Seven Lessons in the Classroom Without Walls

Seven Lessons in the Classroom Without Walls

“Seven Lessons,” I told the HR Director who asked me about the lessons which I learnt during my career. She invited me to share them with the HR team of her company. And I did.

My answer was not impromptu. I took good time to respond to her question, a few days, certainly. “What lessons you learnt in your career,” is one of the seemingly innocuous questions. It foxes you. It is like the toe crusher yorker of Malinga. You just don’t know how to respond.

I began listing the ‘lessons.’ Make a long list, and sleep over it for a day or two; then make the choice. This is the method I have followed when I have to answer such questions. Then I chose seven. I could have chosen more. I am sure that you can add a few more to the list. Why seven?

Because we associate the number seven with something magical. We think there are seven heavens, seven wonders. The list can be long. In the hope that I will make some impact on the audience I hold on to such things. For a nervous speaker like me, such superstitions help.

And then while surfing the internet I saw this picture. ‘Not all classrooms have four walls’ it said. Learning which involves ‘knowing’ is all about self-discovery. People say they have experience sharing meetings. But we cannot share experiences. We can share the learning. Culling out a learning from an experience requires reflection or introspection. It happens inside our mind. Or as a sudden realization when you are in a deep discussion the experience with a friend. It’s a moment of epiphany.

‘Not all classrooms have four walls’ summed up and verbalized beautifully what I was feeling while preparing for the talk. So that became the Title slide.

‘What makes us a ‘professional?’’. That was a question which stayed on my mind for a long time when I moved from my institute to the industry. Colleagues in office and my friends who said ‘he/she is very professional’ implied that the person was MBA, did his/ her work well but ignoring emotions. My experience was that many effective managers did not fit the bill. I searched for an answer. A Chartered Accountant, a lawyer and a doctor were professionals. None of them (in those days!) held MBA degree.

I found that a professional adheres to a code of conduct, analyses problems and decides on solution based on sound principles and theoretical (or legal) framework, and continuously invests in learning. Please see Becoming Expert and Leader An Open Letter to HR Manager for a more detailed discussion.

Learning should not stop. It never stops. But the key is focused learning. That is because knowledge is evolving, and we face increasingly complex problems as we grow in career.

I realized that we should ‘read with a purpose.’ That is to say, to discover answer to a question. The question can be ‘what is this concept’ which may involve reading more than one book or article. And another conclusion I drew was that focused reading must help you form an opinion. Forming an opinion is to be distinguished from forming an impression. You understand the difference between the two when you work with lawyers.

Regrettably, much later in life, I also realized that what is written is important, but who is writing is more important. Particularly on social issues. And issues involving human rights. The problem with the habit of reading is that it gradually pushes you to ‘left of center.’ Nevertheless, an opinion is formed. And it must be formed.

Opinions are important. They drive our action, and help us learn, argue and influence people. But learning stops for HR manager if (s)he stops listening to the other point of view. Because the fundamental question HR manager faces, and one which (s)he has to answer to himself/ herself is ‘Is it just and fair to all concerned?’ And that’s the question to which all learning should be directed. If learning does not help a learner solve people problems, it will have the same value for the learner as a volume of Bhagawadgita has for a ‘raddiwala’.

Job seekers (and I met a few hundred of them) say that they can ‘read’ people. My experience is that people are (annoyingly) complex personalities. They can’t be read easily. Why do we want to ‘read’ people? Because we want to ‘predict’ their behaviour under certain circumstances. Repeated failures on ‘reading’ people ought to tell us a fundamental aspect – that their behaviour can’t be predicted. Not even with the aid of personality tests.

But their ‘proclivities’ can be understood. We can make intelligent guesses about ‘how they are likely to behave.’ If we shift our focus from prediction to understanding people, we gain a valuable advantage. Our behaviour toward a him or her changes. It is borne more out of empathy and understanding of his or her situation. It helps us strike a close relationship, and influence in a positive sense.

In an organization, people with whom we regularly interact, keep changing. We do not have adequate time to know each other. We have to map them quickly. And create meaningful or crucial conversations. And it helps if we have a framework for understanding people and for engaging them in a conversation. I find Transactional Analysis (TA) serves the purpose. We then understand why a CP (critical parent) leader is successful but does not have many friends, and why a leader with high NP (Nurturing parent) and A (Adult) is loved and adored.

If you read ‘Games People Play’ you enjoy tense meetings as well as typical conversations between people. You spot ‘Now I have Got You, You Son of a B****” as the game being played between two arch rivals. And you identify ‘Yes, But’ game being played between a boss and his junior.

The advantage of TA goes much beyond the office. It helps tremendously in personal life too. The point is to have a framework to understand people and strike conversations. Some people use MBTI. If you speak to them, they will tell you “He is a pucca ESTJ.” Somebody said I was ‘INTP’. I was thrilled!! (Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are thought to be INTPs!). But a close friend and renowned trainer instinctively responded that I was ‘INTJ’ in his opinion and not INTP! (My wife readily agreed!)

I find TA more ‘instinctive’ to learn than MBTI. But it’s my view, and you can choose your framework. Studying a framework to understand people is important. While teaching at TISS, I showed a clip from a film. A student analyzed the conversation. And another said, ‘Wow! It looks like Script writers and Casting Directors analyze the characters and look for a fit. Do they study TA or MBTI?’ Well, I do not know. It just helps us to play our roles, at home and at office, engage in conversations much better if we invest in understanding people using a framework. That is the reason why I consider this to be a great learning for me.

In the early seventies when I began my career, it was believed that workers were difficult to influence. I soon learnt that it was a baseless notion. The fact was otherwise. It was always difficult to influence managers.

The problem of HR professional is that (s)he must influence employees at all levels using the authority of expertise, and not power. That is a tall order. I watched with appreciation and surprise how some of my seniors put across their messages and ‘sold’ them. I remember a particularly tense meeting with the union when my senior focused on getting facts on the table first. He wrote them on the white board. Then he mentioned what the proposal was. This was the high point of the meeting, emotionally speaking. He then drew a line vertically and listed a few pros and cons. The union, after some deliberations among its committee members, agreed to the proposal. The extent of openness was a surprise, not just to the union, but also to me.

A lesson was learnt! “Openness disarms!” If we are brutally frank and open, it helps us win. It creates the conducive atmosphere for agreement. I realized that people look at who is speaking to you. If the other party trusts you, there are high chances that an agreement will be reached. Even if it is not reached, both the parties will live the statement with which my senior often opened the discussion – “I may not agree with you, but I will not be disagreeable!”

As I grew in my job, I realized that there were two essential aspects in influencing. First essential aspect was listening empathetically to the other party first, even before explaining your views in tense situations. Second essential aspect was being in the ‘adult’ – meaning ‘facts first.’

This is the winning combination of the Nurturing Parent and Adult!

Management schools do not teach you how to influence people and negotiate. Is it because there is no substitute for observing good influencers and negotiators to acquire those skills?

The problem with HR profession is that some decisions of the organization shock you. You find them unconscionable. It is so because the decisions affect people’s lives. And when the bosses take such a decision, there is little choice but to discuss it over lunch table with colleagues. Bold HR guys raise a question about the decision in a meeting later but it is too late, the damage is done. We can blame the decision makers and sympathize with the victim.

But sometimes we face dilemmas. The HR professionals get torn between their concern for the organization and concern for people. I have discussed a few situations in my blog A Precipice In Front And Wolf Behind. The trouble with a dilemma is that we keep thinking about it long after a decision is made. And we are never sure! That’s because we know that the other alternative is also right.

It is a right versus right case! Rushworth Kidder and Sheila Bloom in their article ‘Ethical Fitness in Today’s Business Environment’ discuss four cases of ‘right versus right.’ These are Justice vs Mercy, Truth vs Loyalty, Individual vs Community and Short-term vs Long term. The trouble is that both options are right!

How do you deal with an employee who has committed a mistake? The corporate world is intolerant of mistakes. (It is however fashionable to answer ‘Yes’ when young managers ask ‘Are we allowed to commit a mistake?’). Cases are known when employers have chosen the ‘mercy’ option. On the other hand, I am aware of an employee who stole an article worth fifty rupees. He was caught at the gate which resulted in his immediate dismissal. ‘Justice’ had to be done. The employee committed suicide a few hours later. It is difficult to decide the ‘retribution versus reformation’ dilemma. You can always argue from either side.

In my blog ‘A Precipice In Front….’ I have discussed the case of ‘compassionate employment.’ A fitter working in a company met with an accident, and died on the spot. He was married two years ago and his wife was pregnant with their first child. The union asked the management to provide employment to the wife. Coming from a family with modest means, she was not a well-educated lady. There were two options before the organization: Firstly, provide a job to her. And secondly, pay sumptuous compensation, so that her future needs are provided for, at least in the short term. Both the answers have their pluses and minuses.

These questions have no easy answers. People respond, I mean they ‘judge’ such issues based on their real-life experiences which shape their instinctive response. Yet they also keep thinking whether their response was right, and the other response had greater merit. That’s the hallmark of value dilemmas. There are no clear-cut answers. Our chosen option forces reflection. And it opens our mind to search why we did what we did.

Good questions, they say, have no answers. Yet they enlighten us.

I begin all training programs by discussing this question: ‘What is my role?’ My understanding is that not understanding one’s role is the source of many conflicts. That is the lesson I have learnt.

The simplest definition of role is that it is a ‘set of expectations.’ For an employee the expectations of his boss, peers, internal and external customers and his team matters. These are varied expectations. And also, they are unsaid and unarticulated. How can we perform our role better if we do not know what people are expecting from us? And mismatched expectations trouble the role holder, leading to conflicts.

The role of a manager changes depending on whether it is a cash rich company or a one fighting to come out of red. It changes when team members change, and also when he has a new boss. It is also different if the manager is new or well established. The problem is that we rarely think of our role consciously.

We play several roles in life. That of husband and son or daughter. Osho says that roles change perceptibly every seven years. The father-son roles inverse between when the son is twenty-eight years old and when he is forty-nine years old. At forty-nine, the son becomes father to his father when the latter is well past seventy. The problem is that we rarely think of our role consciously.

The message is to have conversations about one’s role. The fear is that people will ask for the moon, and it will be difficult to meet high expectations. It is actually otherwise. A conversation about ‘what is your expectation from me’ reduces tension and brings about greater understanding of each other’s realities. And it makes us more effective – not just at work, but also in our personal role as husband/ wife, son/ daughter, father/ mother etc. It just takes the proactive step of asking question.

As they say, “When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask.” Well said. That’s a big lesson.

I have blogged about this earlier, though in a different context. We can divide our life in three stages. I do not mean our career; I mean life in general. We spend a good time learning. Then we must spend good time in earning. Earning respect, and a stature by developing one’s personality.

Steven Covey says that there are two types of greatness. Instead of explaining, let me quote him, “……As I struggle to distil the essence of what the new business environment is telling me, what educators are telling me, what parents are telling me, and what my own heart is telling me, the concept that keeps surfacing in my mind is primary greatness. I recognize that “greatness” is a term that is intimidating to many people. To some it is even a negative or arrogant term. I think this is because many people equate it only with what I call secondary greatness. Secondary greatness has to do with positions or titles, awards, wealth, fame rankings or rare accomplishments. Almost by any definition, secondary greatness can only be attained by a select few, an extremely small percentage of a population. Secondary greatness is largely determined by comparing one person against another.

Primary greatness, on the other hand, is open to everyone. Every single person can have it; there are no bell-curve limits. Primary greatness has to do with a person’s integrity, work ethic, treatment of others, motives, and level of initiative. It has also to do with a person’s character, contributions, talents, creativity and discipline. It represents who people are – every day – as opposed to what they own or temporary achievements. Primary greatness is measured not by comparisons with other people, but by adherence to timeless, universal principles. It is humble.

Sometimes, primary greatness is a precursor or companion to secondary greatness. In other words, a person having primary greatness ends up also having secondary greatness. Other times, secondary greatness comes alone. We all know of people, for example, who have secondary greatness but lack semblance of primary greatness. At the same time, many people with primary greatness never achieve secondary greatness, and even prefer to avoid the limelight of secondary greatness.”

When we read this in conjunction with the Maxwell’s five stages of leadership, we get our bearing on how life is to be led. A satisfying life. A fulfilling life. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt.

And finally, this gem from Confucius: “Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.”

Vivek S Patwardhan​ 

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

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