Against all odds

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”, in other words “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The ongoing Olympic games in Rio, like its predecessors, has seen many records created (& broken) and many heroes made. It’s no secret that the players competing in the Olympic games prepare for years and years for this event, and yet there are only a few winners.

I recently heard about one such winner from many years ago, whose tale is awe inspiring.

Karoly Takacs, at age 27, was a world class shooter, when he lost his right hand (his shooting hand) after a defective grenade exploded in his hand. Not giving up, he began to secretly train himself to shoot with his left hand & surprised everyone a year later by winning a national shooting championship.

All set to participate in the Olympic games in 1940 in Tokyo, he had to wait till 1948 to represent Hungary in the rapid-fire pistol event, since the games in 1940 and 1944 were cancelled because of the Second World War.

At the age of 38, in the 1948 Olympic Games, he not only won the Gold medal in the rapid-fire pistol event, but also set a new world record. He won a Gold medal in the next Olympic Games (1952) as well.

While he was neither the first physically disabled athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, nor the only one to have won multiple Gold medals, I found his story inspiring for three reasons:

  1. He did not give up shooting after losing his right hand
  2. He remained focus on his goal of becoming a world champion in spite of the delays
  3. And third is an incident I read about on the Olympic Games site…

Before the competition, the favourite, world champion and world record holder, Carlos Enrique Díaz Saenz Valiente, asked Takacs why he was in London. The Hungarian replied, “I’m here to learn.” Takacs won the gold medal and beat the world record by ten points.



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The adamant snail

Early this morning I went for a jog. While I was running I saw a snail on the jogging track, one of the many crawling around the apartment complex. Since the morning walkers would be out soon I decided to get the snail off the track, because its chances of survival were inversely proportional to the number of foot falls.

As I tried to lift it up, it held its ground firmly and just wouldn’t budge. I didn’t try too hard, afraid that I might pull its shell off, making it more vulnerable. So I decided to let it be, offering a silent prayer, hoping that it would live a long life.

As I started running again, I thought about what had just happened. I was trying to help the snail, but it still refused to cooperate. In the snail’s favour it had no idea about my intentions, and so did what it thought was right. Experience or instinct, the snail decided to stand its ground (literally).

This incident reminded me of times when I had behaved like that snail. Unaware of the other person’s intentions, or worse still ignoring it, I ended up doing more harm to myself than good. As a parent today, I am able to get a different perspective to what my parents used to advise me when I was younger. Just like that snail, I disregarded the help I was getting in the form of advice.

Even as grown-ups, we often don’t listen / take help from others, saying “How can I trust that person? I hardly know him/her!” While there is nothing like the luxury of knowing the person well enough to know if they can be trusted (or not), sometimes it’s those random people who can make the biggest impact in our lives…if we let them. At such times I wish I could move away from my philosophy on trust, which is “You need to earn my trust!” to what one of my friend’s philosophy is – “Trust until given a reason not to.”

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Civil War vs. Avengers: How do you view conflict?

I recently watched the movie ‘Captain America: Civil War’. The plot of the movie, as the name suggests, is a full-blown ‘civil war’ caused by a conflict between two key characters of the Avengers team – Captain America / Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) and Iron Man / Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.). The source of the conflict is a difference of opinion about the government’s involvement / interference in the way the team operates.

For most viewers it was obvious that both Captain America and Iron Man are right in their stand (they both have strong and right reasons). There is really no right or wrong way; it is just a matter of perspective. They try to resolve the conflict amiably, but that does not work as both characters choose to stand their ground (Thank God for that, else we wouldn’t have a movie to watch!).

The situation is quite like the classic conflict scenarios we face at work. Members of a team need to make a decision and because ‘people are different’ and therefore think differently, the result may be a conflict. And when there is conflict, one of two things happen – We either treat both sides as equal and right, or we treat ourselves as right and the others as wrong.

Let’s go back to Hollywood for a moment. In their first outing (read movie) as Avengers, the superheroes are up against Loki, a demi-god and super-villain, who has his own agenda. Unlike in ‘Civil War’, in ‘Avengers’ we are very clear about which side to root for, because the other side has evil intentions (the end of the human race). The conflict is between ‘Right & Wrong’ (Avengers) and not ‘Right & Right’ (Civil War).

How do you view conflict?

In one of my earlier posts – Who or What, I talked about how our judgement is often biased by who is saying the point, rather than the point itself. Similarly, sometimes in a conflict our judgement is clouded is by who we are up against rather than the topic itself. If it’s Iron Man, fine let’s work things out cordially, but if the other person is perceived as Loki, the situation escalates to a different level.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®) does a brilliant job explaining the different conflict handling styles and which to use when, and I am not going to get into that here. What I want to emphasize on is –

Agree to disagree: It’s perfectly natural to have conflicts in a team. Acknowledging this helps remove the awkwardness and confrontation like feeling from the situation. Each member should feel comfortable and be encouraged to share an opinion that may be different from the others.

Focus on the topic: Separate the deed from the doer as you work towards resolving the conflict.

Treat the other person as a sensible and logical individual: While exceptions to this point exist, this is an important ‘assumption’ to make. This ensures that you give due credit to the point of view being shared, however absurd it seems, as you believe the person who is suggesting it must have his/her reasons for saying so.

And most of all – listen and be open to the fact that the other person may just be right in this case.

Conflicts at work may not result in as much of a catastrophe as seen in the superhero movies we talked about, but the damage can be just as bad for the team’s camaraderie and culture. It’s all about how we view conflict.

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I told you so…

Let us imagine ourselves in a situation – You are making plans to go out for dinner with your spouse/friend/partner/colleague. You want to go to restaurant A, while the other person suggests restaurant B. Owing to the other person’s superior influencing skills/authority/charm, you agree to go to restaurant B. You get there and everything that can go wrong does. You reserved a table which they didn’t hold for you, the restaurant wasn’t serving your favorite dish, you had to wait not just for the food but also the check and the food tasted like it was either under-cooked or stale. Not the kind of evening you had in mind.

Now, think about this – What will your response to this situation be? Would you:

Option A: Tell the other person – I told you we should have gone to restaurant A

Option B: Any other response

The one thing about this scenario, that I am fairly confident about, is that you would have experienced it multiple times. If not with a restaurant, it could be a movie, a holiday destination, career to choose, university to apply for, template to use for a report, a strategic decision for your team/organization, and other such (and important) decisions. Do you tend to go with option A or B?

I will confess I occasionally went with Option A in the past. I would say, “I told you so!” with a certain sense of triumph, remembering to bring the incident up the next time we had to make a decision, to ensure the person felt guilty about ‘influencing’ me the previous time.

And then I watched “Point Break.”

In the opening scene of this recent Hollywood flick (which was a remake of the 1991 movie by the same name), the protagonist Utah and his friend Jeff are riding their bikes on a steep ridgeline. They come to a chasm, and Utah is able to jump across on his bike. His friend, who Utah persuades to jump, dies while trying the stunt. Later in the movie, we discover that years’ later Utah still holds himself responsible for the death of his friend. And that’s when Bodhi, a fellow extreme sports athlete, tells him, “The minute he agreed to make that jump, it was his decision, not yours. You can’t hold yourself responsible for it.”

So when you agreed to go to that restaurant, you have consented. You are now a part of the decision. So if things go right, or not, you are an accomplice. Of course it is important to learn from our mistakes, and possibly not go back to Restaurant A the next time, but let us take equal accountability for that decision and not absolve ourselves by saying, “I told you so!”

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Making mistakes & bouncing back

I was at a birthday party a few days back, where a bunch of children were running around in the hall. At one point, a boy tripped and fell down on the carpeted floor. Thanks to the carpeting he didn’t hurt himself, but he did become self-conscious. He looked around to see if anyone had noticed the fall, stood up and then started running again.

I was intrigued by two things that happened – one, that moment when the boy, still down on the floor, looked around to see if anyone had noticed his fall. And second, his getting up and running again, as if nothing had happened.

The incident reminded me of an experience from a long time ago. Two months into my first job as a recruiter, I called up a candidate for a certain opening in the firm. I had a job description (JD) in place for this senior position, and a bundle of resumes that I had sourced from multiple sources. The first call I made went unanswered, as did the second. The third call was answered after just one ring. I introduced myself and told the gentleman where I was calling from and why. I read out lines from the JD and then reluctantly answered a couple of questions he asked, hesitating because the answers were not in the JD . What happened after, I still remember vividly after all these years.

“Is this is your first job?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered nervously.

“Hmm. And that possibly is the only reason I am not going to hang up on you,” he said, in a very serious tone. He then told me about a couple of mistakes that I had made during my conversation with him (which I will not get in to here).

“Call me again tomorrow!” he said and hung up. I remember my hands were shaking when I put the phone down. I had made mistakes in the first ever call I made to a candidate and it felt awful. I went to my Manager and told him what had happened. I expected him to reprimand me, but he simply nodded and responded, “Let’s work on it.”

I called the same candidate again the next day, completely prepared this time. The call went well, and all he said after I had answered all his questions was, “You did well today, but I am not interested in this job.”

Three very important lessons I learnt from the experience:

Be patient with those who make (new) mistakes: In those two brief calls, the candidate not only helped me identify my mistakes, but invested time to see if I worked on the feedback he gave me. From him I learnt the importance of being patient with those who make mistakes (more so new mistakes). He could have snapped, or as he suggested, hung up, but he didn’t.

Help your team members succeed: When I went to my Manager after the first phone call, I expected him to reproach me for not going in to the call prepared, but he didn’t. He worked with me to ensure I didn’t make the mistake again…at least not the same one.

Making mistakes & bouncing back: It felt terrible to have made the mistakes, but I had. Just like that child in the party who had tripped and fallen, I had too! And that made me self-conscious. But what was important was to accept that the mistake had been made, get up, and run again, albeit better prepared.

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Difficult Conversations

During my summer internship (a long time ago!), I was asked by the head of HR of the company to join her for an interview she was conducting. I sat down with her and observed her conduct the interview, learning my first lessons in Behavioural interviewing. At the end of the interview after the candidate had walked out of the room, she asked me what my assessment of the candidate was. I don’t remember the reasons, but I remember telling her that “I wouldn’t hire him.” She agreed with my assessment, and then put me on the spot by saying, “Go and tell him he is not through.” I was startled. I had never done such a thing before. I guess I looked at her (with my mouth open) for a second too long, because she went to explain, “As a part of our job in HR, we are sometimes the bearer of bad news. You should know how to communicate harsh messages and have difficult conversations.” I went on to inform the candidate that he wasn’t selected and it wasn’t easy. The look of dejection on his face only made it more difficult. Between then and now I have had my share of difficult conversations and I can now say with a fair amount of certainty that:

  1. Difficult conversations are…well…difficult.
  2. It’s not just as HR professionals, but as peers and more often as team leads and Managers, we need to have difficult conversations.

I am sharing here three points that help me be better prepared for a difficult conversation.

Prepare a script: Just key words will do, but do list down the points in a notepad (I won’t suggest using a laptop, as that can distract you from the conversation). Think through all the points –

  • How you will initiate the conversation (the objective, the issue)
  • Key points you want to cover
  • Impact of the action / inaction
  • Desired outcome of the meeting.

There is a chance that the conversation will not follow the path that you have planned for, but you will be more in control of the conversation if you are prepared.

“But what about those spontaneous difficult conversations?”, you may ask. My suggestion – if you know the topic is sensitive / difficult, ask the person to block separate time for the discussion rather than just let it happen near the coffee machine or in front of other colleagues.

Facts: Get your facts in place. Separate out the assumptions and inferences. Use these facts in the conversation, rather than being vague. “You are always coming late,” can be replaced by “I have noticed that you came in 30 minutes late on 3 days this week.” Facts are easier to agree (or disagree) to and helps move the conversation ahead.

Emotions: The most dicey one. Be prepared to handle not just the facts that the other person will put forward in the discussion, but also their emotions. They may feel threatened and so may operate from a defensive position. Be aware and address their emotions (“I understand you feel frustrated and helpless because of the way the client treats you.”)

In addition, it’s not just about their emotions, it is as much about yours. During an emotional outburst, it is possible for us to get emotionally hijacked as well. Responding to anger with anger is something some of us feel justified doing. What that does to the discussion is something we have all possibly experienced in some personal confrontation, if not professional.

In summary, a little preparation can go a long way in making the difficult conversation a little less difficult.

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Small step towards a big cause

I was in Kolkata last week and was a witness to something that happens quite often on the roads of most cities in India – a car window was rolled down and trash was dumped on the road. I was in a cab behind that car and as much as I wanted to go and reprimand the person for littering the city, I knew I couldn’t since both the car and the cab were in motion. I did what a lot of us who care for such things do at such times – swore under my breath and moved on. So much for ‘Swachh Bharat’!

I was due catching a flight later that evening from the Kolkata airport. I checked in and went to a book store along with a friend. While he went inside the store, I waited outside. A moment later I was appalled by what I witnessed. A lady, who worked at the store, took a step out of the store and threw a crumbled piece of paper right outside. I was shocked that an employee was doing this, and started to walk to the entrance of the store, when a voice inside me said, “Its okay! Why bother!?” I stopped. I wanted to avoid confrontation, agreeing with my inner-voice that it won’t make any difference. People will behave the way they want to. What difference can I make?

I turned around and began to walk away. And then I thought about what happened this morning on the road, when I had thought, “If only I had the opportunity, I would teach the litterbug a lesson!” And here the opportunity had presented itself again. Was I not going to do anything…again?

I turned around again and walked to the store. I picked up the crumbled piece of paper and stepped in to the store looking for the lady who had disposed the trash. I saw her, walked up to her, and handed her the sheet saying, “You dropped this outside!” She looked at me puzzled. Taking a lesson from my earlier similar experience (You don’t say it best when you say nothing at all!) I added, “You threw this outside, while you should be throwing it in a dustbin.” She whispered an apology and walked away and dropped the scrap in a bin.

Even as my friend, who witnessed all of this, patted me on the back, I wondered if I had actually made a difference. I don’t know if the lady will remember this exchange the next time she is disposing trash. But what I do know is that I did what I had to do! I did what I would expect any of my friends & colleagues to do – to stand up against such deeds. And while each of us might make just a tiny little difference, the sum of all is going to be much larger than the whole. And every time we don’t act, we lose an opportunity to make our street/city/country a cleaner place.

So let’s commit to act…and create a truly swachh Bharat.


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