Saturday, May 3, 2008

Slapping and Sledging

The most talked about topic in corporate corridors these days, is not so much whether the RBI hike in CRR will curb inflation, or whether the export disincentives for steel and the import reductions for its raw materials will do the trick, but whether sledging is right and if a slap is the best response! Given the media columns devoted to this “national incident” and the larger issue of sledging in sports, here are a few nuggets on this episode that probably deserve second thoughts.

To the discerning, it would be clear that the 'word' is and has always been, mightier than the “sword”. In any conflict, or intense rivalry, the 'word' has been used to telling effect. Most people now concur, that its the 'mental victory' that is crucial and which dictates the events in the physical plane.

Those who have been part of the 91% viewership that the serial garnered on Sunday mornings, a couple of decades ago, would be familiar with the “Mahabharata”. (Other sources of awareness also exist! ). The focal point of the epic was the Bhagawad Geeta. It was essentially the power of 'words' that lifted Arjuna from an 'anxiety attack' and gave him the resolve and the mental strength to realize his potential.

The much debated “Sethusamudram bridge”, which is the news these days, has an interesting anecdote attached with it, in the epics. The Ramayana refers to the time prior to its construction, when the sea had to be crossed through other means. “Hanuman” was told, that he alone, could jump across and reach Lanka. A feat, he felt, was beyond him. It is said that Jambavan, another simian, referred to incidents in Hanuman's life, where as a child, he almost reached the Sun and convinced him, that it was within him to reach Lanka on his own. This is often referred to as “Jambavani”. 'Jambavani' is something that helps someone realize his true, latent, strength. Parents are advised by psychologists to provide positive 'auto suggestions' to children that work as 'Jambavani'. If we were to use modern terminology "Pygmalion Effect" or "self fulfilling prophecy" are the terms in use. Pygmalion effect naturally comes from G.B. Shaw's play of the same name, where Eliza Doolittle mentions that for Prof Higgins, she will always be a "cockney girl" because that is what he expects her to be while for others like Colonel Pickering, she will be a lady with etiquette since that is what they expect her to be! The learning her is that people take 'cues' from the environment and behave.

In a book titled "Winning Habits" by B.P. Bam, he also talks about the power of verbalisation and visualisation. Verbalisation is according to him about meditation and chanting, while visualisation is about projecting yourself to a higher level than where you are currently. Verbalisation through mantras and chants help in creating the right imagery, concentration and in focusing on the moment. Like Arjuna who saw only the target, for success focus is key both on the physical and mental planes. Visualisation is supposed to build muscle memory and create subsequent natural responses. Something which Rahul Dravid claims he has benefited by. Mathew Hayden is known to sit at the batting pitch prior to the match to visualize the actual subsequent inning he is to play. Batsmen are known to repeatedly do well in a venue and this is to some extent, due to the venue triggering nueral maps, that are positive.

There is a lesser known tale of Karna and his charioteer “Shalya”. It is believed that Shalya constantly was ‘chatting’ with Karna and reminding him of his birth in a low caste family, a sore point, with the otherwise brilliant warrior. Apparently, this led to the warrior fighting depression and the Pandavas!. To make things worse, he could not kill any of the Pandavas except Arjuna, because he had given his word to Kunti, who confesses to him that she is his biological mother, one day prior to battle. To make things worse, Karna was also constantly the target of jibes from Bhishma and on the occasion of Kurukshetra, chose not to fight for his friend Duryodhana, as long as Bhishma was leading the Kaurava army. Parashurama his guru, gives him a 'curse' which is an 'auto suggestion' of sorts that he will forget all that the learned, at the most crucial time. It works like a self fulfilling prophecy at the Kurukshetra, when he is without a chariot and he falls to Arjuna. Karna is also burdened by the fact that he knows that he is fighting a loosing battle. There are references that Vyasa gives, which indicate that Karna knew who Krishna was and how the battle would end. He still chooses to do his duty by his friend and benefactor. Karna is a clear case of a talent that is unmatched and without equals being denied a platform and circumstances to flower and find full realization. Something that is a common occurrence in sports, arts and even in the corporate arena. Being denied admission due to caste, community, colour, being discriminated for the same reasons, being forced to work for not so ethical people, or for organisations and teams whose value system does not match with one's, being forced to do jobs not suited to one's skills and ability, are all situations a lot of talented people are faced with. Having a "shalya" remind you of that is a sure fire trip to "disaster" or "self destruct".

A mild form of shalya vani would be the 'ash scanning' , or head on comparisons that companies do. Sometimes it is straightforward competition and sometimes it looks like juvenile gamesmanship.The Pepsi – Cola wars are full of such anecdotes. The “nothing official about it” was a “slap” on Coca Cola. Now too, the exclusivity that Coca Cola has on advertising has been made to look silly with Pepsi coolers in the background and obliging commentators (whose grandchildren are probably the target audience) endorsing the brand! Sprite in turn is intent on taking the mickey out of Pepsi and seems to winning the share of “sniggers and laughter market” and possibly the seedhi baat is that it is garnering market share too.Taking huge hoardings outside the competitors office is one way of gaining a psychological advantage. There are many more when you get down to the shopfloor.

A variant of this, is the malicious rumour, or character assassination.

The Ramayana mentions how a malicious Mantara’s words led to Kaikeyi’s shift in attitude and her asking for her stepson’s exile to the forest. This inspite of the fact that she had a lot of affection for her nephew and that it was reciprocated with respect.The 'Maryada Purushan' himself was also not immune to “words”. A stray remark from a washerman apparently led to Sita being banished. Never mind that he won her after breaking the Gandivam and that she followed him to the forest, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with his children.

The corporate world is not innocent of this either. To bring down a colleague who seems to be moving a little too fast, we find the grape vine suddenly buzzing with a few details of his misdeeds which could be complete fiction. Sometimes it is a lot more open with snide remarks and innuendos in the open.

Media releases both direct and through leaks are made to get competitive advantage.The “Rising” of an Amir Khan was stopped with a rumour that collections were poor at the opening, when it was not so. A simple use of words to render a project futile. When Camay International was launched, there was a rumour that it contained “beef tallow”. The damage control was done, but it did cause a stutter at the retail level. Sting operations are a sophisticated variation of this and where technology makes credibility built in.

Whistle blowing is a threat most companies guard against. Most sensible companies ensure that an employee who is leaving becomes an ambassador of the company and not a source of negative word of mouth.

In the light of all this,where does sledging fit in?

Sledging seeks to reverse the positive imagery that helps someone or a team play to its potential. When sledging, rumour mongering, press releases about opponents misdeeds, failures etc, trigger negativity and anxiety in the target, the sledger is successful. The objective of sledging is to make the other player loose concentration and trigger negative images in him. Given the rules of the game, if he looses to provocation on the field, the results are disastrous. The Zinadine Zidane vs Masseratti at the World Cup is an example. If the target is provoked, but cannot do anything about it, the stress sets in. The ones who are mentally strong react with more focus and aggression which may boomerang on the sledger. Remember the Yuvraj – Flintoff episode and the recent Shane Warne - Afridi episode? . For McGrath, the sledge came back like a boomerang, when Sarwan retorted and touched a raw nerve.But it did work against Rahul Dravid in South Africa, when Alan Donald tried it. Sidhu was a target for most people because he used to oblige every sledge with a response. Slater is known to loose it as also Daryl Cullinan.

Dhoni got it dead right when he said that there is an art to sledging. A shrewd assessor of situations, he has hit the nail on the head. The elements of sledging would require a good knowledge of the target, his weak points, the selection of the right time and the occasion. Using abusive language is indicative of poor parentage. Slapping people in full view of cameras is indicative of a lack of common sense.

There is a time and place for everything and if done with a plan, things work out fine.


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