The Power of Calamity

People in the corporate world have a variety of arms and ammunition at their disposal. Amongst these tools, nothing scores as high in value and usefulness as, what I would refer to as, ‘the power of calamity’.

All the way from one’s childhood days, everyone learns to use incidents in their personal life to get out of difficult situations. When asked about incomplete homework, the student quotes a serious illness at home that prevented him/her from focusing on studies. The arrival of ‘unexpected guests’ enables you to avoid going to a party that you never wanted to go in the first place. And you can keep building on this theme with broken down cars, allergies developed overnight and, of course, the good old traffic jam and weather conditions.

In the corporate world, this concept has been improvised and nearly perfected, making it a powerful tool in the hands of the savvy executive. First and foremost, this is a great conversation opener and attention grabber. There is nothing like a well-orchestrated ‘sob story’ to gain focus on to you at a dinner table. You could narrate a horror story centered on your dog and how it helped save your child from getting hurt, or how you drove a hundred miles in a blizzard to a customer meeting, all the way to how a dear one battled cancer for several years. While the novice executive has a standard stock of a predetermined number of incidents to narrate, the smarter ones are able to pick up on the context of the current conversation and tailor their narrative to fit in – by ‘customizing’ the who, where, when and how of the incident. I am sure that many of you, like me, have sat at the table for many hours and wondered as to how one individual could have had so many tragedies in life! An added benefit of such conversations is that the executive concerned establishes himself/herself as the authority on dealing with such mishaps and becomes a ready mentor for those who may have the misfortune to encounter such events, at the moment or in the future.

The second benefit derived from calamities is their powerful nature to act as a strong alibi for missed commitments. As happens a lot with corporate executives, deadlines are noticed only a few hours (if that!) before the due date and time. The first attempt is to see if something  (or someone) can be quickly scrambled to fulfill the need, failing which a search of the database of calamities is in order. Sifting through the many possibilities and checking out the frequency and recentness of usage, a specific item is chosen, embellished as needed and served as the reason why the deadline cannot be met. This is followed by a quick redirection of the responsibility to a colleague or, where inevitable, acceptance of a new deadline. In this whole episode, the focus is on highlighting the fortitude with which the unfortunate event has been (or is being) handled, diverting attention away from the official business on hand.

The ability to project and benefit from dismal happenings is enhanced in situations where the executive concerned is responsible for dealing with disparate groups of people that have little or no interaction amongst themselves. Geographically dispersed (global) teams, departments that are normally not required to interact with each other (say, training and transportation) present great opportunities to exaggerate events pertaining to one location/group in front of another.

At much lower levels in the organization too, discussions on disasters and calamities constitute an excellent topic of conversation around the ubiquitous water-cooler. It is amazing to observe how the most important tasks, meetings and customer calls are kept pending while people take turns, one after another, describing in great detail the mishaps, big and small, that happened in their lives several decades ago.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are executives (and even entire organizations) that are uncaring and insensitive to any personal mishaps that affect their employees. Have you, or someone known to you, not witnessed a manager admonishing a subordinate with, “I really do not care about your car accident – you are late for the meeting holding up the entire discussion” or “How many more days are you planning to take off from work due to your mother’s illness – we are not running a charity here”? Such behavior, in addition to being inhuman, does not at all augur well for promoting productivity and teamwork in the organization.

In today’s corporate world, personal lives of people are inevitably intertwined with their roles in the office. While one definitely needs to be heard and sympathized with for personal misfortunes and losses, the ability to maneuver things to one’s advantage is an art practiced by more than one smart executive.