We Didn’t Start The Fire


Walking on burning coals and broken glass, spoon-bending, blindfolding. Corporate team-building is a universe in itself. Rishi majumder ventures in

Come On Over Priya Kumar, a corporate trainer, demonstrates the motivational firewalk

THE NAME of the game is to win. The rules of the game are to hold on. Every human resource (HR) executive is stalked by two frightful figures — the employee who won’t perform and the employee who’ll quit. To silence these nightmares, HR managers hire behavioural experts, dubiously called ‘corporate coaches’. On any given day an Indian corporate employee may be asked by a coach to walk on fire, be packed off on gruelling jungle camps, or have their minds tricked with dubious psychotherapy — so they can hold on and win.

To the baffled outsider these workshops seem like the wrong medicines for the wrong disease. Anyone walking on hot coals to notch up sales must loathe his work. Any group trudging through jungles to build team spirit must detest one another. And any company ordering its employees into therapy to retain them must hate itself. Some say these devices are mere symbols and should be seen as such. But to expect symbols to substitute solutions seems more like superstition. Gaurav Tekriwal, CEO of an education consultancy in Kolkata, has put himself and his employees through various kinds of corporate workshops — from fire and glass walking, to sky-diving, to motivational speech sessions. “These workshops satisfy the ‘spiritual’ needs of corporates,” he says. Good karma for a corporate culture of instant gratification.

Imagine an India Inc which promotes entrepreneurs and independent thinkers. It would change the nation, liberalise it from within. But behavioural workshops don’t mould such individuals — they create the corporate soldier with the crooked killer instinct, the spokes of the revolving corporate wheel. And here are the people who come along to make it happen:

‘Executives should be like Osama bin Laden — effective,’ says Joshi

HR teams often employ an entertainer to serve motivational manna that would’ve otherwise tasted tedious. A lot like magicians who come to school to teach children not to litter or to observe traffic rules. Mumbai’s Deepak Rao is one such magician well-known for his ability at telepathy and telekinesis. He conjures before the cynical corporate eye an “ESP (extra sensory perception) show” called “Mission Impossible”. He guesses phone numbers, birthdays and even songs that viewers might think of. He levitates objects, bends (without touching) spoons and keys. Then begins “Mission Possible” where Rao lectures his awestruck audience on organisation, communication, and positivity. Like a godman discoursing on how to live, Rao tell his clients how to work. “If he can focus his mind to bend metal, we can focus too,” enthuses Hemant Kumar, CMD Remy Distributors. How did his session with Rao help him? “When an officer was gossiping about how celebrities have affairs or get drunk, I didn’t believe him — I understood he was miscommunicating.” Are we to believe that before Rao, Kumar wouldn’t know this? How worrying. Sometimes, Rao asks volunteers to tap into their own ESP. They are asked to concentrate and aim an invisible ‘mind arrow’ to topple an empty plastic bottle placed precariously on a table. When the bottle falls, there is jubilation and more motivation speak. Rao charges between Rs 1.5 and 3.5 lakh for each ESP show plus training sessions. He does 50-odd shows plus sessions every year.

Coaches often use tools like hypnosis which even psychologists would be cautious about. ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)’, for instance, uses words and phrases to attempt to alter an individual’s subconscious. Gestalt therapy focusses on what an individual is thinking at that moment to lead on to attitudinal changes. There are many more.

Gitanjali Sharma, head of a Gurgaonbased corporate training, Transform Lifestyle, uses NLP as well as hypnotism to facilitate team-building and manage corporate stress. She uses what she calls ‘anchors’ — everyday objects that workshoppers can pour positive and peaceful feelings into. “Like the temple bell,” says Sharma, “which gives you tranquility when you ring it”. At Rs 30,000 per workshop she likes to root the “peace” and “positive energy” of her participants in music that she plays during the workshop — comprising basic drumbeats — which is handed over to the company’s HR team. It is then played during lunch hour and in the canteen. Once, however, Sharma decided to anchor employee optimism in something employees had easier access to — the office water cooler. If the employees in that workshop had actually gotten ‘anchored’, then this would be a redefining moment. That drab water cooler would never be the same. It would do what it would have done for parched nomads stuck in the Sahara. It would be a beautiful oasis of truth, the one reason for never abandoning an organisation where water is aplenty. They’d sway, united at lunchtime, work and be happy, as long as they drank from their communal well of joy — the water cooler. 1984 would come thirstily alive.

Photo by Garima Jain

Every HR manager’s secret fantasy is to have employees who are obedient foot soldiers — who do the dirty work, fight to the finish and kill. And who can’t quit on a whim. This fantasy finds fruition in the corporate ‘outbound’ — a programme that could extend from days to weeks and involves executives roughing it out in inhospitable climes. How thrilling it must be for the average HR professional to see fickle suits, ever ready to bargain for a higher salary, sweat it out and try to snare little animals in some forest reserve, or painfully inch their way through cruel obstacle courses, or hang hazardously off a rock face. These Gulag experiences supposedly prepare participants for boardroom battles. They also teach them team spirit. An outbound organising company called Strawberry Outbound, for instance, makes participants drive through an obstacle course, blindfolded, with team members shouting directions. Now we know where the average over-competitive executive refuels on his road rage. The high demand for army officers in HR departments, is a good indicator of the prevailing fantasy of total discipline and obedience.

To save the executive sole, Kumar chooses small, safe pieces of glass to walk on

Captain Joshi is an ex-armyman who went on to become Associate Vice-President of HR at ICICI Prudential. He quit to create Fitcomb — his Delhi-based combat training institute, which also conducts corporate outbounds. A cornerstone of Fitcomb philosophy is ‘Positive Aggression’. Joshi explains this in unnerving detail: “There are those who only think, without doing. There are those who think and then do, like PC Chidambaram. There are those who do and then think — like Sanjay Gandhi, or Osama bin Laden. And finally, there are those who do, without thinking — like Lalu Prasad Yadav.” What should the executive be? “The third prototype — those who do and then think.” Like Osama bin Laden? “He was very effective at achieving what he wanted.”

Priya Kumar is a corporate motivator highly in demand for her fire-walks. She charges around Rs 1.5 lakh per day and does one every alternate day somewhere in India. She has even appeared on Rakhi Ka Swayamvar to motivate Rakhi Sawant’s suitors. Walking over red-hot coals and shards of glass might seem like perfect punishment for white-collar criminals, but what makes them motivational? Priya responds with an anecdote. She once asked a group of executives whether they thought they would get burnt, and one replied: “No. Our company will obviously not pay you to burn us.” So, Kumar says, her walks reinforce one’s faith in the company. Any resemblance to crazed cults which like to enforce an archaic idea of oneness must be purely coincidental. Kumar continues: “Fire-walking teaches them to act, and not be bystanders. Also, it teaches them things are not as difficult as they seem.”

This last reason hints at how these walks are actually conducted — with fundamental dishonesty. “The walker may imagine the temperature of the coals is about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kumar explains. Kumar’s website says the temperature is about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. But Kumar says the actual temperature is only “about 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit”. So the firewalker, having anticipated an obstacle much hotter than the one he tides over, walks off with a fired-up ego.

Or not. “People can still get burnt at 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit though,” Kumar explains. “So we have to train them to do the walk.” Similarly with broken glass. What saves the executive sole is that Kumar chooses “which glass pieces to walk on” discerningly — picking the smaller, flatter ones. Other trainers even use plastic to fake glass shards.

At a recent firewalk in the FICCI complex at Delhi, for instance, some college girls tried to conquer their fears with firewalking. They burnt their toes, and the Delhi Police cracked down on firewalks altogether. Enlightenment emanates here, from what happened to management guru PS Rathore, organiser of the ill-fated walk, who was detained by Delhi Police. His tagline ironically read: “Burn all phobia and stress of life.”

“You can’t look at walking on fire, or outbounds in isolation,” defends Santosh Babu, founder of OD Alternatives, a renowned executive coaching company. “They’re part of a larger training process.” True. But the prevalence of flashy, superficial programmes stand out as symptoms of a system gone wrong.

Nevertheless if these workshops actually succeeded, no snide critic would have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, regardless of the many manhours spent in motivation, regardless of how enthused people seem in the few hours after a workshop, corporate India is still leaking employees and dissatisfaction. Priya Kumar herself says, “Average attrition rate is between 15 and 25 percent for India Inc — very bad.” But the names of most of the company games is still to win. And the rules — to hold on.



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