We were attempting to articulate the principle behind driving on Indian roads to someone visiting for the first time recently. The best articulation we stumbled upon was – “Every person for themselves.”
On roads all over the world, people drive to get to where they want to go. In many of these places, you have constraints or rules of the road. On Indian roads, you only have to worry about very “hard” constraints (typically driven by traffic lights) – e.g. there’s a wave of traffic in front you and there’s no way you can squeeze through. You don’t worry about lanes, occasionally pay attention to pedestrians, and definitely don’t care about courtesy.
Why is that? Is there something wrong with the people? Why, then, do the same people follow the rules when they’re in a different place?
If you are on a road in Europe, you follow good protocol for two reasons. First, it is because you know that the overall system is more efficient when there is order. If everyone follows the rules, everyone will get to where they want to faster.
Second and probably more important, it is what everyone does and there are real consequences to not doing so. In Switzerland, for example, you get docked a percentage of your pay. The system of rewards and punishments set the guardrails for a culture that shapes behavior.
My sense is that there is a universal distrust – for the right reasons – in the “system” (or lack thereof) in India that, in turn, results in a culture that incentivizes selfish behavior.
While this could be a rant about Indian roads, it isn’t. Instead, we can draw some interesting parallels with politics in organizations. When organizations have employees who believe in the internal systems to set the guardrails for acceptable behavior while also creating a culture that reinforces the good, you create the sort of environment where employees optimize for the greater good.
Why wouldn’t they? If they did, the company would do better. And, since the system works, they’ll get rewarded for it.
But, in organizations with poorly managed HR functions or poorly administered compensation schemes, every employee is in it to maximize rewards for themselves. Poorly designed compensation systems inevitably result in poor corporate cultures.
When in doubt, look beyond the people problems to the system problems that cause them.