Vetaal in the Workplace – The Pressures of gratitude

“Next week is Thanksgiving and we encourage all members of the team to participate in the gratitude circle” reads the email from the section head.

Srihari hates such mails. Now he will have to smile and thank a bunch of guys for their average output.

“Oh thanks for sharing the oxygen, you miserable waste of breathable air,” mutters Srihari as he shuts down that mail and moves on to the work for the day.

By evening he gets an attachment and there is also a contest on who thanks the maximum. The work floor is buzzing with thank you notes from everyone. People are smiling, passing around gratitude notes to just about everyone.

What disturbed Srihari was a note he got in gratitude from a person with whom he has regular arguments. His note read “ Thank you Srihari for making the workplace fun. I enjoy our debates.”

Not only did he not enjoy such arguments, it was in fact killing engagement, productivity and positivity in the team. Now he gets a phony thank you note because of the contest. Srihari quickly completes his work for the day and leaves the office.

Vetaal’s Riddle : What if you are not feeling grateful? How do we deal with the situation when the pressure of being positive turns us negative?

Possible Reasons…

If you force yourself to feel grateful, it can feel like an obligation, making it a problem that you are not feeling grateful. In a weird twist you may be feeling victimized by the social pressure to feel grateful when you really don’t. 

Srihari for some reason is not feeling grateful right now. He knows he is supposed to feel grateful but the feeling is just not being felt.

Reinstating the importance, affirmations, notes and contests don’t work for him. Feeling grateful is just about always positive. But when we are feeling down, the act of trying to feel grateful, or being told we “should” feel grateful, often has the opposite effect.

Gratitude is an emotional state of being therefore creating an awareness of your gratefulness is enough to be in a better emotional state.

The ‘problem’ happens when we push the ‘act’ grateful card. Trying to ‘do’ something may not change the sense of being.

We constantly live on a continuum between gratitude and boorishness. Somewhere in between is the feeling of obligation – something that we are supposed to do. That obligation point is the cat on the wall, it can turn you retentive like Srihari or maybe push you to really be grateful.

Some simple steps to use to practice gratefulness without making it an act –

1. Give yourself a break.

It is all right not to win the thank you contest. It is probably alright to be grumpy a little bit. After all grumpy is also an emotion and deserves its place in our heart.

2. Heap a bit of self love

Say thank you to your self. Practice a bit of self love. You have been tirelessly working and require some pat on your back.

3. Unwind

Take a break, play that song, dance or take a walk. Whatever works for you. Feel the grumpiness go away. Feel the positive energy come back to you.

4. Accept your state of being

If you are still feeling low, begin to accept the things you probably cannot change. Acceptance will help you to leap forward in feeling positive.

5. Skip gratitude completely, must be kind

Purposefully seeking to do simple acts of kindness, such as taking time to help an elderly neighbor, letting someone cut in front of you in traffic, or helping a co-worker who is behind on a project, lead to increased well-being because it literally feels good

So remember

It’s okay if you try to think of something to be grateful for but can’t.

It’s okay if you are grateful for some aspects of your life but not others.

It’s okay if you have everything in the world to be grateful for and still don’t feel happy.

It’s OK


Vetaal in the workplace – promotions, skills and leadership

Vetaal in the workplace

Vikram and Vetaal is the retelling of the Baital pachisi that was translated from the Vetaal Panchavimshati part of Kathasaritsagar, an 11 century work in Sanskrit. Vetaal in the workplace adapts the concept of Vetaal – a wise vampire asking the right questions after narrating a great story to modern workplace situations. This story is taken from the original series.

The story….

Once upon a time there lived a washerman named Dhavala. He once spotted a very beautiful lady at pond, who happened to be the daughter of another washerman. He instantly fell in love with her and pleaded with his parents to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. His parents did accordingly and the girl, Madanasundari, got married to him with her parents consent. She then went with Dhavala to live with him.

Once the brother of Madanasundari, came to Dhavala to invite his sister and brother-in-law to their place for festival season. Dhavala agreed and the three of them were returning to Madanasundari’s home. On the way they happened to pass by the temple of Durga Devi, the all powerful goddess of power. Her brother wanted to pay a visit to the goddess, and went to the temple. But as soon as he came near the goddess, he wanted to make a massive sacrifice to the goddess. So saying he cut his head off for the goddess. Madanasundari was worried and she then sent her husband to see what the matter was. On seeing the state of his brother-in-law, the husband was also moved deeply and he decided to offer his own head too to the goddess and cut his own head with his scitmar. Madanasundari, after a long wait came and saw both her brother and husband lying on the ground and then decided to take her own life but asked the goddesss to get the same brother and husband in the next life. The goddess was pleased and stopped her from dying and asked her to join their heads and bodies and then she granted them life. In a hurry, Madanasundari, exchanged the heads of her brother and husband and was perplexed. The body of the brother is matched to head of the husband and the head of the brother to the body of the husband.

Vetaal stops and asks King Vikram asks this question: Who among the two is the husband of Madanasundari?

Vetaal’s question of mixing heads and bodies is common to us in many of the promotion stories in our Organizations. The person who does a great job is promoted to manage others to do a great job. Are the promoted managers able to lead their team?

Let us consider this workplace story…

Tharun is a brilliant programmer. He is also a very hard working and ambitious guy. He puts in 12 hour workdays almost all 7 seven days. Boss is happy, CEO is pleased and he quickly rises to the position of manager. He has 22 guys in his team. Tharun delivers quality outputs and finds that his team can just not match up to his number of hours or knowledge or quality of work. He explains to the team, teaches them and even writes many of the programs. The team actually loves him. Is he a good leader?

Let’s see – when the requirements come in, the team wait for Tharun to give instructions, they then wait for Tharun to teach them how to do the job, and most importantly when they are stuck in the middle of coding, they happily wait for him to come and sort the issue.

Is Tharun wearing the head of the leader and the body of a programmer?

At times in companies, some outstanding individual contributors aren’t the greatest leaders of businesses. “The best individual contributor does not necessarily make the best manager; the best manager does not necessarily make the best CEO. Every new level needs a different skill set, and hence success at one level is no guarantee of success at the next higher one,” says Rishikesha T. Krishnan, professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore while commenting on Sachin Tendulkar’s record as a captain was poor when compared to the brilliance he showed as a player.

Possible answers…

ALTHOUGH WE OFTEN think of leadership as being about the person visibly at the front, this isn’t necessarily true. We remember Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for first climbing Mount Everest, but they were not in charge of the expedition. Expedition leader, Sir John Hunt, was one step behind making critical logistics, relational and strategic contributions. He navigated the complex dynamics of personalities and cultural differences (between Englishmen, New Zealanders and Sherpas). Hunt had to make the hardest call: not everybody could reach the summit. He had to ensure all climbers knew that to get anyone to the top, it would take strong commitment to team goals over personal aspirations.     

GREAT DANGER LIES in using the word ‘leader’ to describe someone as it confuses concepts of exercising leadership with notions of positional authority.

IT IS LIBERATING to separate out these ideas.

Leadership is NOT a person or a position. Leadership is a space where growth happens.

Howdy Modi – What makes the world sit up and listen?

The entire weekend saw the internet, social media, TV and even the printed dailies ringing in 1 topic – our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to be part of the Howdy Modi community event. In the Millennial parlance, #HowdyModi is trending.

Glued to the TV while my mobile continuously pings with notifications from discussions on the topic in various group chats and social media, I wonder at the sheer magnificence of the event. And of course the lessons we can learn from it.

It was only five months ago that the Modi led BJP won the general elections with an unprecedented majority that too in a country where the average voter age is 28 years – The Millennials.

Looking at the sheer majority during the elections and now the 50,000+ crowd in Houston for the Howdy Modi event I ponder – 

  • What makes Modi a favorite among the millennials?
  • What lessons in conversational leadership can his speech teach Millennials?
  • What are the learnings from the speech as a leader? A manager? A speaker? A listener? A learner?

Monday morning, my business communication class opened with these questions. After all what makes Modi the millennials favorite is best answered by the millennials themselves. 

A distilled version of the thoughts along with my opinions is mentioned in this blog. Please add on to the learnings with your thoughts in the comments below. 

Content and confidence trumps language skills

It is a well acknowledged fact that the charisma of our Prime Minister is his powerful speeches. They transcend the barriers erected by economic, cultural and political forces to reach the common man. In a multilingual country likeIndia he speaks predominantly in Hindi. He carries his language across borders to the US. Yes electronic translators are the reason everyone understands his speech, but the fact that he decided to allow the translator to do its job while he concentrated on his speech is an important lesson to all us Indians who try very hard to learn the language and base our content and confidence in our ability to speak a foreign language.

An important point to mention is his 12 minute speech in English welcome the President of USA in Houston. That confidence is a quality we all need to learn as managers, leaders and speakers.

Visualize the audience

Modi’s speech is perfectly visualized and distilled to

1.  What the audience is looking for – A sense of inclusion, pride in belonging, support and identity. Right from the name – #HowdyModi, the entire event has been kept informal and friendly, an important criteria for the Millennial generation.

2. What he wants the audience to think about – Probably for the first time India has positioned itself as an equal, as a friend. In fact the scales tilted more towards India as Modi said candidate Trump – abki baar, Trump sarkar. 

Include the audience at all times to engage

Right from the first words, Modi’s speech has included all possible audiences and to keep them engaged has time and again reiterated them. From the ‘Good morning Houston’, to including Indians in Us and also those watching on TV late in the nightie India, the speech touched every Indian. From Houston to Hyderabad, New Jersey to New Delhi, he includes pockets of Indians in the audience and also creates a sense of belongingness. The most powerful of the lines though were when he makes Trump his friend and the Indian audience his family. The powerful and decisive speech incites and inspires the people to take action.

The transition to Dialogue

The transition of the speech to a dialogue like mode with pregnant pauses, body language that included the audience makes the candid, informal but directional qualities unmissable.

Actionable talk

The entire speech stayed away from too many research instead Modi chose simple English to convey an inspiring way forward. The pauses in between and the entire speech showcased the preparation done by a great speaker. 

A well tailored speech

In most of our conversations, presentations and speeches we carry the success or failure of our past events into the next talk. However our PM manages to bring in fresh perspective every time in his speeches.

What are your views while you listen to the Howdy Modi event? Please share in the comments below. (No political views please)


The Leadership traits of the entitled generation

Peter Guber, director of the movie Gorillas in the Mist, narrates of the nightmare of shooting on location in Rwanda with 200 animals that wouldn’t ‘act.’ The screenplay called for the gorillas to do what was written.

Of course they didn’t listen! Guber’s team were disappointed and ready to fall back on a flawed formula that had failed before—that of using dwarfs in gorilla suits on a sound stage.

During their emergency meeting a young intern asked, “What if you let the gorillas write the story? What if you sent a really good cinematographer into the jungle with a ton of film to shoot the gorillas? Then you could write a story around what the gorillas did on the film.”

Everyone laughed and wondered what the intern was doing in a meeting with experienced filmmakers. But ultimately they did exactly what she suggested, and the cinematographer “came back with phenomenal footage that practically wrote the story for us,” Guber says, “We shot the film for $20 million, half of the original budget”.

Are we trying to shoot gorillas in our Organization today?

Leadership is by its very definition is an art based on followership. But the current leaders are like the crew in Guber’s team, trying to solve a problem from their storyline and the employees (gorillas) are actually unaware of the parameters.

This is specifically true for the largest generational cohort in the Organizations today – The Millennials.

Googling  famous millennials inevitably leads to some mix of tech moguls like Zuckerberg or 22 year old Ritesh Agarwal, politicos like Ivanka and Jared, royals such as Prince William, actors like Alia Bhatt and Scarlett Johansson, fashion starlets like Kendall Jenner, music icons like Beyonce and Justin Bieber, sports stars like Kohli, plus inspirational figures like Malala.

Do any of these famous people truly represent millennials? Yes and no, just like the rest of us.

Millennials are the single largest generational cohort in corporate landscape across the world. Yet they are judged, debated and falsely called entitled and snowflakes. Everyone gets it. Conventional wisdom holds that Millennials are entitled, easily distracted, impatient, self-absorbed, lazy, and unlikely to stay in any job for long. Companies of all kinds are obsessed with understanding them better. Unlocking and harnessing the potential of modern talent is the ultimate key to survival in today’s global, hyper-connected, digital society they say and yet, the millennial voices not being heard on uniquely millennial issues. More to the point, why aren’t there more millennials talking about millennial issues? Why do we have the Gen X, the baby boomers, the silent generation and others trying to understand a generation that is vastly different and come up with judgements rather than solutions? Why are the Millennials sorely underrepresented in the leadership roles?

I began my journey in understanding this generation with these questions in mind. Organizations have issues with team effectiveness, performance and the behavior of the younger generation. Ironically the younger generation are the future and maybe trying to understand their idea of leadership would throw better light.

I have spoken with hundreds of millennial and my question has been – In today’s shifting landscape, what practices and conditions will optimize the development of a successful working environment?

Answering this question may be more illusive than it seems. The answers have been rich in information, filled with passion, sometimes anger, others humorous but the basic tenets that the millennials see as traits of leadership are – Inclusive, Global Connector, Entrepreneurial, Flexible, Social, Facilitative, Collaborative, Agile, Continous learning and technology competent.

There is an evolving scholarship and a changing understanding underway of the fundamentals of leadership. Collaborative and shared leadership are central themes in our transforming perception of leadership.

“The current generation has stumbled on an incredibly powerful and important model for changing the world and the workplace: the network.” The ten themes around which the Millennials today work and lead creates a paradigm shift in the dynamics of Organizational working.

The Millennials are the future. And they have decided their leadership traits.

Inclusive Conversations for better teams

A is the founder of a small company. He has about 150 employees in 3 cities. As the CEO, A takes particular care in building an inclusive culture. He specifically recruits a diverse team and works hard at creating a supportive environment. But he realizes there is something missing.

  1. In team meetings, all do not participate.
  2. Micro groups of similar people are formed.
  3. Bias and micro aggression sneaks into conversations.
  4. Expectations from a few are very high and low from few others. Lower expectations negatively influence their performance.

Do these problems sound familiar?

Let us add more employees, a lot more. Is your Organization large?

Let’s spread the wings to a few countries. Do you work in an MNC?

Add in technology, intelligence that is artificial and compassion that is coded. Does your work revolve around long distance conferences, calls and digital communication?

And yes, we have 4 -5 generations of people working together. People who started working before computers came to this year’s fresher who was born in the internet era, the workforce will show the generational gap.

As leaders you will be shocked to know the amount of resources that are left untapped and the number of undiscovered ideas out there just because a few in your team feel excluded in the conversations.

Now let us figure out inclusive conversations

What is inclusive conversation?

Inclusive conversation means having a talk in such a way that everyone understands, feels free to express themselves and accepts the differences in people. This sounds easy but is not. The most common misconception in inclusive workforce is the illusion that having a diverse workforce will automatically mean inclusive work culture.

It is an acknowledged fact that inclusive teams perform better. They are happy, more creative and productive and contribute to the general well balanced culture.Inclusive Conversation Sketchnote

Then why does inclusivity become difficult?

  1. The answer is our bias. It is human nature to gravitate towards people who look, talk and behave like us. With all the efforts put in diversity, the bias only makes micro groups of similar people. So our differences become barriers instead of the assets they truly are.
  2. The next reason is being socially naive to other’s views or culture. This creates a sense of apathy towards others’ point of view and conversations can turn sour.
  3. The most important reason today is the complete lack of face to face conversations and relying on digital conversations.

How you converse is important. Businesses grow strategically; so should conversations. Have a plan, stay away from biases and consciously bring inclusivity in every conversation. Here are 3 ways you can do them

  1. Encourage more face to face conversations. Move out of the cabin to speak with your team, go out for team lunches. The importance of actual human contact cannot be emphasized enough. Empathy that builds with eye contact and body language cannot be matched with advances in technology.
  2. Create a culture of social curiosity. Create diverse teams and encourage candid conversations that are built on curiosity. Become aware of differences and respect them.
  3. Encourage everyone in the team. Delegate responsibilities so that every team member feels he is important. Lower expectations negatively affect performance. Ensure everyone feels he is contributing his best.

What steps do you take to have inclusive conversations? Share your thoughts, stories and even struggles in the comments below. Every conversation contributes to the collective intellect.


The Power of Conversational leadership

280 chief executives in the S&P 500 have left their positions between 2013 and 2017. The disconnect between the expectation and the reality of being a CEO — mentioned not only by those in our interviews whose tenure proved to be short and arduous but also by successful leaders — could be one reason why the median tenure of chief executive officers at S&P 500 companies was only five years at the end of 2017.

According to the HBR interviews, three factors stand out

  1. Managing energy and time efficiently
  2. Establishing a clear framework for managing relationships with board members and external stakeholders
  3. Ensuring that the right information flows up and out of the organization.

Why is this information of utmost importance? In fact it is a clear shout out for help!

Successful managers no longer rely on the traditional authority of the “command and control” culture to deliver outcomes. Instead managers and leaders, need to foster relationships and exert influence to build commitment and accountability in their teams. This requires a whole new management style—one focused around conversational leadership.

Leadership is about constant communication. In fact almost 90% of a leader’s time is spent on communication -influencing, motivating, inspiring, harnessing creativity, and resolving conflict. The best form of leadership therefore is with leaders understanding that one of their functions in shaping and evolving an organization is to consciously address the essential conversations, which form how people think and act. It does not mean indulging in endless talking but rather identifying and engaging with the vital and often courageous exchanges that facilitate meaningful change.

What does conversational leadership actually mean in the everyday working life of a leader? It first means ANYONE CAN BE A CONVERSATIONAL LEADER.

So what is the problem?

Many leaders say they want to improve dialogue, but they do not see how much room for improvement there is. As a result, they see it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a priority.

Coupled with the fact that traditional leadership needs to be unlearned we have a few important barriers:

  • Barrier 1: The “Tell and Inform” corporate communications is not a conversation

The standard model of corporate communication is still top down. The top of the organization determines content and distributes information. Corporate communicators and many leaders see their role as promoting and defending the organization. This leaves little role for listening or discussion. There sure is communication – just not the interactive kind that builds engagement.

  • Barrier 2: Providing ‘answers’ and not asking questions

In everyday decision-making, managers and leaders look at quickly solving an issue, providing answers or giving instructions. If every time a manager speaks he needs a PowerPoint, script and detailed FAQs then the whole possibility of looking into newer realms and exploring through the vitality of a dialogue is lost. Leaders need to draw people out, listen to them, ask questions to open dialogue, create channels of honest conversations.

  • Barrier 3: Avoiding Difficult conversations

Suppressing conversations, avoiding conflict and skirting around the edges of the issues create complete disengagement. The result is Organizational silence.

  • Barrier 4: The well-trodden path of ‘it has worked before’

The spiraling down the path often taken, the ‘it has worked before’ quips and the cultural blind spots are the toughest barriers to crack. In teams people want to be seen as ‘team players’, so they often conform to the majority view. This means that many meetings and conversations become comfortable rituals rather than rigorous or challenging, and teams slip into uncritical ‘Groupthink’. Consensus is often chosen at the expense of conversation.

So how do you get started as a Conversational Leader?

That’s simple, start talking! Talk more!

  • Purposefully connect yourself with people. In your Organization and outside.
  • Speak with candor. Ask in curiosity. Listen with empathy
  • It is through conversation that anything of importance gets done, and it is through conversation that we transform the world. Since the dawn of time, conversation has been the principal tool for human communication and collaboration.
  • As conversational leaders develop positive conversational habits in your everyday interactions with people.

Conversational Leadership takes root when leaders see their organizations as dynamic webs of conversation and consider conversation as a core process for effecting positive systemic change.

Taking a strategic approach to this core process can not only grow intellectual and social capital but also provide a collaborative advantage in our increasingly networked world.

~ Jaunita Brown, The World Cafe