Authors: Suhas Mehra and Beloo Mehra. Published in the August 2016 issue of Sraddha, Vol. 8 (1), pp. 106-120.
CONTINUED FROM PART 3
Implications of the Discovery that Employees Come First
The physical parameters (including the company’s financials) are just the shell which provide an external view of the reality. What constitutes as the real body of an organisation? We find the answer in Sri Aurobindo’s words where he speaks of the real body of the nation. Same is applicable for an organisation.
“When we realise that the land [the physical attributes] is only the shell of the body, though a very living shell indeed and potent in its influences on the nation, when we begin to feel that its more real body is the men and women who compose the nation-unit [corporation], a body ever changing, yet always the same like that of the individual man, we are on the way to a truly subjective communal consciousness.”
There are two major implications of this realisation that the real body of an organisation is its employees. Because individuals are living beings and because an organisation is a collective of individuals it naturally makes the organisation a living being, always growing, changing, adapting and evolving.
An individual’s physical appearance, feelings, emotions, thoughts, mental ideas, biases, ways of thinking etc. continue to change over a lifetime. And yet, there is something behind which serves as a constant basis of as well as a silent witness to all these changes over time, something that both supports the growth of the outer instruments of body, life and mind and also increasingly expresses itself through these instruments, something that gives a unique, unchanging stamp to the individual’s identity despite all the outer changes. This has been called soul by some, using Sri Aurobindo’s terminology we may call it the inmost being, the psychic being.
To get in touch with that, to discover this deep entity within, to make that as the leader of all outward march is the ultimate goal for an individual’s path of self-development and self-fulfilment. But even without being consciously in touch with this deeper entity, all outer self-development that an individual experiences may be semi-consciously or unconsciously a result of the direction of evolution that this psychic being needs for its greater expression and manifestation through the individual’s outer instruments of body, life and mind.
Same may be said about an organisation’s outer evolution over time. Let us consider an example from Coca Cola. During the 1980’s the company’s market share had been steadily losing ground to diet soft drinks and non-cola beverages for many years. Meanwhile the consumers who were purchasing regular cola drinks seemed to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi, as Coca-Cola learned in conducting blind taste tests. In order to regain lost market share the company introduced reformulated Coca-Cola, often referred to as the “New Coke,” marking the first formula change in 99 years. The original Coca-Cola was recalled from all the stores.
The American public’s reaction to the change was negative, even hostile. After 79 days the original cola “Coke Classic” returned alongside the “New Coke.” The New Coke was eventually discontinued internationally in July 2002. This incidence is considered as a classic case study cautioning businesses against tampering too extensively with a well-established and successful brand. This makes good sense when seen from an external and objective point of view.
At the same time, it must be noted that despite the seemingly outward loss of branding (temporarily), the company did manage to make financially sound decision to switch over from sugar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaper sweetener, when it re-introduced “Coke Classic,” its original brand. Again, from an objective point of view, the original decision did lead to financial benefit for the company.
But there is a deeper subjective learning or self-discovery the company made through this experience, which is of our concern. First, was the learning about “the bond consumers felt with their Coca-Cola — something they didn’t want anyone, including the Coca-Cola Company, tampering with.”
And second and more important, was realization that to re-discover a company’s identity is a long-term but inevitable process which while unavoidable has to be done with an attitude to taking “intelligent risks.” Mr. Goizueta, then chairman and CEO, told employees that “New Coke” decision was a prime example of “taking intelligent risks.” He urged all employees to take intelligent risks in their jobs, saying it was critical to the company’s long-term success. This attitude is an example of the living nature of an organisation which constantly attempts to renew itself through iterative processes of self-discovery while still being mindful of what constitutes as its core.
Another important realisation from this example is the fact that by encouraging employees to take intelligent risks, the company is facilitating a culture of self-development wherein employees are not only working for a greater professional reward but also feel motivated to try out well thought-out innovative ideas thereby discovering new capabilities and opportunities for self-expression. This is not a small thing, because self-development for an individual worker is not merely about vital and intellectual fulfilment, it is more importantly about discovering an inner joy in one’s field of work. It is this subjective feeling of joy that further opens the inner being to pursue deeper self-development, self-expression and self-fulfilment.
Another major implication of ‘employee first’ orientation is the realisation that the primal purpose of an individual is an ongoing self-development and self-expression through various creative and constructive actions, choices, and decisions he or she makes. Any collective ‘living’ organisation on the path of its own self-discovery and growth must be conscious and mindful of the need to facilitate the self-development journeys of its ‘living’ individuals. Recently a joke on employee training was making waves on social media: “What if we train our employees and they leave? What if we don’t and they stay?” This joke speaks of a deeper truth that an organisation’s continued growth, longevity and constant renewal depends very heavily on constant learning, growth and development of its individual members.
At the same time, the organisation also needs to be mindful of the range of self-development goals among its various employees. The variation comes from individuals being at different stages of self-development corresponding to the different parts of their being. At the very basic level the organisation must take care of the physical needs of all its employees through a reasonable salary structure.
For the workers who are primarily associated with the physical state of their being a decent salary may suffice their self-development goals. For example, for an unskilled daily wage-earner a good salary to meet physical demands may be most important. Over time, as the vital needs come into the picture and with that come the need to fulfil one’s emotional and other ego-related expectations, something more than the physical salary is needed for their self-development. For example, the semi-skilled or skilled workers will not be fully satisfied with merely a salary, they want their work to also fulfil their needs for self-respect and self-esteem.
As we move up the ladder, for individuals associated more with the mental parts of their being, who also have a sense of pride in their thoughts, ideas and learning, there is a greater need for opportunities which will allow them continuous mental development as well as more creative expressions of their ongoing self-discovery. For such individuals, salary may not be the most primary concern when choosing an appropriate work opportunity (though of course, they too would want their basic physical and vital needs to be met).
These implications that an organisation is a living being and that its development is intimately tied to the development of its individual members speak of the subjective dimension of an organisation’s existence. Any measures to address these subjective dimensions cannot be formula based or of the nature of one-size-fits-all. An individualized approach is required depending upon the physical, vital and mental needs of the individual and collective, and keeping in consideration that all such needs will change over time as the individual and collective living beings evolve. This requires awareness and mindfulness of the psychological makeup of an individual.
In the light of Sri Aurobindo’s thought, this move towards an ‘employee first’ focus may be seen as an initial important step toward “the way to a truly subjective communal consciousness.” It may even be said that only when a collective, a group or an organisation develops a truly subjective communal consciousness that it opens itself to a path of greater self-discovery. Only through a subjective knowing of the many parts of our ‘self’ we move toward a deeper self-knowledge, a knowledge of the truer being within. This is not only true for the individual, but also for a collective. In this regard, the increasing trend of a greater employee-orientation seen in some of the leading business companies is a positive sign.
However, this employee focus leading to a path to a greater subjective communal consciousness is also not free of possible pitfalls. From the point of view of the management, having a greater employee focus may end up as simply another ‘means’ to improve their bottom-line, in the sense that satisfied employees lead to better performance and therefore better revenues for the company. This will dilute the real purpose of facilitating self-development of the employees.
Secondly, from the point of view of the workers, there is a possibility that they may end up having a disproportionate sense of entitlement, in the sense that they can expect more and more ‘welfare type’ benefits from the organisation. This in turn may lead to a culture of inefficiency and mediocrity at the organisation. The Indian concept of ‘adhikara,’ varying natural capacity of the individual, must be kept into consideration when framing an appropriate approach for an ‘employee first’ focus.
These pitfalls may be avoided if the employees feel a greater and more meaningful sense of alignment with the raison d’etre of organisation. This presumes that the organisation in itself, as a living being, is making conscious effort toward discovering its true purpose. This parallel journey of individual and collective self-discovery and self-development necessitates that the organisation makes concerted effort at the time of recruitment to give greater weightage to a more subjective criterion of how the potential employee would fit in with the deeper values of the organisation instead of focusing only on objective aspects such as employee’s technical or professional preparation or experience. A good example of this is seen at Aravind Eye Hospital.
“When hiring [employees], Aravind’s focus is on value-fit over skill-fit. It looks not for accomplishment, but for people suited to its pattern of working. “Our task is to make an ordinary person extra-ordinary,” says Natchiar briskly.”
Such a subjective view of business management is a recent phenomenon when seen in the overall historical evolution of business. It is therefore prudent to look briefly into that history. This is what we shall do in the sequel to this article.
 Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Vol 25, p 36
 Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Vol 25, p 36
 Pavithra Mehta, & Suchitra Shenoy. 2012. Infinite Vision: How Aravind became the World’s greatest business case for compassion. New Delhi: Collins Business, p. 110