Empowering Leaders: Conditioning, Conscious Choice and Calling It Out

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Let me ask a couple of questions to young women. First, “Do you have complete clarity on why you want to work?” Second, “Do you know why you want to choose a particular field and what motivates you to stay there?” The answer that I often get is, “I want to make money. I am young and I have needs, so I have to make money.”
My advice to everybody is that money is very obvious. Money is the recognition and reward for the effort you put in. If money becomes the prime reason for what you do, then your focus is not on what you do. There is a very fine distinction between wanting to work versus wanting to earn money. Nobody says that you must work for free. But what you earn is directly commensurate to what you can give and do.
I would like to illustrate with my personal example. I come from a very middle-class family. I was born in Hyderabad in 1964. I finished my graduation and started working in 1987. It was pre-privatisation days. As money was scarce, the desire to work was very high. It was a challenge for young women to stay the course, not just entering the workforce.
I was working in New India Assurance as AAO accounts, qualifying as a chartered accountant. I joined as an accountant and could have chosen to stay there in Accounts. I had just moved to Delhi around 91-92 and had to take care of my child. Because we had gone into computerisation, I realised that my role in Accounts was merely data entry verification.
A job that can challenge me
I went to my regional manager and told him, “I manage a one-and-a-half year-old baby at home and come to work. I need to be able to contribute, so I can justify not contributing enough as a mother. Can you please give me a job which can utilise my talents and challenge me?” The manager advised me to take it easy and have a relaxed life getting salary. I pointed out to him about the lack of utilisation of my skills and the opportunity cost of my time.
He then advised me to apply for the branch manager’s role. I applied for it, went through the interview process and became a branch manager. The entire trajectory of my career changed with that one move. From being an accounts officer, I became a branch manager in charge of handling sales, claims, people management, client management and P&L management. It was a small branch but suddenly I got an overall exposure to being a profit centre head.
I had no idea of the policies we were selling or about our core business. I put in more work with no rise in pay, but importantly, it gave me enormous satisfaction. Looking back, I must thank my regional manager for trusting me and giving me an opportunity, which demanded my hundred percent.
Make work your energizer
If money is the only reason why you work, then work can start to burn you out. Your work must energize you. If you enjoy the work that you do, work will never tire you. What will tire you is doing things that you don’t want to do. For example, if there is a person who loves coding but she is not a great people manager. If that person is promoted as a manager, she becomes very unhappy because of what is being demanded of her. It is not something that she enjoys doing. It is very important to understand what is it that you are willing to give and what is it that you want to get.
I have challenged myself to do jobs that I disliked too, because I just wanted a challenge. I would say to every job, “Bring it on. Let me see. What is so difficult about it? Let me figure it out.” The jobs that give you pain are the jobs that you don’t want to do. That is when the joy of working starts becoming a stress of working. So the first thing that I always want to ask is, “Why do you want to work?”
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators
Next comes your motivators. We all consider external rewards and recognition being our motivators, and money as a motivator at a particular stage. My suggestion is: Find your own mojo. Why do you want to work? What gives you joy and pleasure? Remember, you want to work for 25 to 30 years at 8 to 10 hours a day. That is almost two-thirds of your waking hours.
Your motivators have to be intrinsic—something that gives you motivation from inside. Your extrinsic motivators can give you joy but then, intrinsic motivation is what is really going to make you go back to work every day. During the Covid lockdowns, I saw people saying that they were working because they wanted the money to travel and spend on holidays. Now that they can’t even travel, they don’t want to work any longer.

You can grow only as much as you have been exposed to and as much as you are willing to expand your mind. When you choose, always be very clear of why you choose what you choose.

Think about it. “Are you really working just to go on foreign holidays? Is it for your pride? Is it for you to utilise your own talent and knowledge? Is it for you to have an individuality?”
The power of conditioning
The next important aspect is conditioning. More often than not, we choose what we have been taught to choose. Conditioning is different from bias. For example, someone may be biased against North Indians and they may or may not be aware of their bias. Conditioning is much deeper. It is ingrained in us and we may not even be aware of it. Our judgments and choices can be governed by conditioning.
I am a born South Indian married to a North Indian. My morning drink changed from coffee to tea. I have a choice to switch between both and I have a preference. Conditioning does not give you choice. Rather, it dictates what you want. Your conditioning will stop you from even trying out different things because it makes you believe that is what you want. Only when you have tried out something else, you will be able to make a conscious choice between the various options available. Why you work must be one of those conscious choices. For me, the reason for taking up a job was to challenge myself. It was a conscious choice.
When I got married and went to Delhi, I prepared the south Indian ‘upma’ for breakfast. The whole family looked at it and they were unable to understand what it was. As there was no Internet then, they were not exposed to south Indian dishes. They simply called it, ‘namkeen halwa.’ That is a classic example of how we need an anchor of something that we know to understand something that is new to us or something that we don’t know. This is a great lesson for one’s progress in life. You can grow only as much as you have been exposed to and as much as you are willing to expand your mind. When you choose, always be very clear of why you choose what you choose. Let me give another example from my personal life.
An accident and a dilemma
My son, when he was very small, had an accident and had a cut at the back of his neck. It was a small cut but there was lot of blood. Everybody in the family panicked. We took him to the doctor who treated him and put two stitches. The doc said that my son was fine with those stitches and there was nothing to worry. I had a very important meeting in office and had to make a presentation. I desperately wanted to attend that meeting because this was an important part of my career journey towards being a branch manager.
After leaving my son in a day care centre, I went to my office. Everyone in my family criticized me for taking that option. If you analyse my decision, I chose that option of going to office on three data points: 1) I had taken my son to the doctor; 2) He treated him and said he was perfectly fine; 3) I was leaving him at a day care centre which I knew and they had told me that it was not a problem at all for them to handle my son.
On the other side, I wanted to make an important change in my career and if I had skipped the meeting, it would have gone against my image. They would have said that a woman, more so a mother would never be able to prioritise her work. If I had skipped office, I would have strengthened that conditioning. So I had to go and I wanted to go. Luckily, things worked out well. My son was fine and he recovered. We didn’t have any problem. Had something happened, that would have been linked to my being an irresponsible mother. Luckily, my job interview too went on well and I got the position of branch manager.
But what if things had not turned out well? The only way you would know is when you have made a conscious choice. My recommendation to everybody is that when you make a difficult decision, please write down the factors available to you at that point of time, on the basis of which you made a decision. What is the information that you had? What thoughts and beliefs did you have? What were the drivers for your decision? Retrospectively, you have a 360-degree view and you can compare with what you have written down. You can analyse the information that was available to you at that point of time when you took the decision, information that was available to you at a future point and revisit a decision made in the past. So, whenever you face a dilemma, write down the information that you have.
If someone turns back and says that you should have known this or that, you can tell them, like, “Listen. These are the things I considered. I checked my son’s temperature. I left his temperature and the doctor’s phone number behind with the day care centre. I took all precautions. I had considered all these data points and that’s why I made my decision.” If things don’t go well, you will be your first critic. That is why a conscious choice is very important. When you make a conscious choice, you know the circumstances under which you made that choice and accept it.
Call it out
The third point that I want to make is about empowering and enabling more women to come to the workplace. My request to everybody is to call it out. Gender biases and prejudices build because people allow them to build, rather than calling them out. Micro transgressions at multiple levels can lead to a very big transgression.
I will give an example of one case we had in our office. A woman who joined us was an under-performer and was not doing her work. She always kept asking for time extension. We put her on performance improvement plans and finally, at the end of six months, nothing clicked and we told her, “Look. This is not going to work,” and we relieved her. She filed a case against us because she was six months pregnant by that time. She was just biding her time, because as per law you can’t terminate someone after certain months of pregnancy. So we were forced to keep her. She went on three months maternity leave. She came back and after that again, we kept her for three months. We ended up paying her nine months of salary for doing nothing. Out of this experience, her manager told me, “Ma’am. Please don’t ask me to hire any woman,” I asked him, “Tell me how many women you have hired. How many people have done like this? Tell me how many men you have hired, who have not been performers.” When it comes down to hard facts, because we have a low base among women, percentages look obnoxious. If you have totally three women in your team and if one out of them behaves badly, that makes it 33%. If there are ten men and two behave badly, then we will say that 20% of men are bad. On a comparison, they will look at 20% men vs. 33% women. But that is not the way you must look at it. We must figure out where absolutes are to be used and where relative comparisons are to be used. Where are the trends and where are the anecdotes? Is it just an anecdotal issue with one woman or is it a trend of many women behaving or performing badly?
Whenever you come across complaints against women, look if it is just one incident or a general trend? Don’t you have incidents with men and what yardstick do you apply to handle them? Please make a commitment to call it out when there are derogatory remarks or jokes in bad taste passed against women, when women are generalized and when statements are made that women are always like this. No, not all women behave badly. Likewise, all men are not the same. If there is one incident of sexual assault, you cannot say that all men are predators. Similarly, no woman wants to be dumped into one generalisation. Just because there are fewer women at work, the percentages seem high and misleading. By calling it out, we can support and empower women at the workplace.


Babita Baruah: With many hats that women wear, can you give some tips for women to stay energised?
Vishaka: The burnout starts the moment we want to do something to other people’s standards. In my journey, it took a long time for me to realise that I tried to be a perfect daughter-in-law for my mother-in-law, a perfect wife for my husband, a perfect mother for my son and a perfect employee for my boss. One day, I collapsed and started asking me, “What are my own standards? Why should I live up to others’ standards?” Then things fell into place. So, have your own standards.
Mythili Chandrasekar: A lot of women take up jobs to get financial independence, which in itself is not a bad thing. But what is important is—How do you enjoy making that money? Then it helps you to stay the course. What I have observed is that finding your calling may sometimes take a long time. Vishaka has discovered it quite early in her career, which is a very good thing.
How do you ensure that as the lone woman member in the boardroom, your voice is heard?
Vishaka: I never think of my presence as a woman member. I am a person and so are others in the boardroom. There have been times when I also carried a chip on my shoulder. I have consciously worked on a lot of conflicting inner beliefs which can be your worst enemies.
Another point is that as women, our voices are sharper than male voices. In the boardroom, I concentrate on modulating my tone. If we don’t modulate, we may sound very screechy. As men are not conditioned to hear such a voice, they may not pay attention. So I ensure that I modulate my voice. These are some of my tips.
How can we come out of conditioning?
Vishaka: Embrace conscious choice. Every time you take a decision, stop and ask, “Is this what I really want to do?” Also, stop being a victim. Don’t think that you do not have a choice. You always have a choice if you are willing to pay the price.

Vishaka RM, MD & CEO, IndiaFirst Life Insurance Company Ltd