2009-06-19

Re your column on "Courtesy crisis at workplace"

Dear Mr Banerjee,

I read your column in today's DC, Hyderabad edition.  I normally don't bother writing letters to editors or columnists, but there are some things I have strong feelings about, and then I have to.  I have no idea if there is any scope in your column for you to print your reader's comments, but that is upto you.

Linking the failure of Lehman or AIG with the informal culture of a US company, and conversely the success of the Tatas and Birlas with the opposite, is naive, to say the least.  Correlation does not, as they say, imply causation.

The correct causation for your examples is simple: all the failed companies you mention have ethics problems at the top.  All of them are run by MBAs who have been taught a badly skewed value system, one which maximises either their own, or their company's, worth in purely monetary terms.  I do not believe MBAs are even taught the basics of ethics or morality.  It's just not one of their priorities.  How else can we explain the dean of ISB brazenly voting for something that an average man on the street could easily see was unethical!

[You may wish to read http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/education/article5821706.ece -- though it is directed at Harvard, I suspect most B-schools are the same anyway]

In contrast, if you take the people you've named (Tatas, Birlas, etc)., they all have a highly developed sense of ethics at the top levels, even a sense of "ownership".  Perhaps it comes from the fact that the firm carries their name!  Similarly, the old guard at Lehman would have had the same values too.  But they have long since given way, (due to pressures on the "Street" perhaps?) to the MBA crowd.  With the results we all see today.

Of course, it is certainly true that "old guard" people also tend to be more formal, that is quite a different matter entirely.

Warm regards,

Sitaram

PS: I work for a large IT company, I have nearly 23 years of experience, and I insist that everyone, even the freshers, call me Sita or Sitaram.  And I don't like people who insist on being called "Sir" or "Mr ..." or whatever.  It means their notion of "respect" is very shallow, and (often enough), also that they lack the ability to actually earn my respect anyway.

Of course, this means I have to work a little harder to uphold my dignity and authority.  Once in a while someone will mistake my attitude for weakness and take liberties, or cross some other invisible line, and will need to be pushed back firmly.  I have to be constantly on the watch for such issues.

Why then do I do this?  Would it not be better to "act my age"?  After all, some of my team members are barely a few years older than my son!

Because it helps them open up.  Even in a formal meeting, being able to call me Sita gives them just that extra bit of confidence to tell me what they really think of something I am proposing, or seconding.  It helps them say "Sita, I don't think that would work".  It gets them asking just that one extra question that tells me something is wrong, or has been misunderstood, or points to a problem the project will have way down the line.  In short, it gets me feedback I'd never have got otherwise, or would have to guess at from other signals or behaviour.

And yes, I have gone drinking with people who report to me and are very junior to me.  It's not that difficult to be one of the lads without all the negative fallout you seem to impute to it.  You just have to be fair, honest, and firm.

6 comments:

Diviya said...

I agree with your views on work culture, but definitely not with the view that MBAs lack ethics. Greed is a part of human nature, and one does not have to be an MBA graduate to propagate it. In my line of work I have met all types of businessmen. Not all the unscrupulous ones were MBA grads.

Yes, I'm bristling because I'm carry the MBA tag as well. But I was also one of those kids who could call you by name and still respect you. And an MBA cannot change that.

Sita said...

erjee asked me this too -- what about engineers?

My reply to him was that MBAs have more power, and hence more damage potential. The others are *not* gilded lilies, but apart from approving bridges with sub-standard material and similar stuff, their potential is limited.

Mr Banerjee's other point was that ethics are taught at home. I agree with that too -- perhaps the dean of ISB had a very nasty childhood ;-)

Sita

Sita said...

something got cut in the previous comment... should have read "Mr Banerjee asked me this too..."

Aditya Vaddiparthi said...

Very Interesting, very true, & very much debatable..!!! I Like.. !!! ;-)

Rads said...

I daresay I widely disagree - generalization of any type is inapplicable, and you cannot negate one generalization (formal/informal) with another (MBA or ownership).
Ethics neither come with - nor dry up because of - a degree. The man on street might be able to 'see' the issue as unethical, but when asked to do something about it (ie, vote), particularly when he had something vested in it, the very same response is very likely. Personal gain is a far common human motivator than altruism.

And same holds for ownership. Raju (Satyam) and Madoff have ensured that they are the 'forever' examples of what happens when somebody puts too much premium to the ownership idea ( how can I fail, I have to cover up rather than own up ).

The only generalization I can agree with is this : go to a local playground and observe kids at play. The kid who wants to win at all costs, even cheating, is the one who will turn out to be a Raju or one of the nameless AIG execs : a winner, but you never know when he'll be exposed.
The kid who pushes down another but pauses to pick him up, might still be a winner but with an ethical side.
And the kid who does not even try to win? Will have the time to write and respond to such blogs :-)!

Of course, if you argue an MBA degree does not add much to innate abilities to run a company, not much arguments from me (nothing personal to any MBAs here :-))!

Anonymous said...

Radha: take your last para: "an MBA degree does not add much to innate abilities to run a company".

Add to this "while adding a lot to how much power you have", and you have my gripe against the whole MBA thing.

And Radha: Raju is not an MBA, nor was Maddoff. You can expect them to be crooks just by what they're doing/have done. My target is the dean of ISB, who you would NOT expect to endorse something that the man on the street could see clearly was unethical, and you WOULD expect a higher standard from, being responsible for setting an example to so many of his students.

And to Diviya: I guess I should also say this: both my brothers are MBAs, and I love them like, well, like brothers :-) And you'll always be "one of my kids", and I'll love you just as much as all my other "kids" who went on to get MBAs (yes, there are a couple of others at least).

Sita