Misfits: Why We Need Them!


“I don’t feel like working here anymore. I feel so stifled and out of place!” cried my client who called up to seek career advice. She had been working for this reputed company for three years. While there was nothing principally wrong about the place, she felt claustrophobic. This lady is known for her cheerful outlook and a whacky sense of humour. However I have always known her to be an exemplary performer and a go-getter. Apparently her co-workers find her overwhelming and her boss has on more than one occasion, asked her to tone down her enthusiasm and “calm down”.

We are born free. And then fettered by bonds of compliance, obedience, and subservience, so much so that we dare not be different. The few, who dare to be different, are penalized or worse, ridiculed. Even in kindergarten, we are taught to color inside the lines, and are reprimanded for daring to color outside!

Unfit or a Misfit?

I felt like a misfit for the first time when I attempted to resume work after a long break. While applying for jobs I was told, “You are too senior!” The truth as I realized was, that I was overqualified for the job in question. Thereafter I was declared a misfit (indirectly albeit!) on more than one occasion. I was either inadequately qualified (not an MBA) despite my years of experience, or overly experienced, or too old for a position.

I remember having a healthy debate on this topic many years ago with one of my bosses when I wanted to hire a trainer. I found the candidate quiet and understated and his answers very forthright and earnest. I felt he would be an ideal fit for one of our training centres that was plagued by attrition. My boss however had another opinion. He felt that the candidate lacked ambition and therefore would be a misfit in a team of strong and dynamic trainers. I stuck to my guns and requested my boss to trust my instinct. Sure enough over the months when the centre lost some of their star performers, this individual emerged as one of the most solid and dependable players who helped the centre weather the toughest of times.

The question we really need to ask while hiring is, “Is this candidate Unfit for the role, or a Misfit with respect to what we usually look for?” It’s one thing to reject someone who lacks the necessary vital skills for a position, but another when their profile or personality is perceived beyond the norm. I have had my share of hiring blunders where I hired “different” people who more than shook up the still waters in my team, but I have never regretted it! They have always left behind a legacy of “out-of-the-box” thinking and creative ideas in their wake, even those who lasted for less than six months.

The Round Pegs in a Square Hole

There are plenty of examples of misfits from The Ugly Duckling, to Mumble the tap-dancing penguin from the movie Happy Feet, or even Santa’s legendary Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. They are ridiculed because they are different from their ilk. I remember a coworker who was at least 10 years older in a team of 20-somethings. To her credit she did her best to mingle but I remember a distinct sense of awkwardness her team lead felt in interacting with her. The team lead was palpably relieved when this employee resigned. I guess this happens to most women who resume jobs after a substantial break. We either report to managers younger than us, or become part of a younger team that just doesn’t know how to freely interact with us.

One of my clients-in-coaching hailed from a different state of India and did not know to speak Hindi very well. He felt excluded from the rest of the team because they cracked jokes in Hindi and he did not understand them. At the end of our session he came up with an idea to organize a team outing where he planned various activities and games to help the team get to know one another informally. During our next session, he sounded delighted about the outcome of the activity. Apparently he was learning to speak Hindi from his colleagues while he was teaching them his native language! More so, his manager started taking notice of him and started appreciating him.

Why are we wary of misfits?

Right from the time we start schooling we are taught to discriminate and comply. How many of us remember alienating or ostracizing that one kid who seemed different from us? How about those with a learning disorder or speech impediment or an unusual personality or physical appearance? Why are we judgmental towards those we perceive as “eccentric”? Why do we reject misfits?

We are uncomfortable around them

We are so comfortably used to interacting with a certain profile of people that we feel out-of-depth while dealing with a different type. It is easier to reject a candidate who seems different from the rest of the team than taking the trouble to accept and understand her.

We don’t want to change status quo

I remember a senior leader asking me to reject a candidate because she seemed overqualified when compared to the team. He felt having her in the team will disrupt the balance and make others insecure.

We are afraid of their outlandish and rebellious ideas

I firmly believe that startup teams need more mavericks who can find their way and get things done among the haziness and disorder. However, mavericks are not necessarily considered nice people! Their tendency to break rules causes others to perceive them as overly ambitious, rebellious, and selfish. Then there are people who question everything around them such as policies, processes, or methods. They make the rest of the compliant population nervous.

We are envious of them

Aha! What’s the real reason we reject some smart candidates? This happened to me as a hiring manager when I wanted to hire a team lead. I found one candidate particularly smart and more qualified than me. My first instinct was to reject him as I felt he had a superior attitude. The fact was, I felt threatened by him and mistook his self-confidence for superiority. I finally hired him as I realized he would be the best person who might help me achieve the goals for the team. Everything in the team changed for the better after that. I was pleasantly surprised to see him flourish and grow in a few years. He and I are still in touch, and I have learnt a lot from him. Ever since then, when I feel like rejecting a candidate I ask myself, “Am I envious of him/her?”

Want to see change? Then get more misfits!

One of the topmost issues plaguing our corporate world is the need for change. Change in our attitudes, change in our processes, change in our mind-sets, and change in the way we work. To get there, we need to seriously look at all of our job description definitions once again. If we want game-changers, we need to look out for misfits who will disrupt the current order of things. Think Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the likes.

Let us look at all positions where the gender ratio is skewed. How about the people in our company? Do they speak different native languages? Do they come from different ethnic backgrounds? What about the age-groups and the generations – do we have a healthy ratio of Gen X to millennials? Diversity and inclusion is not only about hiring women, it is also about looking at women we seem to ignore and assume that they are “out of practice” and “out of the game”.

There is no other way to look at it. Misfits bring to the table radical thought pattern and ideas. Having them in the team shakes up things around quite a bit. It helps existing teams to come out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this does not mean that we hire rebels just for the heck of it. We need to shed our preconceived notions and prejudices when we hire them. Misfits are humans after all, and they too need guidance and direction and most of all – acceptance and an opportunity to prove their worth. It is time we embraced the risks of hiring misfits – we need to create round slots for round pegs!

As Apple Inc. said in one of their “Think Different” campaigns:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”


Instilling a Woman-Friendly Work Culture

Recently when Google, Yahoo, and Facebook published their diversity report findings, it came as no surprise to me that women comprise a paltry 30% of the technology workforce. CNET observed that the balance is even more skewed in engineering and technology teams.

Last quarter, I had the privilege to address a group of women employees who worked in functions like Finance, Accounting, Legal, and Information systems. As our discussion progressed, I realized that we women need more than motivational seminars or coaching sessions to flourish and bridge the gender gap at work.

“I was put through more rounds of interviews than a male friend who applied for the same job”

Notwithstanding increased sensitization about including more women employees, I have observed skepticism among male hiring managers in Indian companies while screening and interviewing women for technology positions. What is amazing is that this holds true even for team leads and managers belonging to the millennial generation. While it’s true that women give birth and require maternity leaves, they are in no way behind when it comes to working the 24-7 shift or staying back late to fix a client escalation. There is this implicit perception that women aren’t that technically adept in fixing or troubleshooting complex problems, which is why hiring managers in these companies put women candidates through more stringent reviews.

Question: How can we design and implement better hiring assessment instruments to evaluate and select candidates irrespective of their gender?

“When we women gather around to talk, we’re accused of gossiping.”

Most women like to talk and express themselves irrespective of where they are! They share confidences, exchange ideas, discuss problems, and feel lighter. Talking and sharing is the cement that binds them to their job and the people around. That said, the above accusation is justified when women employees shirk work and produce insubstantial results. However if they do indulge in harmless banter during their break hours, and are conscientious and timely in their work, then why the bias?

Question: How can we facilitate open discussions between male and female employees to help them accept and respect differences?

“I am subject to jibes and unkind comments from my male co-workers about my constraints.”

It’s a well-known fact that Indian women still juggle their traditional roles of a parent, home-maker, house-keeper, and corporate professional. Women find it necessary to draw boundaries between their work hours and their time with their families, which is actually a very practical way of achieving the right work-life balance. I remember when I resumed work after my first maternity leave, I found ways to accomplish more during my work hours and leave office on time, so that I could spend time with my daughter. Rather than stepping out for coffee or a lunch break, I found myself eating at my desk as I worked. I did the Math and discovered that I was spending more productive hours at work after my baby. I started valuing my job and career much more, and actually started finding better ways to contribute to the company. Of course I couldn’t stay late most of the time, and nor could I put in hours on Sundays, but I was so grateful to my company for their support, that I found myself going over and beyond in my duties. I made sure that my company and teams could completely rely on me.

I remember one of my team members approaching me with a problem. She usually left office at 5.30 PM as her child had to be picked up from the day-care at 6 PM. She had no other option since her husband worked in another city. She was distraught and hurt with a male co-worker’s sarcastic comment when one day she decided to stay back late for a critical client meeting. “What a surprise! You are actually working late today! It’s sure a blue moon tonight!” I too have been subject to hurtful barbs about not being able to attend office parties as I had no one to take care of my daughter.

Question: How can we encourage male employees to behave with more understanding, empathy, and sensitivity? On the other hand, how can we encourage female employees to be more assertive?

“I’m paid less than my male counterparts”

I recently read this article that sheds interesting light on this burning issue. Apparently this is due to gaps or interruptions in women’s careers. On one hand we want to woo more women into leadership by offering them maternity leave or introducing special benefits, and on the other hand we penalize them for taking a justified break for their families. Something doesn’t quite add up right here. In my experience I have seen women employees going to extreme lengths to hold on to their jobs, especially when they love their role and have friendly teams and colleagues. Most Indian career women are very smart at finding a way to continue working, unless they find the work environment unsupportive or unrewarding.

At times, when women resume work after a break, their technical skills are obsolete. They either fail to get jobs, or if they do, they get hired at lower levels or paid far less than what they deserve. I personally think this is one of the top reasons why we see this enormous gap in the ratio of male to female employees. Any individual with basic technical competency also has the ability to quickly master new technology. When I took a break from my career and resumed after 4 years, I was able to catch up on all that I missed, within a month. I have hired women who have resumed after a break and found them to be really quick at grasping new technologies and catching up with their peers within no time at all.

Question: How can we objectively assess and evaluate people based on their current generic competencies AND future potential, and not hold a genuine career gap against them?”

“Why wasn’t I considered for that promotion?”

This is a common grouse and concern for over 70% of the women I have coached or mentored. I faced this during one of my jobs. There was a senior level position that I had set my eyes on. I knew I had the capability and so did my peers. I was in for a rude shock when another colleague got that promotion instead of me. He was capable too, but I felt I deserved the promotion more, because I had more hands-on experience in the same field. I remember feeling very cheated and let down by my manager. It took me several months to muster up courage to ask my boss why I wasn’t considered. I was surprised to hear, “I thought it might be too difficult for you because of your family constraints.” I blamed myself for a while, but then realized that it was also the manager’s responsibility to at least give me a chance by asking me.

It’s difficult for most women to walk up to their managers to ask for what they want. Not only work, some women hesitate reaching out to friends or family for help. One of my friends confessed that her boss found her aggressive because she asked for a promotion!

Question: How can we help people break out of stereotypical thinking? How can we get women to confidently voice their career aspirations?

Opening Up Possibilities

There is growing evidence that organizations with a higher number of women and women-friendly policies benefit from better business results. That said, there are several misconceptions I’d like to clear. Having a women-friendly culture does not mean eliminating or excluding men! I liked reading this article where we see companies that are introducing gender-neutral and inclusive policies. I agree that somewhere when we talk about maternity leave, we mistakenly assume (and encourage a chauvinistic bygone theory) that men don’t need to stay home to take care of their kids!

I’m elated and excited hearing and reading about companies that are genuinely interested in building better policies and encouraging a more open workplace for attracting more women employees. I remember reading this article a couple of years ago where Wipro introduced mentors for women employees. Many companies are also introducing coaching as a mechanism for women.

To attract more women, we need to look at re-examining our people policies, introducing inclusive competency measurement and assessment processes, educating people, and creating acceptance in the minds of managers/leaders. When we already invest a lot in rolling out training and development initiatives in areas like sales, customer service, communication and cross-culture sensitivity, surely we can create better momentum in this area of gender inclusion. Merely training women to be assertive will not do. We not only need to sensitize men about how they can make their female colleagues feel respected and valued, we also need to instil a non-judgmental open culture where people are accepted, nurtured, and provided growth based on their talent and potential alone, and not because of their gender or ethnicity.

Bad Boss? Really?

It’s there everywhere. Apparently bad bosses are the reason employees are unhappy if one were to go by latest reports.

Who are supposed to be bad bosses? There is a complete list out there of types of bad bosses for those who are interested.

Bullying, micromanaging, insecure, unapproachable, people-pleasing, credit-stealing, the list goes on. Bad bosses are apparently to be blamed for almost everything going wrong, from attrition, unhappy employees, poor customer service, to toxic work culture.

Of course all companies, big or small, have their share of black sheep or rotten apples. All the above about bad bosses being true, a consistently dipping graph of unhappy employees says something else altogether. There are questions that beg answers in these cases.

1.   Who hires bosses?

Every boss is also an employee who was hired in the first place because he or she showed promise and potential. Is there a method for hiring bosses? How are they termed competent for a leadership or supervisory position? How are they inducted into the role of a boss for the first time? Is it a “sink or swim” law, or is there a structured approach to releasing them into the role?

2.   How does a boss become bad?

A boss is a human being with insecurities and vulnerabilities. According to psychology, bullying is a behavior that is born out of a deep sense of insecurity. Same goes for self-serving behavior where individuals take credit for others’ accomplishments, or people-pleasing behavior. Indecisive behavior is usually due to a lack of confidence, whereas incompetence and insensitive behavior is due to a lack of awareness and direction. Is there a life-support system for bosses so they feel safe and secure? Who boosts their confidence and provides them a sounding board when they need it?

3.   How is a bad boss able to thrive? How is the boss able to get away with being bad?

Everything, including viruses, needs a suitable environment to breed. Everyone, including children learn the rules of behavior not only by observing, but also by perceiving what is tolerated by the environment. A child that learns to cheat and lie does so because she feels she is able to get away with it. At times a boss is someone who makes her boss look good (by probably fetching good revenue or sales), but behaves poorly with her team. Is there a way to objectively get the team’s feedback? How tolerant is your system against poor performance? (Because, a bad boss who is not liked by the team, is a poor performer at least in the people’s department.) Are there necessary mechanisms in place to arrest toxic and unconstructive behavior? Are there necessary mechanisms to reward positive behavior? Is there a safe environment for employees to give feedback about their bosses to upper management without worrying about retaliation? Is the feedback even addressed?

4.   Doesn’t every boss have a boss?

Someone hired that boss, and besides, the boss reports to someone higher up in the chain. Who takes responsibility for the boss’ behavior and performance? Are there clear and transparent lines of authority and accountability? Is there a process to measure and review a boss’ performance, especially the way he works with his people? Is the boss provided a regular and consistent feedback on her performance? Does the boss have someone she could trust with her vulnerabilities and insecurities?

5.   A bad boss? Not me!

Matrix reporting without clear lines of ownership adds to the confusion. A boss may just have the title, but not the authority. Perhaps someone else is calling the shots and the boss is probably a puppet in the game. That said, the team may not be aware of the fact, and may judge the boss to be an ineffectual, powerless leader. Are teams aware of their boss’ circle of influence and his extent of power? Does the boss feel empowered enough to make decisions without fearing the consequences?

Do we have bad bosses or poor leadership?

It is always easy to pin a problem on someone. Everyone loves a scapegoat. Having a bad boss also makes it easy for employees to demonstrate poor performance and unconstructive behavior with the excuse, “What can I do? I have a bad boss!”

When we look at the entire picture non-judgmentally, especially when we look at bad bosses causing a downward trend in employee satisfaction surveys, we just need to reflect on the following:

How are bosses hired? Is there a competency assessment and evaluation in place to select or promote the right person?

Are bad bosses inherently bad, or is the system making them bad?

Is there is a learning and development system in place for not just developing, but nurturing leaders?

Is the organization tolerant and supportive of vulnerabilities in leaders?

Is the organization intolerant towards apathetic leadership?

Lastly, this is probably the question we need to ask:

Is this a case of bad boss or poor organizational leadership?

Are You Being Judged?

My friend shared an article on Facebook with me today that set me thinking on this topic. While the article talks about discrimination based on someone’s English speaking prowess in India, it addresses our intrinsic habit of being judgmental in many other areas.

When the Left tries to be Right

The left part of our brain that dominates logic and rational thinking, does so by separating and classifying information, memories, and our experiences. Which is why when we see a white-haired elderly woman, we immediately classify her as “safe” and “harmless”. This is because our left brain has associated her with a dear grandmother or an elderly aunt. On the other hand while walking through a fairly lonely street in the dark we chance upon a heavyset tall man with soiled clothes, we are careful to avoid him. Our left brain has tagged him as “dangerous”, no doubt thanks to the movies or stories that describe unsavoury characters! Our left brain is classifying and tagging facts for us so we could be safe.

Judging is a process of assessing and evaluating to understand whether something is good or bad for us. We are constantly judging when we eat, shop, dress up, work, or take care of others. Judging helps us take better decisions and make the right choices.

Are you “Judging” or “Being Judgmental”?

Several years ago, I used to work with a colleague. He was charming and friendly, and we got along fine at work. His boss was a good friend of mine, and one day my friend confided something about this colleague that changed my behaviour towards him. Apparently he was misusing expensive office resources for personal use. We all have our own little integrity radar, and mine beeped an alert hearing that. The next day when I saw him speak to a co-worker, I found him a tad patronizing. Slowly, I started putting a different spin on everything that he did, and I somehow realized that I disliked him. I stopped communicating with him unless it was absolutely necessary. I was polite of course, but he realized something was off. Eventually, he left the company and I forgot all about him.

When I evaluated his action of misusing office resources as improper, I was judging him. However when I changed my behaviour towards him, I was being judgmental. It is true that his unethical behaviour was incorrect. However he had many other good qualities that I somehow overlooked, and had this warped perspective where he was concerned.

Today when I reflect about my past, I have been pretty judgmental towards several people in my life. It was not that I only judged their behaviour. I passed judgment on them as people, and concluded and justified my behaviour with them.

The blindside of being judgmental

What happens when we obscure our own view? We don’t get the complete picture. That is exactly what happens when we are judgemental in our behaviour. Thanks to my sanctimonious judgemental high horse, I lost some good employees and friends. I was annoyed with an employee for always being late for meetings and decided that she wasn’t good enough to be a team lead although she was good in her job and had great interpersonal skills. I’m ashamed to admit I thought less of a friend because his English vocabulary was less than average. I refused to regard his enthusiasm and never-say-die attitude. I didn’t think too highly of one of my neighbours when I saw her waking up more than an hour later than her kids and making them wait for their breakfast. However this neighbour in question was a very warm-hearted and kind person.

Being judgemental blinded me in more ways than one.

  • It made me lose my objectivity and prevented me from having a holistic perspective of people and situations.
  • It lowered my emotional intelligence and my capability to respond positively.
  • I presumed I knew it all and knew it better.
  • I categorized people, generalized them, and in effect discriminated against them.

Perhaps the most insidious but lethal aspect of judgemental behaviour is the build-up of resentment and a completely distorted and negative persona we create of the other person. Ironically, the one who was negative and distorted was me!

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall!

When did I realize the source of distortion? Coaching was the mirror that showed me how warped my view was. In 2013, I decided to become a Life Coach as I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. At that point in my life I was recovering from an onslaught of negative emotions, poor health, and a depleted self-worth. The methodology I learnt was Power Coaching with Mind Kinetics (PCMK™) by CLI.

As the training progressed, I got an opportunity to practise the techniques on myself and others. I also got a chance to be coached. Being coached was huge tidal wave of self-discovery for me. As PCMK™ coaching is all about answering left-brained and right-brained questions pertaining to the goal or challenge in question, I realized that the root of over 90% of my problems was – you guessed it right – being judgmental!

During my training, I learnt about universal truths in the form of Universal Laws. There was one law that hit the nail on the head.

The Mirror Law (Like Begets Like): What you see in others, is a reflection of what you see in yourself. “When we point fingers, we have three others pointing back at us.”

I realized that just as I was being judgmental towards others, I was being judgmental with myself too. And if I could be judgmental, so could others be towards me!

As we pass judgment on others, at a subconscious level we start being judgmental with ourselves. Over a period the cross gets too heavy to bear and we are left with a highly eroded sense of confidence and self-worth.

Discernment clears the fog

Judgment and Discernment are two sides of the same coin. Discernment is what we practice when we make a wise decision by honestly weighing all possible facts.

How do we practise discernment? Ever since the time I have had success in improving my life over the past couple of years, I have been consciously working towards practising better discernment.

  • Separate the individual from the behaviour. Don’t personify a negative trait. That way we focus ourselves to consciously respect the individual, at the same time deal with the negative trait in the best possible way.
  • If you are a coach, it helps to coach yourself in the form of self-coaching. If you aren’t a coach, you could consult one. Since coaching by design is all about answering questions constructively and objectively, your coach would be able to help you look at the entire issue in a way that helps you find a solution.
  • Maintain a journal where you make daily notes of any unconstructive behaviour on your part. If you find yourself being judgmental about someone, or yourself, write down “How” you would be able to release that judgment constructively.
  • We are all part of a bigger scheme of things whether we like it or not. I believe we have answers within ourselves if we only look for it. For me, deep reflection or meditation in a quiet place has helped me become more compassionate and empathetic with people.

Release judgement, Unleash positivity

Judgmental behaviour lies at the root of so many problems we face today right from gender and ethnic imbalance, racial discrimination, toxic politics, breeding discontentment and employee disengagement, to stress. The “Us versus Them” mentality that is counterproductive and debilitating us today, is primarily because we pass judgement on people instead of respecting differences. Negative thoughts and negative behaviour create a build-up of toxic stress that further leads to ailments for which the causes seem unknown.

Releasing judgement is not only rejuvenating, it is also critical to our sense of wellbeing. There is nothing to stop us from sprinting lightfootedly towards our goals if we could just let go of this dead weight that is judgement.

Empowering and Engaging Mid-Level Leaders

A few weeks back, I met my friend (who is also a coach) for lunch where we exchanged our coaching experiences. Our topic gradually moved towards increasingly unhappy and discontent employees who also happened to be managers. These weren’t your eager and new managers, or those at the executive level, but the ones caught in the middle. At least over 70% of these managers in question were those who grew up the ranks through their commitment and high performance in their companies. Incidentally, they also happened to be those “loyal” employees who gave some of their best years and (tenure) to their companies. Here are some of the common challenges these middle managers shared during our coaching sessions. (Of course we never share our clients’ information, but only share common observations and statistics.)

“I’m caught in a rut and don’t find my job exciting anymore.”

“I’m the King of Approvals. After being a technical innovator for 10 years, all that I do is check and approve documents.”

“I’m a referee arbitrating petty disputes and conflicts within the team because our communication system sucks.”

“I attend boring meetings where everyone talks but no one decides.”

“I have no power to execute big ideas or make high impactful decisions. I was happier at the trenches. At least I could add value.”

“Change management? I’m the checklist queen! All that I do is follow up, follow up, and more follow up!”

“I am the bearer of bad news. I hate appraisal time!”

“Our top management is busy attending conferences and leadership summits, and has no time for us. Heck! They don’t even share with us what they discussed in those meetings!”

“Help! I’m trapped in a toxic shark infested sea where politics rules!”

We also observed that a majority of these concerns were voiced by people working for large companies with handsome salaries.

The hazy level

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes, middle managers typically constitute 5% of the unhappy/disengaged workforce population. Now why should we even bother about a paltry 5%? That is because these are the people who manage bulk of the remaining workforce that comprises junior level managers and front-line team players, most of who interact directly with our customers.

If we look at this whole situation logically, a company’s top line is maintained through its marketing and revenue. While the top management drives these strategically and externally, the frontline management executes the day-to-day sales and services operations at an internal tactical level. Both these roles being very clear and well-defined, the middle management layer remains one of the haziest and fuzziest. A case in example is the key performance indicators (KPI) for top and front-line management performance. They are clear-cut and visible. What about the middle management? What are they clearly accountable for?

When we throw in the global and matrix organizational structure into this mix, the middle management is cornered between a rock and a hard place in a no-man(ager)’s land!

A middle manager’s role is pretty indirect. Not only does a middle manager report to another manager, they also have managers reporting to them. While a frontline manager has a mix of inexperienced and fairly experienced team members, and goes through a myriad of basic leadership training programs, a middle manager already has a seasoned bunch of leaders reporting into him or her. Unlike a frontline manager who has her calendar packed to the full with meetings, reviews, and reports, most middle managers barely have a concrete agenda (unless they have newbie managers who need their hand held through their initial startup period.) This is truly the dilemma of the middle manager as nicely articulated in this article.

Breeding ground for discontentment

If enthusiasm is contagious, discontentment is an epidemic! Imagine middle managers coming to work day in and day out in this state of mind. Their enthusiasm diminishes, their energy levels deplete, and over a period of time, there’s a toxic buildup of negativity that eventually gets transmitted by them (knowingly or unknowingly) to their subordinates, teams, and colleagues. What’s one of the biggest reasons for employee disengagement? Bad bosses. So now you know.

The real role of a Mid-level Leader

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a middle manager in most organizations is that they barely get a leadership role. After spending a minimum of 10 to 15 years of their career, all that they seem to be doing is giving approvals, attending meetings, signing forms, following up on top management mandates, mediating in discussions, moderating compensation proposals amongst others. All of these are mere tasks with little scope for leadership. So what are we missing here?

The middle layer actually acts as a channel between the strategic and tactical levels of the organization. Where the top level defines the strategy and high level objectives, the middle layer has to make it happen through the lower layers in the form of concrete goals and action plans. A mid-level leader is actually 4 roles of leadership all played by one person.

  • Change Management Champion—For companies to grow in size and adapt to the external market dynamics, they need to constantly keep evolving, creating, and changing. Here’s where mid-level leaders can take ownership by demystifying the HOWs of the change, and converting them into tangible sets of WHENs by working closely with their frontline leadership. As champions of change they would also need to kick-start and mobilize new projects and processes and see them through completion across the span of different teams under their supervision.
  • Collaboration and Cross-functional Facilitator—Matrix structures are a necessity in today’s complex multicultural work environments. Mid-level managers can help break interdepartmental silos by making cross-functional teams work together, besides keeping a bird’s eye view on the larger scheme of things. As collaborators, they also need to ensure their teams are not encumbered by red tape and naysayers.
  • Culture Evangelist—A frontline leader’s role by definition is all about keeping a close eye on the money and operations side of things. However a mid-level leader can focus on people through skip-level meetings, monthly group meetings to recognize good workers and share the bigger picture, besides planning activities to promote a better work environment. A mid-level leader could also address his group during crisis proactively to bolster their spirits and offer them encouragement.
  • Coach and Mentor—Another huge reason for employee dissatisfaction is lack of visible growth opportunities in the horizon. Succession planning is one of the key responsibilities of a mid-level leader. In fact I believe it should be the responsibility (and KPI) of every manager in a company to identify their high potential staff and build a succession plan in collaboration with HR. Mid-level managers would be the best kind of coaches and mentors to make that happen.

Strengthening the Middle

While top management is the head (and brains) of the organization and frontline level the limbs, the middle level leadership is the heart and core. If an organization wants to gear itself up to meet the market demands of customer service, technology, and innovation, they would need to empower their mid-level leaders with necessary resources, and motivate them to fulfil all four roles effectively. If mid-level leaders are expected to plan their succession, then it is top management’s responsibility to do the same and coach and mentor their mid-level staff. Ultimately, the heart and core need to be strengthened and nourished for the limbs and brain to survive!

The First Step to Wooing Talent

(Published on LinkedIn on Jan 26, 2015)

The other day I got a call from someone part of a company’s recruitment team. As she read out the job description of the role in discussion, I realized she had not even read my resume completely. When I politely inquired as to whether she had my latest resume, she airily brushed me off saying how big the company is (which the company in question definitely is), and that how rigorous their hiring process is. By the time she was done, I got the impression she couldn’t care less whether I was interested in the job or not. “Take it or leave it”, was the unspoken statement. Till I talked to her, I used to regard very highly the company in question. After this “interview”, the sheen had dulled somewhat.

Why is it that some companies spend a significant amount of their budgets in marketing and promoting their brand, but seem to ignore or dilute their first step towards acquiring talent?

Courtesy, the forgotten skill

This is one of my pet peeves. Why can’t we be nice to candidates over the phone? Many years back when I was part of a smaller company, I did not have the luxury of an assistant when I had to hire my team. As we were a small company, I was conscious of making a good first impression. To me, the candidate was the customer and I was aware that I was the first point of contact from our company. As the company grew we took care to ensure our recruitment team continued to take care of every prospect they called and briefed over the phone.

I guess sounding snooty might make one sound exclusive and important especially when screening on behalf of a big company, and there are people who might feel privileged that they even got a call. I also agree that the economic downturn has resulted in more eager jobseekers desperate for employment. However, times do change and the tides do turn. And people never forget how they were treated. They don’t remember the recruiter. They remember the company.

Till date when I interview people I think of how important this job must be for them and how worried they might be about the outcome. While most of them might not make it, I always go out of my way to make sure they have a positive interview experience. I have had my share of positive experiences as a candidate too, and I still regard those companies highly.

The importance of homework

I remember another recruiter who called me up a few years back for a senior level position as an e-learning team lead. As he asked me various questions, there is one that really surprised me: “I understand you have developed e-learning projects, but have you done instructional design?” It clearly demonstrated to me that he was simply “scanning” my speech to see whether it matched the job description instead of truly understanding the role!

The importance of researching the role and understanding the industry in question cannot be emphasized enough. When I was hiring instructional designers for my team at a time when e-learning was new in India, the recruitment team I was working with did not know much about the e-learning industry. We scheduled many meetings to give them an overview of the industry, besides showing them how e-learning courses looked like and what goes into developing them. We also provided them a list of skills, jargon words, keywords and the likes to help them understand the various terms used. This helped the recruiters not only in selecting the right resumes and identifying some of the best candidates, but also widening the search to other sources.

Putting the best person forward

As a candidate, I form an impression about the company depending on who talks to me first about the job. If I’m someone with 10 years of experience being considered for a mid-level senior role, I would like the recruiter to understand the role from my perspective. For that to happen, the recruiter needs to have the necessary experience and confidence talking to candidates about the role. Too often we have recruiters struggling to match pace with the candidate’s seniority during phone screening. Either they sound too deferential and in awe, or too immature. I have seen many recruitment teams putting their junior-most members to the task of screening candidates over the phone. I would recommend that we in fact put senior level professionals in charge of these interactions. Being experienced they would be able to match their tone to that of the candidate, have the confidence to pitch the job correctly, be intuitive enough to ask the right questions, and represent their organizations credibly. They would also be able to instinctively identify the right people without even seeing them face-to-face, within minutes into the discussion, thus saving precious time.

Making the first cut count

Phone screening sounds like a routine no-brainer task, but is in fact an implicit sales call. It is a highly crucial activity which when done right can save an organization huge costs. Do it right, and your candidates will gladly refer you to their friends and contacts.

Job openings are going to be higher in 2015 as compared to previous years if we were to go by most recruitment trend reports. Recruiters are going to be overworked. At the same time, the talent shortage is going to be more acute than ever before. You don’t want to lose out on a great candidate at the first stage itself. As the talent demand versus supply gap widens in 2015, companies should monitor this process to ensure they are represented well in the hiring market.

Good talent is ripe and available for picking. Somewhere in the race for numbers we tend to forget the basics. As the late Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Overcoming Workplace Stress

According to this interesting infographic, 77% of people at the workplace today regularly experience physical symptoms and a 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms all caused by stress.

In the past 10 years, I have observed an increasing number of colleagues reporting ailments like heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, obesity, hypertension, fibromyalgia, and depression to name a few. What’s alarming is these ailments are not restricted to the 40 plus age groups, but a significant number of people in the 25-35 age group. A majority of them are either caused or aggravated due to a variety of reasons ranging from poor lifestyle choices, bad habits, overwork, to work-life imbalance. If we could summarize most of these reasons, we could call it STRESS.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s way of responding or reacting to a disturbing stimulus in a way that causes imbalance. Stress is usually something that is triggered by unpredictable events, and threatens the peace of mind. Imagine walking through an unknown forest in the dark where you have no idea what might happen, or whether you are going to be safe. Your nervous system might help you for a few hours or days, but after a period, you will become a mass of nerves so acutely stretched and ready to defend yourself, that you lose all focus on anything that is positive or peaceful. I will not step into scientific territory here, but simply say that stress completely upsets our physical, mental, and emotional balance, leading to a lack of control of our lives.

Unfortunately, most of us resort to medication that only alleviates outward symptoms without treating the root cause. This is also the reason we are driven to pursuits such as shopping, partying, alcoholism, expensive treatments, and other superficial activities that provide instant gratification, which lasts for a short while, leaving us hollow and empty later.

Recognizing the causes of stress

A few years ago, I was battling what I then thought as mid-life crisis. I had gained weight. I started complaining of headache, body ache, hair loss, and fatigue as a result of hyper-acidity, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. I was very negative in my thinking and I had several lapses in my judgement. I didn’t realize stress was the culprit.

Stress is triggered by our body’s emotional response to external circumstances. Unfortunately, we don’t realize the adverse impact of stress until it manifests itself in the form of illness and unhappiness. How do you recognize, acknowledge, and deal with stress proactively? It all begins with understanding unconstructive emotions that lie at the root of it all.


Fear is one of the fundamental unconstructive feelings that we block and bury inside. Ask yourself: What do I fear? If this job is making you insecure, what is stopping you from leaving it? If your boss is your source of stress, what stops you from confronting him or her? Do you really look forward to working with your client, or does the thought of interacting with them scare you? Are you afraid of being laid off or humiliated? Unacknowledged fear causes overall weakness in your bones and muscular system, and also weakens your immunity. Courage is the answer to fear. The first step is to face those fears and acknowledge their existence. Think of all things in your life that will stay with you no matter what. Drawing strength from our loved ones or things of deep meaning to us, rebuilds our sense of security.


Guilt is another slow poison that slowly but surely destroys our morale. What are you guilty about? Does your job make you do things that go against your conscience and values? Do you feel guilty about your child in daycare? Are you blaming yourself for delivering a poor product to your client? These manifest as problems in your lower back, elimination system, or reproductive organs. Acceptance is the answer to guilt. Think of all the reasons you feel guilty about, and then release yourself from the blame. Think of what you could do to remedy the situation and to assuage the feeling of guilt.

Poor Self-Esteem

A lack of self-esteem and shame eats into our confidence and awakens the negative self-talk inside of us. Some of us even go to an overdrive burning ourselves out with worry of becoming second best. What are you ashamed of? Do you find yourself at a disadvantage when it comes to interacting with your team? Does your inner voice tell you things like – “I don’t look good”, “I’m not that smart”, “I’m so stupid”, or “I’m not good enough”? This unconstructive thinking pattern results in chronic digestive ailments and other liver and pancreatic problems like ulcers, diabetes, hepatitis, to name a few. Self-acceptance is the answer here. Accepting and loving yourself despite your shortcomings, is the only way forward from here. Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good is another way of restoring your confidence. Offering support or contributing to the needy is another way to build positivity and inner confidence.

Lack of Love

All of us like being appreciated and cared for. Sorrow, resentment, jealousy, or hatred, are huge reasons for unhappiness. Have you lost someone dear to you? Do you feel lonely and unloved by your peers? Do you crave appreciation? Do you harbor deep resentment against a colleague? Are you a target of emotional abuse? Have you been hurt too deeply in the past and still holding on to the hurt? These repressed emotions affect the heart, arms, lungs, or our circulation, besides causing allergies and asthma. Compassion and forgiveness is the answer to this. Believe in the law of karma and let go of resentment and forgive those who have done you harm. Forgive and move on. Appreciating and recognizing others around you helps you receive love from others. Note that the word Forgive has the word Give within it. Does that give you a clue? Think of the blessings in your life. What else are you grateful for?


We live in an overexposed world thanks to social media, which ironically causes us to wear masks. Like the proverbial ostrich that has buried its head under the sand, we actually start believing in the world of make-believe so much so that we don’t want to hear the truth. What are the lies that you’re telling yourself and to others? Or rather, what is that truth that you are evading? Over a period you find yourself suffering from problems in the neck, jaw, thyroid, sinuses, and other dental and oral ailments. Facing facts with honesty helps you speak and act with conviction, providing you that much-needed clarity in your thought.

Lack of Insight

Once you have opened and exposed the layers of unconstructive emotional patterns, you hit the next roadblock. Been feeling restless and irritable lately? Are you unable to come up with ideas for your new project? Do you feel you have been making mistakes too often and seem to lack foresight? Do you feel your life lacks purpose? Do you feel like you’re caught in a rut? You find yourself suffering from chronic headaches, sore eyes, and neurological problems. A lack of insight prevents you from coming with innovative solutions. All your experience, skills, and talent come to a naught when your intuition is blocked. But how do we overcome this really tricky one? Albert Einstein quoted, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” There is no cure better than nature to relax and soothe our senses. Changing our daily routine and introducing new creative tasks makes us feel fresher. Learning a new hobby, working from a different place, or playing a sport, help tremendously in approaching our thoughts from a different angle.

Materialism and attachment

Now that we have dealt with tangible emotions, we come to the trickiest one of them all. Now assume that you don’t have any of the emotions described above. You are fearless, confident, and capable of creative thinking. Yet, you feel something is missing. You have read about spirituality and God, and find most of the stuff to be mumbo jumbo. (By God I don’t mean religion, but the sense of awe we feel about this universe and this world.) Most of things you value are either possessions or people you have full control over. You are so caught up with being in control that you consider yourself separate from others around. An excess of this causes brain toxicity leading to disorders like depression, anxiety, delusions, and other mental ailments. When was the last time you felt overcome and awed by something larger than you? Believing in a higher power makes us humble. “Faith moves mountains”. There is a lot of truth to this. Letting go of materialistic pleasures and attachments, makes us stronger from deep within. This does not mean that we don’t need wealth. What this means is that wealth does not define us.

Coaching and Healing

Tried and tested traditional and ancient healing concepts that were scorned and shrugged off in the last century, are now slowly being re-established and advocated across the world through Yoga, Tai chi, Reiki, Pranic Healing, Ayurveda, and meditation. Despite having different techniques and procedures, all of these have one single fundamental belief. Well-being is all about being healthy at a holistic level that includes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level. These holistic theories have one fundamental philosophy. Our thoughts and our feelings have a strong influence in our actions, behaviors, and our immunity against diseases. Our thoughts and feelings have the ability to channelize or disrupt the energy flow within our body. For the skeptics, here’s a very interesting and scientific explanation about this phenomenon. You could also read The Biology of Belief by the excellent Dr. Bruce Lipton.

A few years ago, I went through a bit of upheaval at home and my career that impacted my overall health. Around that time, I turned to coaching and found it a life-changing experience. I also enrolled for Yoga sessions and have been practicing it regularly for more than a year now. Apart from a positive outlook towards life, I have also developed a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for the people around me, and express it on a daily basis through prayers. I feel blessed and content. And my headaches? They do come up once in a while, but overall I feel that I am in control of my health and mind.

Embark on a journey within

Identifying a life coach would be a great starting point to identify and find ways to overcome your stress. Coaching works because you get to look at your unconstructive emotions and roadblocks objectively with someone facilitating the entire exercise and working with you. While your coach would help you in identifying goals and constructing a concrete action plan to help you move forward, you could also consult a Yoga practitioner or a healing therapist to bring your health and well-being in order. Meditation makes a huge difference. Initially it helps to work with an expert who will guide you. Thereafter, you find yourself looking forward to that journey within. Because whatever happens in the external world, you always find answers within yourself.

Note: A few readers have requested that I provide links substantiating the above points. I’ve attempted to list a few useful resources and references.

Sources: http://www.finerminds.com/personal-growth/,http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/M/mindfulness/,http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-91/The-7-Chakras-for-Beginners.html,http://www.officevibe.com/blog/infographic-stress-at-work,http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-136478/Heal-stress-migraines-muscular-tension-chakra-workout.html