This is not an
unfamiliar story: From Ambition to Destruction. Many have played it. Enron did
it. Arthur Anderson did it. Satyam did it. Kingfisher lived up to its name and
dived deep in troubled waters.
And we have a
very unlikely name in the list – Volkswagen. This name had acquired an
excellent image for excellent quality cars. All that got ruined in just one
It All Begins
The stories of
Satyam, Enron and the like has one thing in common – the ambition. Volkswagen wanted
to be the number one car maker. Nothing wrong with that goal. The trouble with
a big goal is that means get sacrificed when you are chasing it.
When the goal is
big, performance matters, but very often leaders do not take a pause to define ‘performance.’
Defining ‘performance’ is not easy. Discussion about performance is a skill
managers have to possess, and it is not simply a discussion for providing
feedback. It is an opportunity to reflect on what people did and how they did
it. The how part is very important but usually gets lost in following process.
brings certain issues to the fore which leaders choose to ignore. Take for
instance the ubiquitous case in almost every company where a manager who is
showing very high level of achievement by bullying his team is not reprimanded –
in fact he gets highest rating!
deviant who puts up [alleged] high performance is the easiest route.
Disciplining him or counselling him is a very difficult option. It is a common
experience that the easier route followed. As somebody has said ‘There are always two choices, two paths to take.
One is easy. Its only reward is that it is easy.’
Leaders have to manage conflicting priorities:
they must set a big goal, create a big ambition and they must also have
realistic understanding of the ability of the team. Ambitions outrunning
abilities create situations which breed Volkswagen like cases. This is true of
Satyam, true of Kingfisher, and true of almost all organizations involved in
Play One Wrong
Step and You Win
I was playing ‘solitaire’
at home. This was when computers, laptops and mobiles had not intruded our
lives. There are certain rules of the game of solitaire, like they are for all
games, and playing strictly by the rule can mean you can’t arrange all the
cards and the game would end in a dead end situation. It was happening so in my
case. A friend watching my game jokingly remarked that if you make one move which
is not allowed by rules, it helps you win the game! [This is fortunately not
possible on laptops and mobiles]. Try this – in almost all cases you can win
Greed is taking that
one wrong step. Ambition and initial success often fuels greed. You see end in
sight. And you delude yourself in thinking that you are committing the
proverbial ‘perfect murder.’
Dan Ariely has
explained this so well in his book ‘The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.’ I have
excerpted this short para from one of his article on his own book:
thing is a question of conflicts of interest. And conflicts of interest mean
that we have a pull to see reality in a certain way and we can justify our
view. Imagine that you like a particular soccer team and you go to a game and
the referee calls a call against your team - is there anyway but for you to
think the referee is evil, vicious, stupid, blind something like that? Of
course not, you can't help but having your motivation influence how you see reality.
Now replace your team with five million dollars or with something else and you can
see how the same forces would get you to see reality in a biased way.
Dan Ariely blames
all this on ‘our flexible cognitive psychology and thanks to our ability to
rationalise our actions we could do both.’
Volkswagen usually do not start as a comprehensive project to defeat the emission
tests; they make a small beginning and then initial success emboldens the
decision makers to take a few more steps.
Greed is like ‘one
more’ peg of whiskey – you think you are doing well but the world starts
noticing odd things.
What Language Do
You Speak at Work?
We tend to
program our mind by our language. While training a group of senior managers, I
once asked how many times we speak language of complaint as against language of
commitment. The answer was a truthful yet shocking 80:20!
At work there are
not many opportunities to talk about the values we hold and the values that
hold us. Such opportunities are not created! This discussion is not easy, but
it helps become more courageous; and ‘Courage is the mother of all virtues’ as
Why is it so? My
submission is that there is usually excessive focus on revenue or cost, but not
on how we work, how we make decisions. We do not discuss ‘value dilemmas’
although all managers face them. This in my opinion is a major failure of the
leadership. Discussing value dilemmas only prepares managers to take good
decisions in difficult situations. Interestingly a very large number of
organisations define values and publish those in their websites; but there
usually ends the commitment.
Here are the
values defined by Volkswagen: “sense of responsibility, respect, cooperation,
learning, trust, strong attitude towards success and determination.” [http://www.volkswagen-poznan.pl/en/corporate-culture].
is no guarantee that they will be practiced, unless there is discussion and understanding is created about the values; in other words unless people adopt a
language of value awareness.
We do not adopt it at home, how will we adopt it
at the workplace?
The Road to Self-Destruction
The story like
Volkswagen’s takes us from ambition to destruction. There are stations in
between, it is something like Ambition – Greed – Self-deception – Denial –
It is not as if the
leader is the only person to blame. Employees knowingly assist by helping their
bosses do wrong things. They can later take subterfuge in saying that “I was
acting under instructions” but all know that it is usually far from the truth.
Employees working with Dr Vijay Mallya surely knew what they were doing or were
assisting him in doing. Skeletons are now tumbling out.
Even Hitler’s man
Eichmann [he oversaw the deportation and extermination of Hungary's Jewish
population estimated to be about 5 lakh] pleaded that ‘he was following the orders
of his boss and so he was not responsible.’ This is not true, not just for
Eichmann, but also of anybody who knowingly helps his organisation indulge in
So in final
analysis, an employee may sell his time, talent and labour, but if he sells his
conscience then nothing can save him and his organisation.
Labels: Emission Scandal, Scandal, Values, Volkswagen, work ethic