The national culture of unquestioned obedience to authority along with an acceptance of shoddiness must not be used as an excuse to overlook violations of corporate ethics, says the Ranbaxy whistle-blower

During my tenure at Ranbaxy, I was surprised by the unchallenged conformity to the poor decisions of senior leadership. Ranbaxy was my first Indian employer following my tenure at two different American corporations. Reflecting on this experience from cultural and comparative perspectives highlights the organizational peril of such behaviour.

It is in our culture to respect authority. We are taught from childhood to listen and obey our elders. We grow up with the notion that our managers, the function heads and business heads within our respective organisations, know more than anyone else. Hierarchy is revered, authority is seldom questioned. Those who dare to ask questions are renegades.

Asking questions

My investigation into the discrepancies between Ranbaxy’s records and the data filed with regulatory agencies in 2004 showed me how wide the questionable behaviour was within the organisation. It was systematic. It had penetrated the DNA of the organisation.

I often asked myself how was it that smart, well-intentioned people tolerated systematic fraudulent behaviour? This question led me to the Milgram Experiment, which was conducted by the Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in 1961. In the 1971 paper summarising its results, he stated:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Why is this important? In my view, as much as we value and respect our traditions, it is imperative that we not lose sight that being a “renegade” — a nonconformist — is acceptable when motivated by honourable intentions. It is acceptable to think that managers possess neither omniscience nor omnipotence. Our colleagues who are at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder sometimes know more than we do about an issue. It is important to encourage them to question authority, even if we find it uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The other aspect of my search for answers led me to introspection. What kind of society have we become? D.G. Shah, the secretary general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, recently penned an elegant op-ed that called out our culture for tolerating corruption, even with needs as basic as drinking water, personal hygiene, food and medicine. Why is it that we have come to accept poor governance, corruption, incompetence and entitlement as facts of life?

Compromise

I think it has a lot to do with how we lead our daily lives. Despite an exhaustive search, I have not been able to find proper translation for the concept of jugaad. It seems to exist only within our society. While Wikipedia describes it as a term applied to a creative or innovative idea providing a quick, alternative way of solving or fixing a problem, I think it misses two important aspects that I have experienced during my tenure working in India. First, there is an implicit understanding that because the solution needs to be quick and creative, it is acceptable to make a compromise on the quality of what is produced. Second, because we focus on making “it” work just-in-time, we never think of making the solution last. That leads to poor quality.

Not 100 per cent

The other pervasive attitude is the notion of chalta-hai. It is very hard to describe this attitude to someone who has not experienced life in India, but to those of us who have lived here, we know what it is. We have come to accept that if it is 80 per cent good, works 80 per cent of the time, and does 80 per cent of what it needs to do, it is acceptable. This attitude manifests itself in almost every facet of common life in India.

Clearly, we are now beginning to see the results of our approach with jugaad and our attitude with chalta-hai. They are not pleasant. Recent events hold a mirror to our face and ask us whether we like what we see. I certainly don’t.

As Jayson Blair, the disgraced former reporter at The New York Times, said, “Rarely are our choices in life presented as a major dramatic question. One step at a time, [they come as] minor choices, that may not even seem related to the ultimate outcome. Once that fear [of getting caught] disappears with the minor choices, it is easier to cross that big ethical line.”

It is not the big ethical line that we need to worry about. Rather, we need to worry about all the thousands of little situations we are presented with in our daily lives, to which the easy answer seems to be jugaad or the attitude of chalta-hai.

Unless we develop an attitude of “do it right the first time” and inculcate this expectation into our daily life, we will continue to see the same image in the mirror every time an event like the one on May 13 holds it up to our face.

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