Having been born in Bombay I am grateful for the opportunity to fly back and forth to India for work; it is always a strange mixture of emotions that hit me when the airplane doors open and I submerge myself in the noise, heat, inconvenience and smell that is Delhi or Bombay. I am split – partly foreign alien that doesn’t belong, partly homecoming to where I have come from.
This trip has me reflecting on the way that the forces governing the industrial society have been in my family for at least three generations. My grandfathers were part of the British Empire in India and Kenya; they would have experienced the creation and development of our Industrial Age first hand. My paternal Grandfather spent most of his time away from home helping to construct and maintain the railways that still cross the land, underpinning the personal and industrial connections of this enormous sub -continent. My maternal Grandfather worked as an administrative clerk on the docks in Mombasa, Kenya. Managing the passage of freight from India to Africa to Europe and back again. I imagine their work lives as cogs in the machines that in many ways began with the East India Company, maybe the world’s first iteration of an industrial age organization. I’m sure hierarchy, management, structure, process, efficiency focus, avoidance of error and punishment were all part of their cultural norms. My maternal Grandfather used to have a whiskey with soda, play whist and name Saturday nights ‘Golden Night’. The beginning of the one-day weekend that the rest of the week was penance for. I have a fantasy that if I was able to talk to them about their work life it would not have sounded very different to the cultural conditions our organizations still operate in today.
My mother benefitted from her parents’ hard work and the generosity of family already living in England; she was able to emigrate to the UK to train as a nurse and provide some of the labor the country desperately required at the time.
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My father did the same, qualifying as a pharmacist and then working in a range of roles in the pharmaceutical industry. So we come forward a generation and see the same cultural conditions in place in big hospital institutions and big pharmaceutical company institutions. I remember many evenings complaint from my father as he took his suit and tie off and got into his pyjamas about the unnecessary bureaucracy, complexity, hierarchy and prejudice against difference whether that be through skin color or diversity of ideas.
In the next generation my brother and I followed him into the pharmaceutical world starting as sales representatives. The big numbers of people visiting GPs and Hospital Doctors in those days was often referred to as the ‘Sales and Marketing Machine’ and yes you guessed it the same cultural conditions were in place.
In the time of my Grandparents they were expected to be docile and subservient to authority, earning their place by doing efficiently and to a high standard what their managers wanted them to do. There was little room for their own imagination, feelings, needs and wants to have a place in the system. What resistance there was to the bosses was conducted quietly and passively for fear of punishment; fear, insecurity and helplessness; all reducing the cultural health of the organization. While the severity of the conditions all three generations have worked under have undoubtedly reduced in their intensity, maybe it hasn’t been by all that much. Maybe we are just better nowadays at not talking about some of the difficulties and pretending they don’t go on.
Will it be that way for my children, nieces and nephews? I doubt it. While a new age is currently impacting them mostly through the digital entertainment offered I just can’t imagine them working in the same organizational environments. They won’t tolerate it and will expect more from us.
The nature of our workplace is slowly changing; from one created through mechanistic, military and industrial designs to one that owes more to alternative forms, metaphors and ways of relating to each other. From one that prospered in a relatively stable, high growth environment to one that is challenged by a relatively unstable and low growth world.
So now is the time of transition – for those of us twenty years in with twenty years to go before we retire – how do we need to change?
Khurshed Dehnugara is the co-founder of Relume Ltd and an executive coach to those leading large, global, complex businesses in the private sector. His second book is ‘Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organizations in the Age of Connection’.