Barry Schwartz is a treat to watch and listen. In a recent Ted talk he dissected the official dogma of conformist ‘stick and carrot’ approach to life’s challenges and spoke compellingly in favor of bringing in an element of practical wisdom in dealing with situations. He admits to belong to a strongly dissatisfied group of people which certainly includes his friend, colleague and co-author of the book ‘Practical Wisdom’, Ken Sharpe. The dissatisfaction is about the current state of affairs where we see stupendous failures in banking and investment sectors, education systems and judiciary. Every time there is a collapse we see new set of rules (read sticks) in place, more elaborate and fine tuned and there is an expectation that even though the implementers know naughts about their jobs, the rules can auto-pilot in any given situation. We also see incentives (read carrots) given away for goal achievement which takes away personal commitment and passion from a job and incentives become more important than the service. Barry’s narrative is in context of his country, which is USA, but like any great thought it has an element of truth that is applicable for any country or society for that matter. Below is the video of Barry’s speech, which I strongly recommend for my reader.

My personal experience of surviving in service industry for 30 over years leads me to agree with Barry whole heartedly. I rarely see a scope of application of practical wisdom in the system. There is just not enough honest engagement with a job in context of its true deliverables, only manipulative clever profit mongering disguised in crafty corporate by-lines. As a technocrat my creativity is gagged with codes, manuals and procedures and there is an unhealthy peer pressure of sticking to the tested alternatives when, on a daily basis, I feel in my guts the limitations of the alternatives in an ever changing objective of my deliverables. I am trained as a problem solver so it’s a waste if the system pressures me to reduce into a manager. No offence to the managers and I am not bitching, this is my honest feeling.

I wish to take Barry’s view to the next level by confessing that the present corporate office is a killing ground of individuality. Imagine an office where hundreds of people work and supervisors and administration keep on undermining their true delivery by numerous meetings, telephone calls, committee consultations. When do they find time to be with their true inner selves and get that creative spark to innovate? I am well aware of collaborative and group initiatives and the usual drills but honestly too much supervision kills good work. Have you noticed that most productive part of your work is often achieved during early hours of the day or vary late at night? I think it is because you are with yourself in those times.

Working under too much authority is another wasteful, even dangerous practice. When one takes authority too seriously, one’s own judgment is suspended and that may not be healthy. Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in 1963 published his research paper which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Later analyzed in greater depth in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View , Milgram showed that a group of unsuspecting participants in his experiment could be persuaded to administer lethal electric shocks (which was cleverly devised phony actions unknown to the participants) to another group of participants (trained actors but not known to the first group) whenever there was a wrong answer to a question. The participants felt uncomfortable, unsure and even afraid as they believed they are potentially harming people but they still kept on doing exactly as they were told simply because they suspended their individual moral judgment under strong suggestion of authority. This may sound strange but it is true. You can check the following videos.

Something of that sort, albeit scaled down, happens in corporate offices daily. In India young girls and boys in Call Centers accept lot of personal abuse from overseas customers and end up suppressing personal pride and dignity under the authority of the management who consistently teach them that this is a part of their job and lure them with pay packages incommensurate of their education and experience. Telemarketers are made to act almost aggressively by making unsolicited calls at every conceivable time. Corporate Executives cajole their spouses to attend office parties as they are made to believe that their families are part of business.

It’s about time administrators and managers learn to rely of creative freedom and individuality.

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