170 - Essence of strategy, rationalization, and a question on processing emotions

21-04-2024

decision-makingpersonal development

For anyone who has worked in Business Development or in Ops, they would be familiar with a tension that simmers all through the year.

A tactic of BD to get Ops to put up a dog and pony show is to label an account strategic. This one simple trick does the job of getting Ops and other functions that have to do the work of serving the account to be at their absolute best.

People who have to do the grunt work hardly ask what makes the target strategic. They’ve been fed all their lives that there’s something called strategy and knowing that, let alone understanding it, will just muddle up their detail-oriented brains. Their position doesn’t allow them to see the big picture, the mysterious interconnections that make strategy-building an art. Some of these Ops folks are probably also worried that if they don’t toe the line, it may signal to management that execution is the problem. So they zip up and ask no questions.

Now, often such a strategy (pardon the pun) is not malicious. It is just too much work to share context, and for Ops people who are used to putting their head down and delivering, it may even be too much information for no good reason.

The problem is not BD; it is not Ops either. The issue is one of org design, in my opinion. It is tenable to keep BD or corporate strategy sealed in a bottle, and to not let anyone near it, because the bottle has the business’s secret sauce. It would also then make sense that orgs that closely guard their strategy do a thorough examination of lifetime value of accounts acquired for strategic reasons, just to make sure that it is not being used as an excuse to meet numbers.

I would be surprised if that’s the norm. To me, labeling accounts as worth pursuing because of strategic reasons and taking away the intelligence of Ops to raise credible objections works well in orgs where the culture is to maintain information asymmetry across functions and ranks.

Also, at such a place, except for a select few in the upper echelons, no one can tell what the org strategy is.

And what is strategy? Strategy is anything that leaves employees nowhere to hide when they’re explaining their choices.

Imagine you're an organization and working for you are two employees you cannot fire: a rational Rider and an emotional Elephant.

The Rider is slow and deliberate; the Elephant, quick and wilful. The Elephant tends to call the shots; the Rider has to execute and explain them.

Here's the situation you are in. Your Elephant really doesn’t want to have a difficult expectation-setting conversation with someone in your team who’s not pulling their weight. The Elephant is convinced it’s not worth it, perhaps thinking back to the last such conversation that went awry and still gives it the sweats. It lets the Rider know where it stands on the matter.

Poor Rider, low-ranking and without much positional power, now has to explain the choice. You expect the Rider to be sensible so it has to come up with a cogent explanation for the decision to not talk to the errant team member.

The Rider, like a true company man, comes up with one: Everyone deserves a chance and that you should be the kind of boss that gives people chances and that it's best that you monitor the under-performing employee’s performance closely for the next month and then see.

Our rational side is good at explaining. It is poor at managing the emotional side. If our emotional Elephant wants to, it will get its way and then have the rational Rider do all the explaining. That is where rationalization comes from.

I call it quasi-logic.

The most insidious quasi-logic is also the most common.

For several years, I worked as a change agent on new initiatives. Failure was common. One of the lines I came to parrot was “We’re learning from our failures.”

The special power of this piece of quasi-logic is in what it omits. It says nothing about the rigor in the thinking process, nothing about the preparation put in, nothing about whether all the information at hand was used to arrive at decisions. The Elephant steers clear of all these things. It only enshrines the belief, thanks to the Rider, that it is failure that leads to learning and to reject failure is to reject learning.

The funny thing is that such quasi-logic is not always conscious. The give and take between the Elephant and the Rider happens under the surface. You and the world only hear what the Rider verbalizes in words, and you (often) take it as reality.

I see a paradox in popular advice on emotional management.

Conventional advice on handling emotions splits down two paths. Bottle it up is one path.

Growing up, I heard and saw bottling up practiced as a regular strategy for dealing with emotions. This today is not very popular. More people today than ever acknowledge that this strategy doesn’t aid mental health.

NB: I suspect this movement away from sucking it up is in some ways related to a broader societal movement from an age of scarcity to an age of abundance. At the risk of generalizing, I have in mind a huge section of the Indian post-independence middle class. As this cohort had more in their lives, they felt encouraged to share their feelings in words.

Which leads us to the second track for popular advice on handling emotions. Talk it out. This is arguably more practiced. You talk to a friend about your problems at work. You talk to your team about a project that did badly.

Here’s the thing. Unless that talk is carefully directed, your words can take you deeper into a loop of the same emotions. I’ve felt this on certain days—a stinker in the inbox or a sharp exchange in a meeting triggers a set of feelings that doesn’t go away by venting or complaining.

What are the underlying beliefs behind the two schools of thought? One believes that emotions tend to get in the way of success and should be suppressed at all times. Another supposes that bottling up emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear builds up pressure and verbalizing them releases all that negative pent-up energy.

Your words can replay the sequence of events again and again and feed the already surging emotions in your body (here goes the mindbody again). Words are tools to make sense of things. Making sense means judgment. You are judging your feelings, judging yourself. This is called thought-generated emotion. The surge of emotions had a trigger at first—the stinker in your inbox. Now there’s a different trigger—your own mind that is forcing you to keep going back to that moment.

The paradox is that the best emotional processing strategy should activate your parasympathetic nervous system (Imagine para as a parachute slowing your descent down to the firm ground on earth) and help you calm down. But neither bottling up nor speaking out seems to work.

If you’ve ever seen professional sports, you would have most likely seen certain mannerisms of professional athletes. Here’s a visual.

Djokovic scorches a backhand down the line. The ball shoots off his racket and lands an inch away from the sideline, inside the tramlines, to bring an end to a twenty-four shot rally and to the first set of the men’s singles final at his most beloved tennis court of all, the Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. Joker is dripping sweat. His eyes are bulging. He brings his left palm, fingers splayed, close to his ear and balls it into a fist. His knees buckle. He bends his torso into a bow and lets out a blood-curdling shriek.

Djokovic scorches a backhand down the line. It shoots off his racket and lands an inch inside the sideline, away from the tramlines, to bring an end to a twenty-four shot rally and to the first set of the men’s singles final at his most beloved tennis court of all, the Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. Joker is dripping sweat. His eyes are bulging. He brings his left palm, fingers splayed, close to his ear and balls it into a fist. He pumps that fist into the sweltering forty-one-degree-Celsius Melbourne air and lets out an ear-splitting roar.

Under intense pressure, Djokovic cannot bottle his emotions up. If he does he runs the risk of a meltdown that derails his match. He has to recover and reset instantly, not by taking some time off. He also has no one to talk to. Court-side coaching is frowned upon in tennis.

Animals in the wild are no different from Djokovic and professional athletes. A lion’s roar, if you know how to decode it, can be for the purpose of proclaiming territory or for sharing location with fellow pride members.

My question is, why does the response of a professional athlete like Djokovic to extreme emotions make complete and instinctive sense to us and yet we don’t engage in behavior like that? Can you imagine yourself letting out a roar during your monthly product review? Or bellowing in anguish when faced with the prospects of downsizing your team?

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