Do you know who I am?” asks the irate passenger who expects to be accommodated for his late arrival at the check-in counter. The ‘I’ in the statement is clearly important. It should terrify anyone into submission. The person who says this has experienced privileges. He has got what he wanted. Out of turn. His belief has worked in the past. It is now shamelessly his second nature. His arrogance is a matter of fact.
Privileges are bestowed on people. Privileges come with position and the power to reward and punish others. Great power is equal to great privilege, particularly in India where status differences are entrenched and accepted. Privilege creates zones of exclusiveness and the ‘rest’ live quietly with it, usually grumbling under their breath.
But where are the roots of this kind of privilege and immunity? When there is a concentration of power in the hands of a small and select group – based on royalty, wealth, family ties, education, or corporate, religious or military dominance – oligarchies are created. There are multiple oligarchies, or ‘non-official’ authorities, spread out through the length and breadth of our country. They find their way into organizations too. Leaders who head oligarchies have their own power base. They influence others by meting out special privileges and immunities from punishment.
Examples abound: passports, water connections, mining rights, taking over public spaces, yada yada. An everyday example is the use of mobile phone when a plane is taking off, or even at a theater or in a meeting. People and organizations often embody the notion that the stated rule ‘does not apply to me because I belong to a privileged group’. That viewpoint is backed by a power that tells them they can do whatever they want, regardless.
India works on real or perceived connections. If you expect a fair and level playing field, forget about it. It is as if the country is composed of numerous small oligarchs, with their own closed circuits of rank, power and privilege. Oligarchies are usually based on a closed network of personal and often deep relationships among people who choose, most of the time, to connect with others who are just like themselves.
Learning and Development professionals: take heed. When organizations are dominated by closed networks, there are few opportunities to create a climate for learning. New learning, after all, occurs when people who are different from one another cultivate ties. This gives them the chance to exchange points of view and reconsider their own attitudes and beliefs in the light of new information. When leaders and managers maintain an open network of relationships, they can access new information and ideas more easily and act more swiftly. They create benefits for their organizations and its employees.
But in a system of closed relationships, run by hierarchies of status, the very interactions that drive innovation and receptivity to novel and potentially lucrative business opportunities have gone missing. Organizations with multiple closed networks breed group think and resist adaptation to changing circumstances. Those who are a part of these myriad oligarchies are well aware that they will get what they want. This gives them confidence. They also own or take over all the resources. There is a tacit understanding that “we take care of our own”, which includes their circle of connections. It is the psychology of gangs.
By contrast, organizations can encourage diverse relationships. These relationships are built on exchanges of expertise and the strength of personal interactions between people from different strata and demographic backgrounds. Open and inclusive networks are formed that cross the boundaries of regional differences, national cultures, age and gender divisions. Such organizations can draw on a broader pool of resources and be flexible and more responsive to their stakeholders. Boundary spanning leadership becomes possible, bringing in a harvest of opportunities.
The lesson for HR and L&D professionals is to reflect on the professional contribution they want to make and to be selective when choosing to join an organization. Leaders who are in actual positions of power – the ones who have been conferred an office, a title, an authority – must be committed to maintaining open networks. Closed networks and privileged oligarchies feed on an absence of leadership in the prevailing organizational system. Alternative power bases kick in and start to take over–gradually getting stronger and stronger. When it comes to making professional choices about directing one’s career, look for organizational leaders who maintain open networks and provide a level playing field and fairness.