Sunday, July 22, 2018

Boring and Sagacious


By Ajit Chaudhuri

I turn 55 next month! I’m not certain of the significance of this – has the decline officially begun, or am I entering the prime of life? The evidence is ambivalent; on one side, I am reduced to goalkeeping at my weekend kickaround, I clutch railings while taking stairs, and my memory has become akin to that of a blind prostitute’s. On the other, impressing the ladies is a vastly reduced priority, bringing about freedom from making witty conversation and displaying wide-ranging knowledge. And my habit of enquiring into the quality of the menu and the beauty of fellow-guests of the opposite gender (along with checking for clashes with my football timetable) before accepting social invitations has changed from ‘rude’ to ‘eccentric’.

55 is also when one officially acquires the right to bore others with lectures on the vicissitudes of life, which brings me to the purpose of this note. I propose to jot down some selected pearls of wisdom from my own misspent life, and thereby hopefully enable a younger generation to avoid learning lessons the hard way. Paradoxically, one of these is ‘make your own mistakes, and learn your own lessons, because s/he who follows another’s footsteps leaves no footprints’. So, here goes!

‘Eat what you kill!’ Living on one’s own earnings enables an independent foreign policy! One can choose who to be friends with (and who not to) without regard to the family’s ‘position’ on the persons in question, one can ensure family representation at weddings that have a family fatwah against attendance, one can poke pins into the pompous hot-air balloons that invariably infest family get-togethers, and there’s not a crap anyone can do – because you are not financially dependent upon them.

‘Make friends for life!’: When I look around at the people I consider family, I see many people I am not related to – they are friends of long standing, some of whom I have inherited from earlier generations. So, distinguish between friends and acquaintances and remember, your friends are for the long term. Recognize them early, maintain relationships, and look beyond minor irritations! Your children and grandchildren should benefit from your friendships, well after you have gone.

‘Don’t sub-contract out your thinking!’: Education is the one asset you have that will stay with you through your life – unlike money, cars, houses, etc. that are here today and can be gone tomorrow – so give your education the focus it deserves. And, along with your education, acquire the ability to think for yourself and thereby identify your own interests, conduct your own analyses, and have your own view on things. Don’t let the news anchor on TV, political parties, members of high society, and other assorted scoundrels do your thinking for you. You are just a mug to them!

‘Pick your fights!’: Not every fight is worth fighting, so recognize the ones that are not and sidestep them. And when you do fight, your opponents should be spitting out blood with their teeth when you finish with them, literally if not figuratively.

‘When reason comes against force, force always wins!’: This is a sad fact of life!

Somebody else should not tuck your children into bed at night, and be the person they clutch when they have a bad dream! My family boasts a proud tradition – we marry multiple times (there are a few pathetic exceptions). Walking into family get-togethers with the same significant other on your arm year-on-year leads to raised eyebrows among the relatives, and speculation on the possibility of babies being mixed up at the nursing home where you were born. So be it on that front – changing the spouse has become common in society. Shit happens! Having said this, please ensure that your duties as a parent are done to the full. At the minimum, your children should not have a lower standard of living than your own. And only dickheads have children who think of somebody else as ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’.

‘Enjoy the friendship of women!’: For the males among you, one of life’s best-kept secrets is that women make fantastic friends for men. There is a caveat, however; this applies only when there is zero attraction on both sides. If an attraction is one-sided, the one attracted invariably turns a little pathetic. When it is both ways, there is always a danger of crossing a line that can never be crossed back. The lyrics of an old song went ‘they say when you become a lover, you begin to lose a friend; it’s the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end.’ And, unless it culminates in marriage, what you lose is usually more than what you gain.

‘Don’t take important decisions when you are angry or sleep deprived!’

‘Indulge your passions!’: A good life involves a healthy balance between your professional, family and personal lives and, by implication, a distinction between your family life and your personal life. Do you love sports, or theatre, or music? Don’t give it up because work has become demanding, or family life time-consuming. You need that little something that is your own, out of these spheres, to maintain sanity.

‘Stay away from assholes!’: Some people constantly belittle others around them, and consistently make you feel bad about yourself. They create a toxic and vitiated environment, one in which others are forced to emulate their behaviour to survive. Recognize them, stay away from them, don’t become like them. They aren’t worth it!

‘Understate (and let people discover upwards) rather than overstate (and let people discover downwards!’: This is assiduous advice from the late Rakesh Kaushik, a veterinarian friend who never used the prefix ‘Dr.’ on his business card. He said that people who matter will find out anyway, and think the better of you for it.

‘Do not mistake tailoring and table manners for intelligence and integrity!’: Never underestimate the proclivity of ‘people like us’ to indulge in egregious behaviour – it is not the preserve of the lower classes. The reverse also applies!

‘Finish what’s on your plate!’: Applies both at the dining table and in life!

‘You can’t maximize all your value preferences!’: In college, I faced a trilemma between the need to do well academically, play a lot of football, and have a vibrant social life. I subsequently learned that I could pick any two – the third would be left to forces beyond my control (and my second division is a tribute to my choices).

And finally, ‘look into a mirror and like what you see!’: Go figure yourselves, folks!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The No Asshole Rule


Ajit Chaudhuri – February 2018

Some things are best experienced in the original, and there have been times in the just-short-of-fifteen years that I have been writing these notes when I have resisted the urge to convey my own ‘take’ on a paper or note and have just ‘put it out there’ instead. This is one of those times! Robert Sutton is a Professor of Management Science at the Stanford Engineering School, he has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, and he describes a reality that many of us face in our working lives. I append two short essays; the first entitled ‘More Trouble Than They Are Worth’ from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) issue of February 2004 (no. 7 in the collection ‘Breakthrough Ideas for 2004’), and the second on why he converted the thoughts into a book in HBR 2007. Here goes!


There’s a simple practice that can make an organization better, but while many managers talk about it, few write it down. They enforce “no asshole” rules. I apologize for the crudeness of the term—you might prefer to call them tyrants, bullies, boors, cruel bastards, or destructive narcissists, and so do I, at times. Some behavioral scientists refer to them in terms of psychological abuse, which they define as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” But all that cold precision masks the fear and loathing these jerks leave in their wake. Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right.

I first encountered an explicit rule against them about 15 years ago. It was during a faculty meeting of my academic department, and our chairman was leading a discussion about which candidate we should hire. A faculty member proposed that we hire a renowned researcher from another school, a suggestion that prompted another to remark, “I don’t care if he won the Nobel Prize, I don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” From that moment on, it was completely legitimate for any of us to question a hiring decision on those grounds. And it made the department a better place.

Since then, I’ve heard of many organizations that use this rule. McDermott, Will & Emery, an international law firm with headquarters in Chicago, is (or at least was) known as a better place to work than other firms, and it has been quite profitable in recent years. A survey from Vault, a Web-based provider of career information, reports that McDermott has a time-honored no asshole rule, which holds that “you’re not allowed to yell at your secretary or yell at each other”—although the survey also reports that the firm has been growing so fast lately that the rule is starting to fall by the wayside. Similarly, a Phoenix-based law firm provides this written guideline to summer associates: “At Snell & Wilmer, we also have a ‘no jerk rule,’ which means that your ability to get along with the other summer associates and our attorneys and staff factors into our ultimate assessment.” And the president of a software firm told me a couple of months back, “I keep reminding everyone, ‘Make sure we don’t hire any assholes, we don’t want to ruin the company.’”

All this might lead you to believe that this rule bears mainly on employee selection. It doesn’t. It’s a deeper statement about an organization’s culture and what kind of person survives and thrives in it. All of us, including me, have that inner asshole waiting to get out. The difference is that some organizations allow people (especially “stars”) to get away with abusing one person after another and even reward them for it. Others simply won’t tolerate such behavior, no matter how powerful or profitable the jerk happens to be.

I acknowledge that there is a subjective element to this rule. Certainly, a person can look like, or even be, a sinner to one person and a saint to another. But I’ve found two useful tests. The first is: After talking to the alleged asshole, do people consistently feel oppressed and belittled by the person, and, especially, do they feel dramatically worse about themselves? The second is: Does the person consistently direct his or her venom at people seen as powerless and rarely, if ever, at people who are powerful? Indeed, the difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.

I’ll close with an odd twist: It might be even better if a company could implement a “one asshole” rule. Research on both deviance and norm violations shows that if one example of misbehavior is kept on display—and is seen to be rejected, shunned, and punished—everyone else is more conscientious about adhering to written and unwritten rules. I’ve never heard of a company that tried to hire a token asshole. But I’ve worked with a few organizations that accidentally hired and even promoted one or two, who then unwittingly showed everyone else what not to do. The problem is that people can hide their dark sides until they are hired, or even are promoted to partner or tenured professor. So, by aiming to hire no assholes at all, you just might get the one or two you need.


I just published a new book with a mildly obscene title: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The first question that EVERYONE seems to ask me is why – given I am an apparently a respectable tenured professor – I use such a bold (and to some, offensive) title.

Here are my top seven reasons:

1. My father always told me to avoid assholes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others. I learned, as an organizational psychologist, that his advice is supported by research on “emotional contagion:” if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.

2. I worked in an academic department at Stanford where we openly talked about the no asshole rule and used it in hiring decisions. It made the old Department of Industrial Engineering & Engineering Management a better place to work.

3. In 2004, I wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review called “More Trouble Than They’re Worth,” which talked about the no asshole rule. I had published other articles in HBR, longer and more well-researched ones, but nothing had provoked such a strong response. I’ve since received more than 1,000 emails on assholes. Some are troubling, like the fellow going through chemotherapy whose boss “told me I was ‘a wimp and a pussy.'” Other stories are funny (like the woman whose boss kept stealing food from her desk, so she made candies out of Ex-Lax, which he promptly stole and ate) and still others are encouraging (including notes from CEOs who actively screen out and fire demeaning people). The first example was the most common, and it reflected the pain that people feel when they are treated terribly, whether they are models, engineers, or CEOs who feel abused by their boards.

4. I was determined to use the word asshole in the title because, to me, other words like “jerk,” “bully,” “tyrant,” “despot,” and so on are just euphemisms for what people really call those creeps. And when I have done such damage to people (indeed, all of us are capable of being assholes some of the time), that is what I call myself. I know the term offends some people, but nothing else captures the emotional wallop. Not everyone agrees with me.

5. I have uncovered quite a few companies that screen out and don’t tolerate “workplace jerks.” Many of these places – law firm Perkins Coie, the research department at Lehman Brothers under Jack Rivkin, and software firm SuccessFactors – that have (or had) such rules may call them “no jerk rules” for public consumption. But when you talk to them, they talk about screening out assholes, not jerks. For example, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Boris Groysberg wrote me that they called it the no asshole rule at Lehman, but he had to write it as the no jerk rule in his teaching cases.

6. There are things that people out there who are victims of bullies can do to fight back and the word needs to get out. Consider this (edited) email that a government worker sent me about how she and her co-workers convinced management to deal with a nasty and demeaning co-worker:
“I have worked [at a government agency] for four years and encountered the asshole of all assholes very early on. After months of being tormented by her and comforting other tearful victims, I decided to document her behavior. I kept a little notebook in my pocket and wrote down her behaviors that were racist, slanderous, threatening, etc. I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times. I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn’t do anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.”

7. The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!

You’re out there in the trenches. I bet some of these bosses seem familiar. Some of us may see a bit of ourselves in there, too.

Guide to Women's Sports Teams


Ajit Chaudhuri – February 2018

Like most sports addict, I watch women’s sports on TV for the sports and not the women, and am therefore largely indifferent to whether the players resemble models on a catwalk or prison guards in drag. It is, however, difficult to escape the observation that women’s sports are becoming increasingly pleasing to the eye for non-sports reasons. Frumpiness is out, and decked up players in designer ware are in; today, watching even women’s shot put and discus throw (difficult to watch in earlier times without questioning the validity of gender testing) has one alternating between the ‘sports’ and ‘women’ sections of the brain.

This note is to remember those occasions when I went ‘wow!!!’ and thanked God for the gift of eyesight, when a medal podium resembled a Miss Universe line-up, and when even a sports fanatic like me was distracted. I am going to list out the best-looking women sports teams I have seen across a life misspent in front of the sports channels on TV. And I am going to restrict myself to teams (and not individual sportswomen) that have some serious sporting achievement and are therefore much more than cosmetic eye candy. Here goes, in reverse chronological order –

1.    The Russian Chess team that took gold at the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul (Turkey)

Left to right are Ms. N. Kosintseva, Ms. Pogonina, Trainer Rublevsky, Ms. Kosteniuk, Ms. Gunina and Ms. T. Kosintseva

Home Town
Tatiana Kosintseva
Valentina Gunina
Nadezhda Kosintseva
Alexandra Kosteniuk
Natalia Pogonina

Whoever said that ‘brains multiplied by beauty is equal to a constant’ would eat his words at the sight of this team; beauty, achievement, and something more – something that points to the vastness and diversity of their country, which is why I have included their respective hometowns. Anyone familiar with Russia would know that the places cut a swathe from its north-western to its south-eastern corners; from the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea via the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from the Norwegian to the Korean borders, with a seven-hour time difference between the eastern and western most locations.

2.    The Turkish Volleyball team that took bronze at the 2011 European Championships in Italy and Serbia

This team consisted of a golden generation of volleyball players who were hugely popular in their home country (they were dubbed the ‘Sultanas of the Net’) and burst onto my sensitivities with a victory over the home team (Italy) in the quarter-finals of the 2011 Euros before losing to eventual champions Serbia in the semis and defeating Germany for the bronze medal. I am going to stop at naming only those that particularly caught my eye for a combination of sporting and non-sporting reasons. Among them, Ms. Toksoy won the prize for the best server of the competition, and Ms. Demir for the best scorer.

Image result for turkey volleyball women 2011

No. in Photo
Bahar Toksoy
Middle Blocker
1.90 m
5 (I think)
Neriman Ozsoy
Outside Spiker
1.88 m
Gizem Guresen
1.76 m
Neslihan Demir
Outside Spiker
1.87 m

There are history lessons here – Ms. Ozsoy (if there was a prize for the woman I would most like to enter a room on my arm with when my football team and assorted male peers are waiting inside, she would be among those seriously considered) is from Razgrad in Bulgaria, which would have been part of the Ottoman Empire a little more than a century ago and wherein still reside a large Turkish minority.

3.    The Dutch 4x100 Freestyle Relay swimming team that took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics

Chantal Groot
Inge Dekker
Merleen Veldhuis
Inge de Bruijn

This team is a little lopsided in ability, achievement and, to a lesser extent, in looks; Ms. De Bruijn first caught my eye for purely aesthetic reasons as a young also-ran in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and then I saw her again in Sydney 2000 taking gold in both sprints and the 100 fly (and setting world records in all three). She became the oldest ever Olympic individual swimming champion when she took gold in the 50 free in Athens, a few days after the race that is featured on this list. The other three hold their own in the looks category, and this was one medal handover ceremony that was worth a watch even if one missed the race itself. The photo has, from left, Ms. Groot, Ms. de Bruijn, Ms. Dekker and Ms. Veldhuis.

Image result for de bruijn groot dekker veldhuis

4.    The Brazilian Volleyball team that took bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

Until the 1996 Olympics, for me, sports were sports and women were women and ‘ne’er the twain did meet’. It was the women’s volleyball that had me crossing lines – the quality of volleyball was fantastic, and the players were stunning. Brazil in particular took my breath away, and no non-Brazilian was sadder when they lost a close semi-final to Cuba. The bronze medal match against Russia, also stacked with beauties and a very animated coach called Karpov (I continue to think of him when I see someone going ballistic during time-outs) was a feast for the eyes.

Ida Alvares
1.78 m
Fernanda Venturini
Middle Blocker
1.80 m
Leila Barros
Opposite Spiker
1.79 m
Ana Moser
Outside Spiker
1.85 m

5.    The Indian 4x400 Relay team in the athletics at the 1984 LA Olympics

They came in 7th and more than 14 seconds behind the gold medallists, but an Indian women’s team in an Olympic relay final was one hell of an achievement – never before, never again (the current crop spend more time running away from dope testers than running on the track). They did not shame in the looks department either, with Ms. Rao and Ms. Abraham, who ended up marrying an Indian swimming champion (I wonder what their children are doing), having the ability to set any catwalk afire. Ms. Usha had also finished fourth (missing a bronze by 0.01 second) in the 400 Hurdles at the same games, and whenever I need a reminder on the value of time I think of her. I had the pleasure of traveling on the same flight as her once, in the 1990s, and I shamelessly went up and asked her for an autograph – something I would never consider doing for any film star, cricketer or assorted celebrity.

MD Valsamma
Vandana Rao
Shiny Abraham
PT Usha

The picture has, from left, Ms. Rao, Ms. Usha, Ms. Abraham and Ms. Valsamma.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Beware the Thucydides Trap


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – June 2017

‘In times of war, only the dead can smile!’[i]

I would like to begin with an experience from the 2014 Kailash Mansarovar Yatra – my fellow yatris included many hindutva types, and one of the several strange conversations I was a participant to was with a group of Gujaratis trying to tell me that they (Gujaratis) were the bravest people in the country. I interrupted my laughter with a question – ‘how many regiments does the Indian Army have from Gujarat?’ – and mentioned that the so-called traitors in Kashmir have the J&K Light Infantry, the so called want-aways in Nagaland have the Naga Regiment, and that my time in India Today working with the Indian Army’s battle casualties from the 1999 Kargil Conflict took me across the country, including the Kashmir valley and the North East, but it did not take me to Gujarat[ii]. The reason for recounting this is not to suggest that Gujaratis rectify the situation by enlisting en masse – it is to point out the thinking that results when like-minded buffoons reinforce each other within narrow circles.

My worry is that policy makers at the country’s highest levels suffer from a similar affliction on strategic issues, and that this could lead to wars that nobody wants, wins or gains anything. Allow me to introduce the Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides was a Greek historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian Wars that were fought by Sparta and Athens more than 2,400 years ago (this 30-year war left both in ruins and Greece vulnerable to the Persians). He focused on the structural stress caused when a rising power (in this case, Athens) bumps up against an established one in an environment of a rapidly changing balance of power between the two, and suggested that the growing sense of entitlement of the former coupled with the determination to defend status quo of the latter combine to make war an inevitability.

Thucydides is in the news because of the term ‘The Thucydides Trap’ (I will use TT as an abbreviation henceforth in this note) conceptualized by the political scientist Graham Allison[iii] in a study of 16 cases of rising powers challenging established ones over the past 500 years, wherein he found that 12 of them led to war, and those that didn’t required large and painful adjustments in attitudes and actions by both the challenger and the challenged. He concluded that ‘when a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.’

Allison goes on to apply the TT concept to today’s world; he sees the preeminent geo-strategic challenge as not Islamic militancy or economic nationalism, but the impact China’s ascendance will have on the US-led international order. Everyone knows the rise of China, but few realize its magnitude – so rapid that we have ‘not yet had the time to be astonished’. He says that war between the US and China is not only possible but also much more likely than currently recognized, that current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the relationship contribute to the hazards, and that a risk associated with the TT is that business as usual can trigger conflict just as effectively as an unexpected extraordinary event.

It is certain that both Chinese and American strategists have read Allison’s paper – Xi Jinping even announced that ‘there is no such thing as the Thucydides trap’ during a 2015 visit to the US – and considerable effort has gone into debunking the analysis and reassuring the public that all is well. And yet, the US now has a leader with a narrow definition of American interests, China has begun aggressive expansion on the economic front (the Belts and Roads Initiative is a step towards a Chinese-led world) and bumping shoulders with its neighbours, and multiple possible flashpoints exist including the 38th parallel dividing the Koreas and the LoC in J&K.

Where would such a war leave India? History suggests that great wars are far less kind to the secondary powers (think Poland in WW2) than they are to the main protagonists, and the chances are that we will be roadkill unless we can somehow contrive to stay out of the conflict a la Switzerland in WW2. And this, in turn, will require shrewdness, strategic flexibility and pragmatism from our policy makers.

Do our current masters in Delhi have it in them? Or will the requirements of elections in UP or wherever drive our country’s strategic interests? And this is where I am somewhat pessimistic – indications are that a small group of not very well-educated people decide these things today, and they see a narrow self-interest in belligerence, actively believe their own PR, and suffer heavily from group-think. Given that these deficiencies have served them well on the domestic stage, we are likely to see more of the same on the international one – with egregious outcomes for the country.

I would have been sanguine had we been in a pre-nuclear era, wherein we could see war as ‘the continuation of politics by other means[iv]’ and a convenient way to cull the large numbers of useless young men at a time when there are no jobs and no futures for them (yes, most wars happen when there is a bump in the population of youth in participating countries). But nukes change the equation! And while there is the argument that nuclear wars’ characteristics of very high costs and no winners force even dumb-asses to see sense, the whole point of the term ‘trap’ in TT is to emphasize that the parties can also act incrementally and rationally towards war.

If there is a ray of hope for India staying out of a future Sino-American conflict, it would be the one institution in south Asia that has a keen sense of self-interest, all the pragmatism in the world, and plenty of experience in navigating geo-political pressures towards its own ends. You guessed it – the Pakistani Army! I just don’t see those guys being drawn into a fight for Chinese or anyone else’s (including, for that matter, their own country’s) interests unless there is something in it for them. And if they manage to stay out, our own masters would face the problem that James Bond films had in the aftermath of the cold war and the inability of Russia to play the convenient enemy, of shifting gears from ‘ooh – danger of World War 3’ to ‘ooh – danger of water crisis in Bolivia’. China the enemy will not pay an electoral dividend.

[i] This is from a Russian poetess named ‘Anna Akhmatova’.
[ii] The former UP CM Akhilesh Yadav recently asked ‘how many Gujarati martyrs?’, and an article by Aakar Patel (Reason Behind So Few Gujaratis in Army’, of 13th May 2017) suggested that Nepal, which has half the population of Gujarat, had many more of its citizens in the Indian Army.
[iii] Allison, G; The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War?; The Atlantic, 24 September 2015.
[iv] This was the great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.