As a college student helping to organise a regatta, I was looking for funding sources. The State tourism department manager promised help, and all it would take was a ‘final ok’ from the director. So we walked into a large office and the person behind a large desk enthusiastically made additional suggestions. Each time, the manager would look at him and say, ‘If the Director so desires!’ It took me a while to realise that the manager was addressing his boss in the third person! Such a flowery style certainly suggested high power distance, typical of a government bureaucracy. Underlings proposed, and bosses approved.

A popular American phrase in the 1970s was ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA) suggesting a boss who moved amongst the employees and was with the action and not waiting for reports. A manager frequents the field to check on operations is not going to be fooled easily by excel sheet excuses. The spirit behind the style was to be in touch with people and activities. It also revealed a spirit of egalitarianism.

The begum of Awadh

In contrast, we also have what we may call the ‘purdah’ style of a boss. Here is one who likes to hide in his (or her) office and summon people for meetings. Extremely conscious of rank, he will only visit an office of a superior. He is rarely seen in office functions but when present, demands to be the centre of attraction. Much like the begum of Awadh, who stayed behind a curtain but ruled the land with a firm hand.

Work culture and attendant management style impact performance and are impacted by it. Both the MBWA and the purdah style would work well within their own set of logics. A changing environment that is competitive requires dynamism and quick decision making and would fit well with the MBWA style. The focus is on the task rather than the personality and the manager will do what it takes to work with the troops. Accountability is clear; everyone wants the organisation to be successful.

Purdah organisations may work at best in a monopoly situation. The manager works without too many layers, and micromanages in a benign environment. Decision making is concentrated among those in purdah. But over time, those behind the purdah get distant from the actual work and are content with honestly screaming ‘I don’t know how or care, but this has to be done by tomorrow!’ The purdah style can sometimes creep into once successful organisations and before long, begin to strangulate initiative, accountability and decision making.

Let it flow

Purdah style is also different from a bureaucracy where decisions are incremental and no one wants to take more responsibility than they have to. People work towards their salaries, with only a slight thought if the organisation can continue to pay them. Work is quite stable with everyone knowing their place.

Processes do not get designed or established in a purdah style, and that works well when activities are limited and a few key assistants could deliver. When the organisation grows, those second and third tiers have also risen to their levels of incompetence and that is when the style becomes a constraint and, later, a cancer.

The writer teaches at Jindal Global Business School, Sonipat, Delhi NCR and at Suffolk University, Boston