Course Correction

SN blog_July 2024
About the Author :

Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.

How do we stay open and humble in areas that we are experts at?  

After a spectacular win, three iconic Indian cricketers retired from T20 International cricket. Meanwhile, in the US, a growing number of voters want President Biden to step down from the presidential race. What is the back story here? Retirement is hard for anyone, but what made one group of cricketers step down when they could have hung on for a few more years? And what makes one ageing man refuse to take the status of an ‘elder’ politician instead of the rough and tumble of electoral politics? Was it good counsel from friends that caused Kohli, Jadeja and Sharma to retire? And is it wrong counsel from Biden’s family that prevents him from answering a growing call from his country?

Course correction is what this piece is about. But first, let’s take a step back to the realm of normal folks rather than global celebrities. 

Consider my friend, the C-suite executive. Meet him at alumni gatherings like I do and he is the epitome of humility—shrugging off his many awards and honours with grace and generosity. Talk to his colleagues and a different picture emerges. He is touchy about critiques, defensive about dissent, and often doesn’t listen to other points of view. It makes sense. You become an expert through years of hard work and effort. When you climb the corporate ladder, you overcome obstacles and stumbles. When you rise to the top of your chosen field, you have put in the work. To have someone question your work, or offer a hint of criticism is hard to stomach, even for the most mature amongst us. But here is the contradiction: unless you listen to all points of view, including dissent and critiques, you are in danger of being isolated in an echo chamber— as Biden seems to be. This may well be the beginning of the end, not just for you, but also for the company or brand you have built. To be alive is to be nimble. To grow means listening to all points of view.

One advantage of ageing is you—hopefully– become less insecure. The long arc of life with its ups and downs has given us that invaluable thing called perspective. So you take things with a pinch of salt. You tell your distraught child who has banged her first car that “these things happen” and they can be solved with patience and money. You shrug when you learn that the airline has been delayed, again. Essentially you become chill. But when it comes to work, things seem to go the opposite way. The more senior you get, the less open you become. You go from being a collegial and creative boss to someone who knows all the answers. This happens especially if you are the founder of a company, college or hospital. Anytime someone comes in to complain about the institution you have built, you counter with advice or bile. You become defensive, and indeed, get outraged that someone dares criticise the things that you have carefully thought through and instituted. You stop listening.

group of business people indoors. Two people are arguing.

So what do you do if your friend is going through this? He or she has either inherited or built a business. They are at the top of the ladder but are isolated from reality. Lackeys and minions tell them what they want to hear but not the truth. What do you do if your friend is making wrong choices? Turning into a version of herself that is not helpful to anyone—not to her and not to her company? Do you take her out to lunch and tell her what people within the organisation are desperate to communicate — “Hey, you need to hire a CEO and take a step back from this organisation that you have built because guess what — you will run it to the ground otherwise?” Will your friend listen? Or will your candour jeopardize your friendship?

A more interesting question is this: what if you are that friend? In other words, how do you ensure that you stay real? How do you ensure that people call you out on your mistakes? We all make mistakes after all. At home, our loved ones act as ‘bull-s#@t detectors’ for us. But at work, power dynamics make such honesty difficult. How then do you ensure that honest and valid critiques rise up to your ears? How do you confront your demons if nobody holds a mirror to your face?

There are two ways to do this. Both are difficult. One is to try – strive, work hard – to stay open to all points of view including (and most especially) critiques. Of course, you have to filter the context of the critique. If the person has a selfish agenda; or a personal bone to pick, you can turn away. But if it is an actionable specific critique from a well-meaning person you respect, stop defending yourself and try to listen. To have someone poke holes at something you have worked on and built is hard to swallow. But it is in your interest to stay open and reconsider the positions you have taken.

The second approach, whether you are an individual gig worker like me or the boss of a large (or small) organisation involves introspection. Somehow, you have to make time and space to listen to your conscience.

We all know when we have exhibited the worst aspects of ourselves. There is always that little voice inside our head that speaks up, even though we try to silence it. “Of course, I had to give that employee a dressing down, else she would bring down organisational standards,” we tell ourselves self-righteously after upbraiding an employee. “Yes but did you really have to use such bad language and drive her to tears?” that little voice will ask. “Did you really need to yell at her in front of everybody?”

Rather than medicate or drink ourselves into oblivion just to silence that voice, the way out is to listen to what it says. Easier said than done, I know, so take help, either from a loved one or a therapist. It is hard to begin a sentence with “I was not proud of what I did this afternoon,” but that is a necessary first step to self-correction and eventually course correction. Think about the moments when you behaved in ways that were not “normal” for you. Then talk about it with a trusted partner, friend or colleague. Observe patterns where such bad behaviour arises, observe your triggers and then figure out the next steps. Often certain situations bring out our insecurities. Maybe it is a conference where you meet your peers and are judged by them. Maybe you become Mr. Hyde at work only on the day you have investor calls and are stressed about financial accountability. Once you figure out that you dump your stress on your employees by cutting them down with snarky remarks on the investor call days, you can take a step back and figure things out. Does yelling at a junior employee improve outcomes at work? If not, perhaps the way out is for you to work from home on those days, or at least not schedule meetings.

Introspection and staying open are essential for self-correction. Nobody else can do it for you. But your organisation will thank you for it. Or in Biden’s case, his country.

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