Organizations are increasingly worried that their employees are losing the battle to Continuous Partial Attention. For a few years now, texting on mobile phones and emails on BlackBerrys have become irritating but addictive distractions during important corporate discussions. But there is a silent enemy far more potent than these beeping devices, which is the humble cookie.

1. The Grabber has absolute clarity on what he wants in life and will waste no time getting there; 2. The Vacillator will forever be dissatisfied with his choices in life; 3. For a Health Fanatic, life is a constant struggle through a fat-obsessed society; 4. The Picky Eater is likely to pick and choose his way through life, a road inevitably filled with long waits; 5. A Civilized Sacrificer is a nice guy to have around, particularly if you want to borrow money; and 6. A Carrybag has a maximizing approach to life and will claim every penny which he perceives is due to him. Photoimaging by Raajan / Mint

I recall a meeting where the chief executive had just unveiled his brilliant new strategic plan—the bold acquisition of an unsuspecting global competitor. The audience, a select group of 20 top managers, was captivated by this daring approach. But unfortunately at that very moment the cookies were served. The platters placed on the table contained plump coconut cookies, chocolate-chip biscuits and a rare but immensely appealing blackberry variety. Eyes shifted immediately from the CEO’s presentation to the china platters, and back to the platters again, and for some time the only acquisition on their minds was getting immediate hold of the cookies before they vanished.

I don’t immediately remember whether that strategic plan made headway. But the cookie platters were certainly polished off, the meeting never quite recovered its flow, and 20 contented managers left the conference room soon thereafter. The cookie had struck.

Companies must, therefore, never underestimate the potency of the humble cookie. Don’t even call it humble, because the varieties served in today’s conference rooms range from the amazingly delicious to the incredibly exotic. Within these cookies reside irresistible and dangerous temptations, including blackberries, cashew nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and flavoured creams. Lots of bombshells which never miss their targets.

While managers uniformly greet the arrival of cookie platters at their meetings, their responses vary and are most educative to observe. Here is my “cookie-classification" of managers based on several years of sharp observation.

At the top of my list is the Grabber. He identifies his favourite cookie, and grabs it as soon as the plate is plonked on to the table. Since assorted platters are often designed to contain only one each of a type, his reactions are lightning fast. He spares no thought for his compatriots and their possible choices, nor is he concerned about whether others will look askance. This man has absolute clarity on what he wants in life and will waste no time getting there. Indeed, his philosophy finds both its origin and destination in Ayn Rand’s belief that selfishness is the ultimate virtue.

Close behind is the Vacillator. This man finds it difficult to choose between the cashew-nut cookie, the chocolate chip and the simple Marie biscuit. He loves them all, yet he has the civilized decency to know he must select only one at a time. So he vacillates, and even turns over a couple of the cookies endlessly to help him make his choice. Finally, he picks one under some internal duress. Here is the man who will forever be dissatisfied with his choices in life, and will live a life of constant regret. A sort of brooding Hamlet of today’s cookie-filled corporate world.

Then we have the Health Fanatic. To him, a cookie is primarily viewed through a lens filled with calories and cholesterol. To begin with, he absolutely resists the temptations placed before him, even pushes the plate away. If pangs of hunger win, he eventually breaks off a very small piece of the least dangerous cookie and chews on it very slowly. Then one more piece, and thereafter one more, until he finally decides it’s not really worth leaving behind the last remaining wedge. This “zero-sum" consumption fitness hero, whose life is a constant struggle through a fat-obsessed society, leaves the meeting resolving to eat less at dinner.

Let’s not forget the Picky Eater, who believes that only some parts of the cookie are really worth eating. He will slowly but surely pick out and eat the chocolate chips or the cashew nuts from within the biscuit, leaving large craters behind. Sometimes, he has the shameless audacity to actually open up a cream biscuit in full sight of the entire meeting, and pick out only the delicious cream, leaving a creamless ruin behind. This man is most likely to pick and choose his way through life, a road inevitably filled with long waits, ecstatic moments and disappointments.

This brings us to the Civilized Sacrificer (CS), a personality type which comes to the fore when the last cookie is left on the plate. He will eye this constantly, but is convinced that eating the last one is not the civilized thing to do. So he will sacrifice his cookie needs and wait endlessly until another colleague eventually eats the piece, at which point he experiences an internal moment of triumph. The matter turns complex if he is surrounded by CSes, in which case the last cookie remains perennially untouched. Expect this man to surrender the last taxi of the night to a passer-by, or to prioritize the demands of his friends. A nice guy to have around, particularly if you want to cadge a cigarette or borrow some money.

And finally, the Carrybag. He believes that cookies are meant to be taken away and not left behind. At the end of the meeting, he will silently pocket a few of the remaining cookies, if possible all of them. He may slip them into his laptop bag, or bundle them into his handkerchief. He may stuff them into his pockets. His conscience is in the clear, since he believes his company has already paid the hotel or conference hall for these cookies. Such a person believes in a maximizing approach to life, one where he will claim every last penny which he perceives is due to him, either fully or even marginally. A wonderful negotiator to have on your side.

These few “cookie classifications" illustrate how deep this subject goes, and how distracting it can be. So some enlightened organizations are simply considering a change in strategy—replacing biscuits with roasted peanuts during their board meetings. That’s the way the cookie crumbles in today’s corporate world.

Harish Bhat is COO, watches, Titan Industries Ltd. He drools endlessly over cookies which have lots of pineapple cream and a glob of jam in the centre.

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