Constructive dissonance essential for better neeti

Topics BS Opinion | Companies

The image is pervasive that a successful leader should have receding eyes, square jaws, a firm gait, and the panache of a Roman emperor. The likelihood is that the future leader will listen, show empathy, and not hide natural vulnerability. (https://hbswk.hbs.edu­/item­/what­-companies-want-most-in-a-ceo-a-good-listener). Recently, when I commented on the tension among promoters, independent directors, managements, and regulators, I affirmed the obvious: That governance requires neeti rather than niyam. How can institutions develop better neeti? Codes of conduct and bus.....
The image is pervasive that a successful leader should have receding eyes, square jaws, a firm gait, and the panache of a Roman emperor. The likelihood is that the future leader will listen, show empathy, and not hide natural vulnerability. (https://hbswk.hbs.edu­/item­/what­-companies-want-most-in-a-ceo-a-good-listener).

Recently, when I commented on the tension among promoters, independent directors, managements, and regulators, I affirmed the obvious: That governance requires neeti?

Codes of conduct and business principles are necessary, but not sufficient. No doubt sarcastically, JRD Tata had told the Planning Commission in 1968: “… I must be possessed of tremendous economic power ... I carefully consider what I should accomplish. Should I crush competitors, exploit consumers, fire recalcitrant workers, topple a government or two?” Executives are not constantly scheming on how to make an illegitimate buck.

Arguably involuntary fraudsters are leaders like Vijay Mallya and Rajat Gupta. In his well-researched book Why They Did It, Harvard’s Eugene Soltes states that accused or convicted executives were often unaware that they were committing a malfeasance in the first place, although they get portrayed as congenital crooks. Malfeasance occurs because of an aberrant judgement by over-confident leaders. I had pointed this out in my book Crash.

Aberrant judgements occur often in institutions where constructive dissonance is absent. Constructive dissonance means learning from diverse views. A debate of diverse views delivers better results than a unitary decision. Ancient texts are replete with exhortations to followers to (a) listen, (b) reflect on what is said, (c) express contrarian views, (d) debate opposing viewpoints, and (f) arrive at a reasoned opinion. That may be perhaps why Indians talk so much; as Amartya Sen wrote: “Prolixity is not alien to us in India.” Just the Mahabharata is seven times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey put together! Unlike the canonical teachings, constructive dissonance has always been encouraged in India. It is integral to being a Bharati.

Four examples of constructive dissonance from long before Socrates: First, the discourse between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita; second, the dilemma of Sri Rama before the assault on Lanka; third, the intellectual challenge by a woman, Gargi, to Sage Yajnavalkya; and fourth, Draupadi’s rebuke to family members in the court of Duryodhana.

India has an extraordinary tradition of constructive dissonance compared to global intellectual philosophies. It is this inheritance that secures adherence to values, morality, and such complex dilemmas and is a hidden competitive advantage. It is bewildering to see that high public officials blame colonial mentality, civil society, and dignified companies for retarding the nation’s progress. Certainly, company managements should preserve it.

“Jee huzoor” companies are like cars without brakes! There are no perfect human beings; likewise, there are no perfect companies. How do you recognise a value-driven or principled company? By its practice of constructive dissonance.

Subject to some inevitable aberrations of behaviour, we observe that sustainable and ethical companies have two characteristics: First, long-life, and, second, conservative in finance and visibility. The benefits of corporate anonymity are great — for example, Unilever, Tata, Godrej, Kikkoman, and Bosch. From my 50-year working career, I have some hands-on experience about great, though fallible, companies. Long-life is a very approximate method, but it does provide clues for a corporate version of what the Ayurveda or Ikigai or Chang Shou are to long human life.

British colonialists blundered into several life-and-death moments by ignoring constructive dissonance. In 1857, the dissonance of biting beef/pork fat bullets was ignored. In 1919, after using Indians through the first world war, the Chelmsford regime not only backtracked on the promised dominion-status, it enacted what Gandhiji termed “black acts”. Under these laws, an Indian could be held in detention without a single charge. In 1939, Lord Linlithgow unilaterally announced that India was at war with Germany without bothering to tell or consult any national leader.

About 30 years ago, American agri-business company Archer Daniel Midlands faced charges of price-fixing in fine chemicals, resulting in jail for some officers. The whistle-blower was a senior company officer, Mark Whitacre, who faced constructive dissonance from his wife. He acquiesced with her dissonance and blew the whistle. As with Dinesh Thakur in Ranbaxy, Sophie Zhang, and later Frances Haugen, blew the whistle on Facebook since nobody within took their constructive dissonance seriously.

Neeti and constructive dissonance are valuable for companies and even, more broadly, for governance. In the year of Azadi ki Amrit Mahotsav, Indian citizens find that they can be detained indefinitely without charges. Parliament enacts controversial farm laws and the government retracts them. Judges are advised to be restrained in what they say in courts, but ministers seem to say whatever they like.
/> , has just been published by Rupa. He was director, Tata Sons, and vice-chairman, Hindustan Unilever


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