The London Olympic Games are here. Over the next few weeks, many of us will be glued to our television screens, watching the world’s best athletes in action. World records will be broken, new heroes will be born. But if you are unable to catch all the excitement from London because of impossible work deadlines and demanding bosses, don’t worry. In most of our offices, we have close and uninterrupted access to the Olympics throughout the year. Surprised? Don’t be. If you look closely enough, you will see that our workplaces resemble the Olympic Games. This is because so many events are played out every day in our cubicles and conference rooms, as you will see below.
The Torch relay
The Olympic Torch travels from its original home in Greece to the venue of the Games. The torch is passed on from one athlete to the next as it makes this lengthy voyage. In the office version of the Olympics, the Torch relay happens all the time, though it bears a different label. It is called “passing the buck”, and many of us are experts at it. The buck never falls, we pass it on expertly to others in an unending relay. Most often, the buck gets lost and never reaches the stadium. It is fun to watch.
The five rings
The eternal symbol of the Olympic Games is five interlocked circles, each in a different colour. These circles represent the five continents that participate in the Games. Quite appropriately, this is also the symbol of the office Olympics. Because most of the time in our offices, we go around in circles. We develop mastery in circling around key issues, and not reaching any definite or difficult conclusions. On reflection, we may need more than five circles in the symbol of the office Olympics.
The most famous Olympic event is the marathon, run over 26 miles. Only the fittest athletes complete this long and strenuous course, and many are known to collapse along the way. Athletes at the marathon are advised to sip water at regular intervals, to prevent dehydration. At work, our careers are somewhat like the marathon. Most of us work for more than 26 years, so we are quite justified in calling ourselves office marathoners. The path is long and meandering, the terrain is tough. Most of us hydrate ourselves with many interesting drinks all along the way, which only goes to prove that we know how to run this long course.
This is the most beautiful Olympic event to watch, as beautiful bodies in motion achieve impossible feats. Gymnasts have very flexible bodies, which enable them to walk parallel bars with ease and turn cartwheels with elegance. In our offices, we are gymnasts all the time. We juggle with impossible deadlines and tasks, we are masters of the trapeze swings, we hang on to the smallest threads of hope, and yet we skilfully dance our way through the day. Sometimes, we walk on several parallel bars together. We may not score perfect 10s (which is what every gymnast dreams of), but we learn enough to pass muster, with reasonable grace.
This is the grand sport where, in the memorable words of world champion Muhammad Ali, “you fly like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”. You can score knockouts, or you can win on points alone. Sometimes you win, and sometimes your opponent treats you like a punching bag. In our offices, many of us are heavyweight boxing champions, but we indulge in a very different form of this sport—shadow-boxing. Office politics teaches us the harsh truth that we have to be butterflies and bees all the time. Scientific research has shown that a long career in boxing damages the brain and intellect severely, and that is also the unfortunate truth with office boxing contests.
At the Olympic Games, wrestling contests are watched by packed houses. The sport is special for Indians this year, because we hope to win some rare medals in London. It is a familiar sport in our workplaces because sometimes we wrestle with our bosses, at other times with our team members, or with our clients, or with our never-ending workload. Arguments, strategic debates, differences of opinion, multiple obstinate egos to contend with…oh, the wrestling never stops.
This is a challenging Olympic event that tests skills of accuracy, steadiness and consistency. We practise a very different version of this sport in our offices. Sometimes we shoot messengers, particularly when they bring us bad news from the marketplace or our production units. At other times, we shoot into thin air, when we try to take decisions entirely unsupported by facts. Very often, we shoot ourselves in the foot, when we say things in meetings that we should certainly not have said. And at all times, we know of several people in our workplace whom we would like to shoot at the first opportunity. We could all win Olympic gold medals in this event.
At the London Olympics, there will perhaps be more officials from national sports federations than there are athletes. For many of these worthies, the Olympics is an all-expenses-paid junket, and they dish out unsolicited advice to participants all the time. Some of them are retired athletes, others have never stepped into a stadium themselves. In our own office Olympics, this breed is called consultants. They tell us what we should be doing, should not be doing, could be doing, and anything else they think you need. Consultants are powerful, they have access to the top bosses, and their numbers are growing all the time. As many Indian sportspeople have discovered, you ignore them entirely at your own risk.
Harish Bhat has recently been appointed managing director and CEO, Tata Global Beverages Ltd. He was earlier the chief operating officer of Titan Industries Ltd. His favourite Olympic sport is swimming. In the office version of this event, he thinks we are drowning most of the time, with hardly a moment to rise up and breathe.
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