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Thursday, Sep 04, 2003

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Wisdom and working life

S. Ramachander

Corporates would do well to take a leaf out of the `seven day weekend' philosophy.

Work should not be all money and rat race, make time for life too

ONE of the compensations of being an academic is the almost endless supply of current and highly readable writing from all over the world, but one does at times raise the sceptical eyebrow whether what is written is secondary to who says what - and where. These thoughts were prompted by two recent articles, one in The Economist and the other in Financial Times, London. The Economist article reports a recent research "finding" by a Richard Layard, an economics professor at the London School of Economics, that people in general are not necessarily happier because they earn more. Layard reviewed the various evidence from psychology, sociology and his own discipline to try and solve this paradox. One explanation is `habituation': people adjust quickly to changes in living standards. So although improvements make them happier for a while, the effect fades rapidly. A study at Harvard Business School, no less, has found that people are delighted with a gift or an extra week's holiday but how much so depends entirely on whether they see others getting less or more. In other words, the resounding conclusion is that people in general, though considerably better off than they were a generation ago, are not necessarily happier. My immediate internal response to that was that my grandfather could have told me that - and probably did, many times, in order to instil a sense of proportion about the material riches of the world, in what would have been dismissed then as the typically Indian unambitious attitude.

The theme of the FT article is that competition is the very essence of capitalism, which creates therefore a pressure on organisations to perform better and faster all the time for mere long-term survival. This dominant philosophy, which is now spreading its influence over a large part of the globe, in turn must impinge on the lives of the individuals working in those firms. Keenness to get ahead, outshine others, avoid failure or at least its consequences, and the resultant undercurrent of insecurity as a result, especially in times of great volatility - all must contribute to an enormous level of personal and family stress. In this milieu to talk of a sane attitude to life and a better balance between career and other priorities would seem to most an unattainable pipe dream or downright silly.

This paradox paves the way incidentally for the multibillion dollar industry to promote all sorts of spiritual and alternative lifestyle magic potions and snake oils, some with an oriental flavouring added, in order to restore the balance. New phrases like `ayurveda tourism' `wellness industry', `spirituality quotient', `self-management' and so on are offered at fancy prices, at exotic locations. The realisation that this too is another industry created by the same market-capitalist machine can only add to the frustrations and wear and tear on the psyche of the sensitive minority. Capitalism as widely practised today, the author concludes, is therefore inherently inimical to a healthy life; and economic progress and quality of life apparently almost by definition must run counter to each other. This too is not an earth-shattering thesis, one might say, but it is remarkable how often we ignore the blindingly obvious.

So, from these two restatements of a wisdom and common sense in life, illustrated by articles in two of the world's leading papers, I moved on to ask: has any one had any experience with a challenge to the foundations of the market-based relationships that we call the corporate world? Which brings me nicely to an unusual author Ricardo Semler and his latest maverick work The Seven Day Weekend. Semler, to those who follow management lore closely, would be familiar as the young man who inherited a staid old family business in engineering, making pumps and valves in Brazil, who then proceeded to throw every rule in the book out of the window, and ran a unique democratic business. It had neither hierarchy nor set scales of pay, no separate executive offices, complete freedom to speak one's mind, flexible working hours all with an implicit faith in the decency and good judgement of the majority of people.

You guessed it, everyone thought he was crazy, and wherever he went curious managers probed him about this apparently anarchic organisation and asked, "What planet are you guys from?" Of course, no one gave an outside chance of survival to Semco, which surprised all naysayers by not just surviving but flourishing for 25 years and spreading its method (and madness?) to partners and joint ventures in countries with an apparently very different cultural background in Europe. Yet Semler is no sentimental dreamer. He is a practical man but one who has a great depth of insight, besides deep affection and compassion for fellow human beings. He feels that the corporate sector in the so-called free world unconsciously operates, where dealing with people is concerned, on precisely those tenets of repressive communist regimes that it is supposedly against. Uniforms and rigid regulations, a high degree of structure and formality in relationships, supervised if not dictated behaviour, an auditing and policing apparatus, reliance on punishment as a deterrent to impose order, suspicion of motives as a rule - all of these Semler points out are what supported the dictatorships.

Essentially the same logic underpins the corporate world! When his first book Maverick! came out in the early '90s , almost everyone thought here was another freak who would fizzle out or be taught a severe lesson by the real world of cheats, charlatans and exploitative employees. Well, the proof of the pudding as always is in the eating and the group of companies now has over 3,000 employees who have suffered violent ups and downs in their fortunes, taken wage cuts, absolutely refused to work with or deal with any party who wants bribes, reworked the technology where needed to a decentralised outsourcing system, devised own variations on processes, helped each other through personal and professional problems, in other words actually living out the cliché of a sense of ownership that every owner manager wants from his people without actually letting go of any control!

Indeed the experiment, if it can still be called that, now has gone far beyond engineering and Brazil. The group supports social institutions built on what some called an `anthropocentric' philosophy that treats people as the centre of everything.

This approach has been steadily and steadfastly pursued by the group into the second phase of development of Semler and his companies, which is captured well in the title of the second book - The Seven Day Weekend (Century, London, 2003). The sub-title, The Wisdom Revolution: Finding the Work-Life Balance, puts it succinctly. It would be difficult to capture the iconoclastic spirit of the author better than to quote two questions that the book opens with: Why are we able to answer e-mails on Sundays but unable to go to the movies on Monday afternoons? Why can't we take the kids to work if we can take work home?

The philosophy is based on the sound but breathtakingly new realisation that if work has to become the core of life for most people, there has to be obviously a sensible mixture rather than a painful division between the two-thirds we call work and the third we call personal life.

A person who is a responsible parent, wife and citizen must be treated as such always and not as if she were a mindless, potentially disruptive `child' to be constantly watched and controlled and measured while at the workplace. Tapping into the creative energies of people, a favourite HR phrase, has little meaning otherwise and will fool no one with any intelligence. A Harvard professor, William Ury, after a good look at Semco says, "What you are essentially advocating is harnessing the wisdom of the people ... which you get from the natural wisdom of the system ... and the freedom to ask why."

Semler is at once more direct and simple: We're just a living experiment in eliminating boredom, routine, and exasperating regulations ... to free workers from corporate oppression. Our goal is helping people tap their `reservoir of talent' and find equilibrium among love, liberty and work".

Can you find another revolutionary way of coping in happy harmony with the relentless grind of the 24x7 economy that we are so gleefully embracing?

(The author is Director, Institute for Financial Management & Research, Chennai.)

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