Category Archives: The Today Paper

My columns published (or soon to be published) in The Today Paper

Graceless Singaporean

We Singaporeans have a problem. We are graceless, they say. So we train ourselves to say the right magic words at the right times and to smile at random intervals. We still come across as a bit graceless at times.

We have to bite the bullet and face the music; we may be a bit on the rude side — when judged by the western norms of pasticky grace popularized by the media. But we don’t do too badly when judged by our own mixed bag of Asian cultures, some of which consider the phrase “Thank you” so formal that it is almost an insult to utter it.

One of the Asian ways of doing things is to eat noodles like a mini vacuum cleaner. This Singaporean friend of mine was doing just that while lunching with me and our French colleague. I hardly noticed the small noises; after all, I’m from a culture where loud burps at the end of a meal are considered a compliment to the host. But our French friend found the suction action very rude and irksome, and made French comments to that effect (ignoring, of course, the fact that it is rude to exclude people by talking in a private language). I tried to explain to him that it was not rude, just the way it was done here, but to no avail.

The real question is this — do we paint a thin veneer of politeness over our natural way of doing things so that we can exude grace a la Hollywood? The thinness of this kind of grace echoes loud and clear in the standard greeting of a checkout clerk in a typical American supermarket: “How’ ya doing today?” The expected response is: “Good, how are you?” to which the clerk is to say, “Good, good!” The first “Good” presumably to your graceful enquiry after his well-being, the second expressing satisfaction at your perfect state of bliss. I once decided to play the fool and responded to the ubiquitous “How’ ya doin’?” by: “Lousy man, my dog just died.” The inevitable and unhesitating response was, “Good, good!” Do we need this kind of shallow grace?

Grace is like the grammar of an unspoken social language. Unlike its spoken counterparts, the language of social mores seems to preclude multilingualism, leading to an almost xenophobic rejection of other norms of life. We all believe that our way of doing things and our world views are the only right ones. Naturally too, otherwise we wouldn’t hold on to our beliefs, would we? But, in an increasingly flattening and globalizing world, we do feel a bit alien because our values and graces are often graded by alien standards.

Soon, a day will come when we all conform to the standards prescribed to us by the global media and entertainment networks. Our amorphous “How’ ya doin’?”s and “Good, good”s will then be indistinguishable from the prescriptions.

When I think of that inevitable day, I suffer a pang of nostalgia. I hope I can hold on to the memory of social graces judged by lesser standards — of gratitude expressed in timid smiles, affections portrayed in fleeting glances, and life’s defining bonds conveyed in unspoken gestures.

Ultimately, the collective grace of a society is to be judged, not by polished niceties, but by how it treats its very old and very young. And I’m afraid we are beginning to find ourselves wanting in those fronts. We put our young children through tremendous amount of stress, preparing them for an even more stressful life, and unwittingly robbing them of their childhood.

And, when I see those aunties and uncles cleaning after us in eating houses, I see more than our lack of grace. I see myself in my twilight years, alienated in a world gone strange on me. So let’s spare a smile, and nod a thank you when we see them — we may be showing grace to ourselves a few decades down the line.

An Office Survival Guide

Let’s face it — people job hop. They do it for a host of reasons, be it better job scope, nicer boss, and most frequently, fatter paycheck. The grass is often greener on the other side. Really. Whether you are seduced by the green allure of the unknown or venturing into your first pasture, you often find yourself in a new corporate setting.

In the unforgiving, dog-eat-dog corporate jungle, you need to be sure of the welcome. More importantly, you need to prove yourself worthy of it. Fear not, I’m here to help you through it. And I will gladly accept all credit for your survival, if you care to make it public. But I regret that we (this newspaper, me, our family members, dogs, lawyers and so on) cannot be held responsible for any untoward consequence of applying my suggestions. Come on, you should know better than to base your career on a newspaper column!

This disclaimer brings me naturally to the first principle I wanted to present to you. Your best bet for corporate success is to take credit for all accidental successes around you. For instance, if you accidentally spilled coffee on your computer and it miraculously resulted in fixing the CD-ROM that hadn’t stirred in the last quarter, present it as your innate curiosity and inherent problem solving skills that prompted you to seek an unorthodox solution.

But resist all temptation to own up to your mistakes. Integrity is a great personality trait and it may improve your karma. But, take my word for it, it doesn’t work miracles on your next bonus. Nor does it improve your chances of being the boss in the corner office.

If your coffee debacle, for instance, resulted in a computer that would never again see the light of day (which, you would concede, is a more likely outcome), your task is to assign blame for it. Did your colleague in the next cubicle snore, or sneeze, or burp? Could that have caused a resonant vibration on your desk? Was the cup poorly designed with a higher than normal centre of gravity? You see, a science degree comes in handy when assigning blame.

But seriously, your first task in surviving in a new corporate setting is to find quick wins, for the honeymoon will soon be over. In today’s workplace, who you know is more important than what you know. So start networking — start with your boss who, presumably, is already impressed. He wouldn’t have hired you otherwise, would he?

Once you reach the critical mass in networking, switch gears and give an impression that you are making a difference. I know a couple of colleagues who kept networking for ever. Nice, gregarious folks, they are ex-colleagues now. All talk and no work is not going to get them far. Well, it may, but you can get farther by identifying avenues where you can make a difference. And by actually making a bit of that darned difference.

Concentrate on your core skills. Be positive, and develop a can-do attitude. Find your place in the corporate big picture. What does the company do, how is your role important in it? At times, people may underestimate you. No offence, but I find that some expats are more guilty of underestimating us than fellow Singaporeans. Our alleged gracelessness may have something to do with it, but that is a topic for another day.

You can prove the doubters wrong through actions rather than words. If you are assigned a task that you consider below your level of expertise, don’t fret, look at the silver lining. After all, it is something you can do in practically no time and with considerable success. I have a couple of amazingly gifted friends at my work place. I know that they find the tasks assigned to them ridiculously simple. But it only means that they can impress the heck out of everybody.

Corporate success is the end result of an all out war. You have to use everything you have in your arsenal to succeed. All skills, however unrelated, can be roped in to help. Play golf? Invite the CEO for a friendly. Play chess? Present it as the underlying reason for your natural problem solving skills. Sing haunting melodies in Chinese? Organize a karaoke. Be known. Be recognized. Be appreciated. Be remembered. Be missed when you are gone. At the end of the day, what else is there in life?

Reading between the Lines

When it comes to news, things are seldom what they seem. The media can colour news events while remaining technically objective and strictly factual. Faced with such insidiously accurate reporting, we have little choice but to read between the lines.

It is a tricky art. First, we develop a healthy attitude of scepticism. Armed with this trust-nobody attitude, we examine the piece to get to the writer’s intentions. Mind you, the idea is not always to disapprove of the hidden agenda, but to be aware that there is one — always.

Writers use a variety of techniques to push their agenda. First and foremost in their arsenal is the choice of words. Words have meanings, but they also have connotations. As a case in point, look at my choice of the word “arsenal” in the last sentence, which in this context merely means collection. But because of its negative connotation, I have portrayed writers as your adversaries. I could have used “collection” or “repertoire” (or nothing at all) to take away the negativity. Using “gimmickry” would imply that the writers usually fail in their efforts. Choosing “goody bag” would give you a warm feeling about it because of its association with childhood memories. Unless you know of my bag of tricks (which has a good connotation), you are at my mercy.

When connotation is employed to drive geo-political agendas, we have to scrutinize the word choices with more serious care. In an Indian newspaper, I once noticed that they consistently used the words “militant” or “militancy” to report a certain movement, while describing another similar movement with words like “terrorist” or “terrorism”. Both usages may be accurate, but unless we are careful, we may get easily swayed into thinking that one movement is legitimate while the other is not.

Americans are masters in this game. Every word spoken by the states department spokesperson is so carefully chosen that it would be naïve to overlook the associated connotations. Look at Hillary Clinton’s choice of the word “misspeak” — books can be written on that choice!

What is left unsaid is as important as what is not, which makes for another potent tactic in shaping the public opinion. Imagine a TV report that runs like this: “Pentagon has reported a surgical strike with a laser-guided missile fired from an unmanned predator aircraft killing five terrorists in the US most wanted list. However, civilians claim that the bomb fell on a wedding party killing 35 people including 15 children and ten women. We haven’t independently verified this claim.” While staying factually accurate, this report has managed to discredit the civilian deaths by playing with the connotations of “report” and “claim”, as well as by not saying that the Pentagon report also was unverified. Besides, how can super-duper unmanned aircraft and laser-guided munitions miss their targets?

We, of course, have no means of knowing what actually went on there. But we have to discern the process of colouring the report and develop an ability (or at least a desire) to seek the truth and intentions behind the words.

This ability is especially crucial now because of a worrying trend in the global media — the genesis of media conglomerates. When most of the world gets their information from a limited number of conglomerates, they wield an inordinate amount of power and sway over us and our opinions. Unless we jealously guard our ability to read between the lines, we may be marching quietly into a troubling brave new world.

Good and Bad Gender Equality

Gender equality has made some great strides. About one hundred years ago, most women in the world didn’t have the right to vote — no suffrage, to use the correct term. Right now, we have a woman inching closer than ever to the office of President of the United States, considered the most powerful “man” on earth. In the corporate scene too, we now see many women in powerful positions.

But, even the most optimistic among us wouldn’t argue that gender equality is a reality and that women have arrived. Why is that? What exactly is the difficulty in achieving this holy grail of equality?

I think that the difficulty lies in our definition, in what we mean by women’s equality. Of course, the whole equality issue is a minefield as far as political correctness is concerned. And I’m barging on to thin ice where no sane person would dream of stepping in. But a columnist is allowed to be opinionated and, let’s face it, a bit obnoxious. So here we go…

I feel that there are good and bad arguments for equality. Let’s take the case of tennis Grand Slams, where they “achieved” equality by equalizing the prize moneys. The argument was simply that women and men were equal and they deserved the same prize money.

To me, it wasn’t much of an argument at all. It was a form of condescension. It is a bit like the condescending (though, no doubt, well-meaning) encouragements offered by native speakers when you learn their tongue. Towards the end of my five year sojourn in France, I could speak pretty good French and people used to tell me, encouragingly of course, that I spoke well. To me, it always meant that I didn’t speak well enough, for if I did, they just wouldn’t notice it at all, would they? After all, they don’t go around congratulating each other on their perfect French!

Similarly, if men and women tennis players were really equal, nobody would speak of equality. There wouldn’t be “men’s” singles and “women’s” singles to begin with — there would be just singles! So this argument for equality in prize money is bad one.

There is a much better argument. Prize money is sponsored by corporate bodies bent on promoting their products. The sponsors are therefore interested in TV viewership. Given that women’s singles draws in as many viewers as men’s, the prize money should be equal. Now, that is a solid argument. We should be looking at dimensions where equality really does exist rather than trying to artificially impose it.

When such dimensions of equality encompass all aspects of our lives, we will be able to safely say that gender equality has arrived. We should not be looking for equality in testosterone-driven playing fields, which, by the way, may include higher echelons of the corporate pyramid. We should be relegating debates on equality to irrelevance by attributing enough respect and value to natural differences.

Articulated by a man, this statement of mine, of course, is a bit suspect. Aren’t I trying to shortchange women by offering them useless respect rather than real equality?

I once heard a similar exchange when someone argued that women in my native land of Kerala enjoyed higher level of gender equality because, coming from a matrilineal system, they ruled the household. The pithy rebuttal to that argument came from a Keralite woman, “Men are perfectly happy to let women rule their households as long as they get to rule the world!”

Then again, we are pretty close to letting Hillary Clinton rule the world with just two men standing in her way. So perhaps gender equality has finally arrived after all.

How Friendly is too Friendly?

We all want to be the boss. At least some of us want to be the big boss at some, hopefully not-too-distant, future. It is good to be the boss. However, it takes quite a bit to get there. It takes credentials, maturity, technical expertise, people skills, communication and articulation, not to mention charisma and connections.

Even with all the superior qualities, being a boss is tough. Being a good boss is even tougher; it is a tricky balancing act. One tricky question is, how friendly can you get with your team?

At first glance, this question may seem silly. Subordinates are human beings too, worthy of as much friendliness as any. Why be stuck up and act all bossy to them? The reason is that friendship erodes the formal respect that is a pre-requisite for efficient people management. For instance, how can you get upset with your friends who show up thirty minutes late for a meeting? After all, you wouldn’t get all worked up if they showed up a bit late for a dinner party.

If you are friends with your staff, and too good a boss to them, you are not a good boss from the perspective of the upper management. If you aspire to be a high powered and efficient boss as viewed from the top, you are necessarily unfriendly with your subordinates. This is the boss’s dilemma.

From the employee’s perspective, if your boss gets too friendly, it is usually bad news. The boss will have your hand phone number! And an excuse to call you whenever he/she feels like it.

Another unfortunate consequence of accidental cordiality is unrealistic expectations on your part. You don’t necessarily expect a fat bonus despite a shoddy performance just because the boss is a friend. But you would be a better human being than most if you could be completely innocent of such a wishful notion. And this tinge of hope has to lead to sour disappointment because, if he your boss is friendly with you, he/she is likely to be friendly with all staff.

By and large, bosses around here seem to work best when there is a modicum of distance between them and their subordinates. One way they maintain the distance is by exploiting any cultural difference that may exist among us.

If you are a Singaporean boss, for instance, and your staff are all expatriate Indians or Chinese, it may be a good thing from the distance angle — cultural and linguistic differences can act as a natural barrier toward unwarranted familiarity that may breed contempt.

This immunity against familiarity, whether natural or cultivated, is probably behind the success of our past colonial masters. Its vestiges can still be seen in management here.

The attitude modulation when it comes to the right amount of friendship is not a prerogative of the bosses alone. The staff have a say in it too. As a minor boss, I get genuinely interested in the well-being of my direct reports, especially because I work closely with them. I have had staff who liked that attitude and those who became uncomfortable with it.

The ability to judge the right professional distance can be a great asset in your and your team’s productivity. However, it cannot be governed by a set of thumb rules. Most of the time, it has to be played by ear and modulated in response to the changing attitudes and situations. That’s why being a good boss is an art, not an exact science.

When the Going Gets Tough, Turn Around!

Elton John is right, sorry is the hardest word. It is hard to admit that one has been wrong. Harder still is to find a way forward, a way to correct one’s past mistakes. It often involves backtracking.

But when it comes to hard-headed business decisions, backtracking may often be the only thing to do. It makes sense to cut further losses when there is little point in throwing good money after bad. Such containment efforts are routine events in most establishments.

The biggest loss containment effort that I had a personal stake in happened in the US in the early nineties. I began noticing its worrying escalation in a hotel room in Washington DC. I was student delegate in the annual conference of the American Physical Society (APS). Despite the happy APS atmosphere (where many graduate students find their future placements) and the beautiful pre-cherry-blossom weather, I was a worried man because I had just seen a TV commercial that said, “Ten billion dollars for a particle accelerator??!! What the heck is it any way?”

The ten billion dollar project under attack was the so-called Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas, which was eventually shut down in 1993. The cancellation came in spite of a massive initial investment of about two billion dollars.

To me, this cancellation meant that more than two thousand bright and experienced physicists would be looking for jobs right around the time I entered the job market. This concern represented my personal stake in the project; but the human impact of this mammoth backtracking was much deeper. It precipitated a minor recession in the parts of Dallas to the south of the Trinity River.

Similar backtracking, though at a much smaller scale, may happen in your organization as well. Let’s say you decided to invest two million dollars in a software system to solve a particular business problem. Half a million dollars into the project, you realize that it was a wrong solution. What do you do?

It may look obvious that you should save the company a million and a half by stopping the project. This decision is exactly what the collective wisdom of the US Congress arrived at in 1993 regarding the SSC. But it is not that simple. Nothing in real life is that simple.

Corporate backtracking is a complex process. It has multiple, often interconnected, aspects that have to be managed with skill.

If you decide to backtrack, what does it say about your business acumen? Will it trigger a backlash from the top management accusing you of poor judgment? In other words, will your name be so much in the mud that you would find it impossible to secure a job and support your family?

Let’s say it really wasn’t your fault and you had valid arguments to convince everybody of your innocence. Would that make it simple enough to pull the plug on the project? In all probability, it would not, because all big projects involve other people, for no man is an island. Stopping a project half-way through would probably mean sacking the whole project team.

This human cost is something we have to be aware of. It is not always about dollars and cents. If you are kind soul, you would have to move the team to some other (potentially unproductive) project, thereby eroding the savings that would’ve accrued from stopping the project. Wouldn’t it have been better to have continued with the original project, doomed though it was?

In most corporate cases, it will turn out to be wise to shutdown doomed projects. But don’t underestimate the costs involved. They are not always counted in monitory terms, but have human dimensions as well.

It is far wiser never to embark on dubious projects. When you must get involved in uncertain projects, review your exit options carefully. For instance, would it be possible to reshape the project in a different but still salvageable direction?

And if and when you do have to shut them down, do it with decisiveness. Do it with skill. But most importantly, do it with decency and compassion.


Sophistication is a French invention. The French are masters when it comes to nurturing, and more importantly, selling sophistication. Think of some expensive (and therefore classy) brands. Chances are that more than half of the ones that spring to mind would be French. And the other half would be distinctly French sounding wannabes. This world domination in sophistication is impressive for a small country of the size and population of Thailand.

How do you take a handbag manufactured in Indonesia, slap on a name that only a handful of its buyers can pronounce, and sell it for a profit margin of 1000%? You do it by championing sophistication; by being an icon that others can only aspire to be, but never ever attain. You know, kind of like perfection. No wonder Descartes said something that sounded suspiciously like, “I think in French, therefore I am!” (Or was it, “I think, therefore I am French”?)

I am amazed by the way the French manage to have the rest of the world eat things that smell and taste like feet. And I stand in awe of the French when the world eagerly parts with their hard earned dough to gobble up such monstrosities as fattened duck liver, fermented dairy produce, pig intestines filled with blood, snails, veal entrails and whatnot.

The French manage this feat, not by explaining the benefits and selling points of these, ahem…, products, but by a perfecting a supremely sophisticated display of incredulity at anyone who doesn’t know their value. In other words, not by advertising the products, but by embarrassing you. Although the French are not known for their physical stature, they do an admirable job of looking down on you when needed.

I got a taste of this sophistication recently. I confessed to a friend of mine that I never could develop a taste for caviar — that quintessential icon of French sophistication. My friend looked askance at me and told me that I must have eaten it wrong. She then explained to me the right way of eating it. It must have been my fault; how could anybody not like fish eggs? And she would know; she is a classy SIA girl.

This incident reminded me of another time when I said to another friend (clearly not as classy as this SIA girl) that I didn’t quite care fore Pink Floyd. He gasped and told me never to say anything like that to anybody; one always loved Pink Floyd.

I should admit that I have had my flirtations with bouts of sophistication. My most satisfying moments of sophistication came when I managed to somehow work a French word or expression into my conversation or writing. In a recent column, I managed to slip in “tête-à-tête,” although the unsophisticated printer threw away the accents. Accents add a flourish to the level of sophistication because they confuse the heck out of the reader.

The sneaking suspicion that the French may have been pulling a fast one on us crept up on me when I read something that Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote. He wondered what this ISO 9000 fad was all about. Those who secure the ISO certification proudly flaunt it, while everybody else seems to covet it. But does anyone know what the heck it is? Adams conjectured that it was probably a practical joke a bunch of inebriated youngsters devised in a bar. “ISO” sounded very much like “Iz zat ma beer?” in some eastern European language, he says.

Could this sophistication fad also be a practical joke? A French conspiracy? If it is, hats off to the French!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Francophobe. Some of my best friends are French. It is not their fault if others want to imitate them, follow their gastronomical habits and attempt (usually in vain) to speak their tongue. I do it too — I swear in French whenever I miss an easy shot in badminton. After all, why waste an opportunity to sound sophisticated, n’est-ce pas?

Human Virus

On one poignantly beautiful autumn day in Syracuse, a group of us physics graduate students were gathered around a frugal kitchen table. We had our brilliant professor, Lee Smolin, talking to us. We held our promising mentors in very high regard. And we had high hopes for Lee.

The topic of conversation on that day was a bit philosophical, and we were eagerly absorbing the words of wisdom emanating from Lee. He was describing to us how the Earth could be considered a living organism. Using insightful arguments and precisely modulated glib articulation (no doubt, forged by years of intellectual duels in world’s best universities), Lee made a compelling case that the Earth, in fact, satisfied all the conditions of being an organism.

Lee Smolin, by the way, lived up to our great expectations in later years, publishing highly acclaimed books and generally leaving a glorious imprint in the world of modern physics. He now talks to global audiences through prestigious programmes such as the BBC Hardtalk, much to our pride and joy.

The point in Lee’s view was not so much whether or the Earth was literally alive, but that thinking of it as an organism was a viable intellectual model to represent the Earth. Such intellectual acrobatics was not uncommon among us physics students.

In the last few years, Lee has actually taken this mode of thinking much farther in one of his books, picturing the universe in the light of evolution. Again, the argument is not to be taken literally, imagining a bunch of parallel universes vying for survival. The idea is to let the mode of thinking carry us forward and guide our thoughts, and see what conclusions we can draw from the thought exercise.

A similar mode of thinking was introduced in the movie Matrix. In fact, several profound models were introduced in that movie, which probably fuelled its wild box-office success. One misanthropic model that the computer agent Smith proposes is that human beings are a virus on our planet.

It is okay for the bad guy in a movie to suggest it, but an entirely different matter for newspaper columnist to do so. But bear with me as I combine Lee’s notion of the Earth being an organism and Agent Smith’s suggestion of us being a virus on it. Let’s see where it takes us.

The first thing a virus does when it invades an organism is to flourish using the genetic material of the host body. The virus does it with little regard for the well-being of the host. On our part, we humans plunder the raw material from our host planet with such abandon that the similarity is hard to miss.

But the similarity doesn’t end there. What are the typical symptoms of a viral infection on the host? One symptom is a bout of fever. Similarly, due to our activities on our host planet, we are going through a bout of global warming. Eerily similar, in my view.

The viral symptoms could extend to sores and blisters as well. Comparing the cities and other eye sores that we proudly create to pristine forests and natural landscapes, it is not hard to imagine that we are indeed inflicting fetid atrocities to our host Earth. Can’t we see the city sewers and the polluted air as the stinking, oozing ulcers on its body?

Going one step further, could we also imagine that natural calamities such as Katrina and the Asian tsunami are the planet’s natural immune systems kicking into high gear?

I know that it is supremely cynical to push this comparison to these extreme limits. Looking at the innocent faces of your loved ones, you may feel rightfully angry at this comparison. How dare I call them an evil virus? Then again, if a virus could think, would it think of its activities on a host body as evil?

If that doesn’t assuage your sense of indignation, remember that this virus analogy is a mode of thinking rather than a literal indictment. Such a mode of thinking is only useful if it can yield some conclusions. What are the conclusions from this human-viral comparison?

The end result of a viral infection is always gloomy. Either the host succumbs or the virus gets beaten by the host’s immune systems. If we are the virus, both these eventualities are unpalatable. We don’t want to kill the Earth. And we certainly don’t want to be exterminated by the Earth. But those are the only possible outcomes of our viral-like activity here. It is unlikely that we will get exterminated; we are far too sophisticated for that. In all likelihood, we will make our planet uninhabitable. We may, by then, have our technological means of migrating to other planetary systems. In other words, if we are lucky, we may be contagious! This is the inescapable conclusion of this intellectual exercise.

There is a less likely scenario — a symbiotic viral existence in a host body. It is the kind of benign life style that Al Gore and others recommend for us. But, taking stock of our activities on the planet, my doomsday view is that it is too late for a peaceful symbiosis. What do you think?

Rumour Mills

Employees seek insights into their organization’s heading. And they should, because what their organization does has a direct impact on their well-being. If your organization is planning to retrench 50% of its staff, for instance, you’d better start looking for new job right away.

Who do you turn to when you pine for information? Your management would have you listen to them. From the employee’s perspective, this may not be the smartest move. But fret not, there is an alternative.

There is a city underground. Parallel to the world of corporate memos and communication meetings, this rumour city trades information, often generating it as needed.

Employees flock to the rumour mills, not out of their inherent malevolence for their employers, but because of a well-founded and mutual mistrust. Management tends to be cautious (and therefore less than candid) with their announcements, while over 80% of office rumours turn out to be accurate, as some studies show.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Suppose five years ago, your CEO took to the podium and declared that there would be absolutely no retrenchments. How many of you would have believed it? Those who believed would almost certainly wish they had listened to the grapevine instead.

This credibility gap that a typical management team suffers from can be addressed only though open and candid communication. Therein lies the rub. The management cannot always be as candid as they would like to be. And, they certainly cannot afford to be as candid as the employees would like them to be.

Lack of candour in an atmosphere of uncertainty breeds rumour. Rumours, as defined in psychology, are hypotheses with widespread impact. They abound when the management refuses to trust the employees with strategic information. This lack of trust and information leaves them with no choice but to interpret the developments themselves. In such interpretations lie the origins of office rumours.

Rumours are not to be confused with gossip. While rumours are based on conjecture and are presented as future, corporate-wide eventualities, gossip can be idle or with malicious intent directed at individuals. And gossip is usually presented as fact. In highly competitive settings, gossip can inflict irreparable damage on unsuspecting victims.

Once a rumour attains a high level of credibility, the top brass will be forced to talk. But the talk has to be candid and serious. And it has to be timely. If they wait for too long, their attempts at a tête-à -tête would resemble feeble attempts at damage control. And if the talk is a mere torrent of clichés and rhetoric, it will be taken as an effort to gloss over potentially catastrophic changes. In fact, such weak communication fuels more rumour than it quells.

Given that critical job-related information usually flows down the grapevine, the employees are going to talk. The only sure-fire strategy for any management is to make use of the underground rumour mill — the classic “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” paradigm.

If you are a part of the top brass, here is what you can do. Circulate as much accurate and timely information as you possibly can. If you cannot do it officially through formal channels, try informal ones, such as lunches and pantries. This way, you can turn the rumour mills to serve your purpose rather than let them run amok.

Do not underestimate the power of the grapevine, lest all your corporate communication efforts should come to naught.

Stress and a Sense of Proportion

How can we manage stress, given that it is unavoidable in our corporate existence? Common tactics against stress include exercise, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, reprioritizing family etc. To add to this list, I have my own secret weapons to battle stress that I would like to share with you. These weapons may be too potent; so use them with care.

One of my secret tactics is to develop a sense of proportion, harmless as it may sound. Proportion can be in terms of numbers. Let’s start with the number of individuals, for instance. Every morning, when we come to work, we see thousands of faces floating by, almost all going to their respective jobs. Take a moment to look at them — each with their own personal thoughts and cares, worries and stresses.

To each of them, the only real stress is their own. Once we know that, why would we hold our own stress any more important than anybody else’s? The appreciation of the sheer number of personal stresses all around us, if we stop to think about it, will put our worries in perspective.

Proportion in terms of our size also is something to ponder over. We occupy a tiny fraction of a large building that is our workplace. (Statistically speaking, the reader of this column is not likely to occupy a large corner office!) The building occupies a tiny fraction of the space that is our beloved city. All cities are so tiny that a dot on the world map is usually an overstatement of their size.

Our world, the earth, is a mere speck of dust a few miles from a fireball, if we think of the sun as a fireball of any conceivable size. The sun and its solar system are so tiny that if you were to put the picture of our galaxy as the wallpaper on your PC, they would be sharing a pixel with a few thousand local stars! And our galaxy — don’t get me started on that! We have countless billions of them. Our existence (with all our worries and stresses) is almost inconceivably small.

The insignificance of our existence is not limited to space; it extends to time as well. Time is tricky when it comes to a sense of proportion. Let’s think of the universe as 45 years old. How long do you think our existence is in that scale? A few seconds!

We are created out of star dust, last for a mere cosmological instant, and then turn back into star dust. DNA machines during this time, we run unknown genetic algorithms, which we mistake for our aspirations and achievements, or stresses and frustrations. Relax! Don’t worry, be happy!

Sure, you may get reprimanded if that report doesn’t go out tomorrow. Or, your supplier may get upset that your payment is delayed again. Or, your colleague may send out that backstabbing email (and Bcc your boss) if you displease them. But, don’t you see, in this mind-numbingly humongous universe, it doesn’t matter an iota. In the big scheme of things, your stress is not even static noise!

Arguments for maintaining a level of stress all hinge on an ill-conceived notion that stress aids productivity. It does not. The key to productivity is an attitude of joy at work. When you stop worrying about reprimands and backstabs and accolades, and start enjoying what you do, productivity just happens. I know it sounds a bit idealistic, but my most productive pieces of work happened that way. Enjoying what I do is an ideal I will shoot for any day.