MARCH 30, 2003
 Cover Story
 At Work
 Personal Finance
 Case Game
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Q&A: Kunio Sebata
The President and CEO of the $3.8-billion Hitachi Home and Life Solutions Inc tells BT Online about what it's like to operate independently in India, the company's past relationship with the Lalbhai Group in the air-conditioner market, its faith in joint ventures and its current plans for India.

Q&A: Eran Gartner
As Vice President (Operations), Bombardier Transportation, Eran Gartner, outlines what would make his company such a hot pick to build Bangalore's mass transit system. It isn't just about creating a network and vanishing, he claims, it's also about transferring modern technology to the local operations.

More Net Specials
Business Today,  March 16, 2003
Boss Phobia
Fear of the boss has cramped many a good career. But until corporate cultures become more conscious of this phobia, little can be done to fix it.


o one saw it, but Rajiv Ahuja's teeth had developed a constant chatter. Head of sales at a large telecom company, he had just been summoned by his immediate boss, the sales vice-president, and blasted-with the most soul-crushing of expletives as punctuation marks. How come? Ahuja's performance, as his boss put it, was "15 per cent below par". When word of his "fire in the belly" deficiency reached the hr department, there was surprise; Ahuja was held in high regard as an executive by his peers and subordinates. So hr called Ahuja in for an interactive session.

The diagnosis? Bossphobia. Despite his designation, he was mortally scared of his boss. He'd turn to pulp at the very sound of the boss' voice, his palms sweaty, his brain reeling, his mind unable to function-much like a batsman paralysed at the crease by the fear of the selectors' axe, eclipsing any thought of the current 'asking run rate' to win.

What Ahuja needed, hr found, was some positive reinforcement, plus some coaching to deliver the numbers the boss wanted, even under backbreaking circumstances (Ahuja had even been asked to bait tourists in a remote hill-station for a cell network). Today, the man is a high-performing vice-president himself.

» Often fear authority per se
» Fail to take initiative
» Suffer low self-esteem
» Almost always misperform
» Develop confidence
» Look at the big picture
» Make rational assessments
» Stop being paranoid

Most cases, however, are not so easy to resolve-particularly in firms with highly authoritarian work systems, adorned as they are with clear-cut rule cards, hard-and-fast operational templates and an exalted set of authority figures.

Rational Phobia?

That's an important question. Is the boss really a terror-or a misunderstood soul just trying to get the job done?

Unfortunately, few subordinates who work for a superior with an authoritarian temperament ever make the effort to answer the question. Honestly, that is-free of bias. Some get so convinced of the alleged cruelty that they instinctively reject any evidence to the contrary.

Mumbai-based psychoanalyst Kaushik Gopal explains how this could happen. A person's childhood imprint of a "highly critical and shaming parent" could get transferred to the office authority figure, and this person could start responding to the boss as a sort of "replica of the feared parent". Gopal gives the example of a case he came across of an adult who continued to look at authority from a child's perspective. "It was as though a part of him had simply not grown up," he sighs.

Not to imply that fearful subordinates merely have heads filled with demons of their own making. Prejudices do exist. So do terror-bosses, and they can scar an employee's psyche, crushing his or her self-esteem. According to Gopal, "The 'target' often begins to doubt his own perceptions, and often falls into the trap of thinking there is something wrong with him and not the boss." Once fear seeps deep into a subordinate's subconscious, and worse, if a persecution complex takes hold, it's difficult to maximise his contribution.

That's terrible. And that's a pathological fear, not to be confused with the regular respect-related fear (in a mild sense) that any subordinate ought to have of a boss who sets the direction, acts as a role model, enhances his performance and mentors him up his career curve.

Often, the dividing line between the two is something of a blur. According to Y.V. Verma, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, LG Electronics India, bossphobia in some form or the other is a reality in every firm. The big reason? Stress. Brought on, say, by changes the company must institute just to stay in business.

Big Bad Boss

Quite often, bossphobia is a direct result of anomalies in the boss' style. In the view of Praneet Mehrish, Country hr Manager, ST Microelectronics, there are four boss categories that turn normal workers into nervous wrecks. The first kind of boss suffers from the 'male dog syndrome'. Territorial, he thinks of his zone of operations as a personal fiefdom. Mehrish narrates the tale of Rishi Joshi, a steel firm's sales general manager who voiced the very ideas he had earlier given his boss one-on-one, at a top management meeting-only to get a public dressing down from the boss. The experience reduced him to a little void on a chair, humiliated beyond all consolation.

Then there's the 'action hero' boss. The sort who flings management buzzwords in the air, and gives his subordinates hell if they miss his wavelength. Consider the story of Rahul Patel, an assembly unit head in a mid-sized auto ancillary firm. All he did was express worries over the implementation of the gee-whiz theories on 'change' being handed down, and he was labelled a 'cynic' and heckled into quitting his job.

The third is the 'invisible human'. The silent operator, on the prowl. This boss won't say anything while work is in progress or even reveal his intentions, but still manages to stalk employees. Always under his eye, employees turn bossphobic. "In a way, the boss assumes the role of a watchdog," says Mehrish, "and uneasiness develops among the employees." Some family-run businesses are notorious for loyalists who act as spies, for the boss to wreak vengeance later.

The fourth terror-striking boss is the 'alien inductor'. The boss who moves in, and starts replacing the staff with his own cronies from his previous stint. The old employees feel collectively victimised.

Overcoming Fear

So, what's the solution? At the organisation level, as Verma suggests, transparency is a big security blanket. But the top needs to make a credible push for it, systemwide. Another phobia-buster could be the simple de-concentration of power. This can be achieved through a relatively 'flat' operational structure, with employees empowered to operate fearlessly. "In order to ensure the organisation is not command-centric," says Jagdeep Khandpur, Director, Human Resources, Bharti Tele-ventures, "it is necessary to develop processes that discourage such an order." That's why we have hr processes to track employee well-being.

At the individual level, exorcising the fear of authority is harder. Some merely need a signal of 'values' from the top, especially the 'mind is without fear' Tagorean sorts, sworn never to bend their knees before 'insolent might'. Others have deeper fears. These people need to be addressed on a priority basis.