As we had mentioned in an earlier blog, some words in a language are pregnant with meaning and when used wisely, can provide multiple layers of meaning either at the same time or even over time (giving different meanings at different levels of maturity).
One such word in Thamizh is வினை (vinai). My layman understanding is that the root of this word is means “effect” (of some action). Now, when added with appropriate prefixes and suffixed and when used in context, the meaning changes beautifully and the word itself becomes extremely flexible. The broader word வினை (vinai) then goes to mean “deed”, “fate”, etc. depending on how it is read.
When we were young (especially around high school or college time, when you become aware of other cultures and start questioning your own), we used to despise having to learn திருக்குறள் (Thirukkural) by heart. After all, of what use is it? We want to learn, get good marks, find a good IT job, go to USA either for studies or for work, earn money, get married, and get settled. How is memorizing kuraL going to help me in this journey? In this day and age of IT, is it even relevant to learn about it?
Obviously, the answer at that time was a resounding “No”! However, you don’t have a choice and so you go ahead and do what’s minimally needed to get it out of the way.
Little do we realize that if the context is adjusted ever so slightly, the same words can shine a guiding light even in the most modern of times as some fundamental truths don’t change that easily. It becomes our than vinai (தன் வினை) or fate to determine whether we want to take the effort or not!
திருக்குறள் dedicates a separate chapter தெரிந்து விளையாடல் (therinthu vilayAdal) knowingly doing) to discuss some interesting aspects of vinai. As a quick side note, even the title of the chapter is interesting. vilayAdal is generally associated with “playing” but it looks like here vaLLuvar is referring more in terms of “taking action”.
The couplets in this chapter and a few others from other chapters are classic management material on team building and delegation. A quick shout out to the ThirukkuraL website by one Mr. Gopinath – very nicely organized by kuraL, chapter, and section and more importantly, has provided three popular translations (Mu. Varadarasanar, Solomon Pappaiah, and Dr. Karunanidhi). It was very interesting to see how, in some cases, the three scholars have interpreted the kuraLs slightly differently – in some cases, showcasing their viewpoint.
Transitioning from a Worker to a Manager
In the working world, many have to transition from being a ‘worker’ to being a ‘manager’ – a move from being assigned tasks to assigning tasks to others. Easy as it sounds, not many successfully make this transition – giving rise to many Dilbert jokes. Why is this transition hard? One potential reason is that when you are used to being in charge of your own actions (vinai) – making things, writing and executing code, etc. – it is hard to let go of that satisfaction of seeing your efforts come to fruition by your own hands and instead have it be more ‘vicarious’ – make that happen through someone else’s hands. I guess we go through this even in life – when we let our kids do things by themselves – like driving a car without us having to dropping them off. It somehow feels like you lost control, even though you know that you are empowering them.
People who do become managers but do not learn the art of ‘letting go’ tend to become micro-managers, constantly interrupting in their team members’ work, leading to frustration and likely impacting the overall work.
Building a team
So, how do you ‘let go’? You do it by building a trusted team. Building a team is an equally tricky proposition and is typically an art in itself. There are two typical approaches manages take – one is to look for people with specialized skills that are needed to conduct your work with less focus on attitude, while the other is to look for people with specific attitude, characteristics, or potential even if they may not immediately have the right skills that are needed.
In the long run, the second approach would be better as you are building a team for the future, looking for trust and loyalty to be built along the way.
VaLLuvar’s advice seems to echo this thought process. His suggestion for finding your team members:
தெரிந்த இனத்தோடு தேர்ந்து எண்ணி செய்வார்க்கு
அரும் பொருள் யாதொன்றும் இல்
therintha inathodu thErndhu eNNi seivArkku
arum poruL yaathondrum il
If you build a team that you have handpicked by getting like minded people (in terms of attitude, not necessarily skill) and you set a clear vision on what needs to be done, and you have a well thought out plan for execution, then there is nothing that such a team cannot achieve.
Note that what the work is, takes a second place here. True, you may have to pull in experts as needed for advice, but if you have a strong team with the right attitude, it become a lot easier to get things done.
OK. You have built an awesome time. Can you ask the team to solve world hunger? cure all ills? VaLLuvar has an answer for that too:
செய்வானை நாடி வினை நாடி
காலத்தோடு எய்த உணர்ந்து செயல்
seivAnai nAdi vinai nAdi
kalathOdu eitha uNarnthu seyal
Get work done by understanding the nature / temperament of the employee to whom the task needs to be assigned, the nature / urgency of the task that needs to be done, and whether it is the right time to assign the task and get it done.
There are many things going on here – all focusing on soft skills. Just because you are the boss, you cannot just go about ordering tasks to your team. You have to be tuned in to the team.
Let’s say you want to assign the task to a team member and it so happens that the team member is in the middle of a personal crisis (about to close a home, just had kids, medical emergency, what have you). Would it be the best time to assign the task?
Let’s say you ask your star team member for a bunch of slides by tomorrow – at 5pm in the evening. The team member knows that the slides are not needed for another week. Is that a good idea? You risk your credibility and trust by asking someone to do something that is not important – just because you can.
Understanding these helps elevate the leadership qualities of the manager and builds trust.
Identifying the right person
OK. You have an urgent task and it is the right time. Can you just assign it to anyone in the team just because they all have great attitude and are go-getters?
இதனை இதனால் இவன் முடிக்கும் என்று ஆய்ந்து
அதனை அவன் கண் விடல்
ithanai ithanAl ivan mudikkum endru Ainthu
athanai avan kaN vidal
Translation: Delegate the work to your employee by matching the nature of the work, the tools that are needed to get the work done, and the capability of the employee to handle both.
I had to read this a few times and each time it gave an extra level of meaning. As before, there are a few things going on here:
You have to ask three questions before assigning a task to someone – What is involved in getting this work done? What is needed to get it done? Does the person have the skill to do it (or figure it out)?
Let’s say you have a relatively straightforward program that needs to be written. You feel that C++ is the best language to write it in and it is about image manipulation.
None of them are an exact fit – but who might you pick? Going by the verse above, the Third might be your best bet as he is likely to grasp the tool (C++) better and has a relevant background (Photography – Image manipulation), and the level of additional effort (stretch goal) is not too big.
The second interesting aspect in this kuarL is the last phrase அவன் கண் விடல் (delegate). VaLLuvar does not say “assign the task”. Instead he seems to stress that once you have done the due diligence, you have to put the trust in the employee and let him do it – no micromanaging just because they are not a perfect match. You let them figure it out and stretch themselves.
Responsibility vs Accountability
Moving on, we have formed a team, figured out the right tasks and right time, identified the right person to do the work and have delegated that as well. We are good, right?
A program typically involves multiple people (stakeholders), each with their own agenda and their own priority. In order to keep things moving, a manager typically creates a RACI matrix (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) to identify the type of involvement and communication that needs to happen.
Of these, an often confused or misassigned component is Responsibility and Accountability. Responsibility indicates who “does” something while accountability is about which ‘neck to choke’ – sometimes they are the same and in some cases, they are not. Often, managers make the mistake of providing responsibility for someone to do something but not enough authority (which goes with accountability and ownership). So their ability get things done becomes restricted. What does VaLLuvar say?
வினைக்கு உரிமை நாடிய பின்றை அவனை
அதற்கு உரியன் ஆக செயல்
vinaikku urimai nAdiya pindrai avanai
atharku uriyan aaga seyal
Translation: Once you assign the responsibility of completing a task, make sure that you also empower him to take accountability for its result.
It is not enough to delegate work. That’s only the first step. Once you put the trust in someone to do something, you need to follow through on that trust and empower him to do that work and to have him take the accountability for its result – good or bad. You cannot let them do the work and you end up taking credit if the going is good and let them take the blame if the going is bad.
Nurturing the team
Lastly, a good manager needs to know the pulse of his or her team – always. How do you do that? Let’s ask VaLLuvar – he has provided some sound advice so far, after all!
வினைக்கண் வினை உடையான் கேண்மை வேறாக
நினைப்பானை நீங்கும் திரு
vinaikkaN vinai udayAn kENmai vEraaga
ninaippAnai neengum thiru
Translation: There seem to be a couple of interpretations here: In one way, it can seems to mean that if management listens to those in the team that speak ill of others and takes action, then such management is doomed (and the team is doomed).
Alternately, it also seems to mean that if management doubts the sincerity of a sincere and loyal employee without taking the employee into confidence, such management is doomed.
Either scenarios unfortunately tend to happen – there are at times those who may, for various reasons (jealousy, greed, pride, etc.) – speak ill of another behind their back, or even more commonly, take credit for something that another person did. If a manager cannot isolate such behaviors, it can demoralize the team over time. Same happens if a manager doubts the sincerity of a hard-working team member – either because of ‘policies’ (you have to be on-site sharp at 9am, regardless of how well you do work remotely), stray incidents (one bad performance period may be due to the worker going through a tough time). If they lose trust, the employee will reciprocate the sentiment and the team will get demoralized.
நாடோறு நாடுக மன்னன் வினை செய்வான்
கோடாமை கோடாது உலகு
nAdOru nAduga mannan vinai seivAn
kOdAmai kOdAdhu ulagu
Translation: As long as a good worker is sincere and enthusiastic in his work, the team will be stable. Therefore, a good manager should check the pulse / morale of his team members and their enthusiasm.
This was an interesting one. As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, we often dismiss our historic literature thinking they are all about kings and kingdoms and don’t really apply to this modern, democratic time. However, if you slightly shift the reference – மன்னன் (mannan – King) to Manager and உலகு (ulagu – world or kingdom) to Team, suddenly the words take a whole new meaning and are all the more relevant!
The last gem from VaLLuvar is to never forget to keep a pulse on the team – not about what they are doing and whether they are working diligently – but more of their morale and enthusiasm. If a team is not happy, challenged, and enthusiastic, and are instead stressed, bored, or tired, they will eventually get demoralized and look for other jobs. It is the manager or leader’s responsibility to keep checking on this and make amends as needed.