was not genuine. When the approval got rejected, the CEO went all-out to make the HR Head’s life hell. As the HR Head was leaving, he alerted the parent organisation about the issues. It took two years from then and two more HR Heads coming and going before the organisation got down to act.


Unrealistic Demands


“I need it as of yesterday”, “I need it now” - some CEOs throw tantrums of this sort to their HR teams. Some of these are deep-seated, unresolved ideas and prejudices that are carried from a different system. In a family system, the construct with the father and the mother, some questions we deal with are: -


Who earns the money?


Who is the “provider”?


Whose job is it to efficiently “run the house”?


How do domestic duties get recognised in this system?


Is the work valued?


Some of these unconscious images are carried in mind when leaders operate.


These clear jurisdictions in the role of a man and a woman (generally) are often unrealistic. No single person can be capable of the different perspectives and reasoning that are required to run a home - which is a largely uniform system with each member having similar backgrounds and thought-evolution.


In the spaces of organisations with the kind of diversity every member brings, no one person can be allknowing and all-powerful. But, leaders carry several optical illusions such as assuming that they, and only they, know best. The harm in this is that it takes more than just “knowing” and a lot of experience and absolute objectivity when making decisions about people, despite the emotional hassle. When more demands are made that privilege one over another, there are optical illusions at play.

This is part of an upcoming book, ‘HR, the cuss people and their stories’ penned by the author. The book is expected to hit the stands soon!


Sunitha Lal is the CHRO at Ather Energy. She is passionate about exploring and curating organisational culture and is a strong proponent of the oral tradition of storytelling. She is the author of Dotting the Blemish and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about women that reflect and comment on the inherent prejudices we have as a society


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