Q: The concept of ‘nishkama karma’ (work without attachment to the outcome) espoused in Bhagwat Gita seems to allow for employers to deny employees and also to accept perfunctory performance. What is it for real?
A: As you suspect the concept runs much deeper. Let me explain:
At our work-place a role is assigned to us: a salesman, a fitter, a coder…
Each of these roles has a code of conduct specifying behaviors implied by the role. This is in essence the dharma of the role. It is usually prescriptive focusing on the steps more than the outcome. We must consider ourselves sworn to uphold the role’s dharma. This is exactly like the Hippocrates’ Oath associated with doctors (though contrary to common belief, they don’t take the oath). We’re required to practice the role dharma to the best of our abilities.
Since our behavior is demanded by the role and its dharma, in a way, we could say we are employed not so much by the employer as by the role. At the next step of simplification, it gets even more interesting. If we fold the abstract into the real i.e. if we merge the role with the man, it turns out we’re our employer!
Now, does this mean while we perform like we’re our own employer, the real employer takes advantage of the situation?
Well, to be honest, he might. Note most importantly our behavior however is not affected by the adharmic behavior of the employer. It is perfectly legitimate to counter the adharma of the employer through our efforts of assessing the situation (is the employer truly adharmic?), negotiating with him and employing other persuasive tactics to make him see reason and finally work out an acceptable middle-ground or even accept the employer’s position. As a last resort, the dharmishtan (practioner of dhrama) may decide to move away to a more conducive location – not a desirable outcome for the employer if he knows what’s good for him.
In our daily lives we interact with numerous entities that may or may not practice their respective dharma’s to our disadvantage. For instance a vegetable vendor may overcharge for his produce.We are free to counter these as we see fit not largely affecting our practice of dharma.
In real life things get a little more complex. Firstly each of us plays a multitude of roles at different times and in different contexts: an employee, a boss, a father/mother, a son/daughter, a husband/wife, a customer…Each of these roles has its own dharma. Where is the role’s dharma written? It can’t be in the ancient texts since some of these roles are entirely contemporary. Actually it is a lot simpler than it appears. For instance any service related role would imply striving for satisfaction of its customer through some service-specific means, etc. etc. At the time of marriage we take a lot of oaths (unfortunately we in India hardly understand what we mouth as these are in Sanskrit) about our conduct with our spouses as described in old texts/scriptures. A practical subset of these oaths could serve as the dharma for our role.
When we do this across all roles we play, does it result in a bewildering variety of dharmic prescriptions, too many to keep track? Fortunately it is possible to reduce all of these to a few strong injunctions like the Ten Commandments – a list that we created, believe in, strongly motivated to uphold in our lives. More enduring than the use of carrot and sticks. Examples: I’ve tried to inculcate in my daughters from young as part of ethics in life: ‘Don’t touch what does not rightly belong to you.’ A professional’s dharma would include the obligation to deliver the best service/solution for his customer. It implies the professional must update himself with recent developments in his field. Of course these dharmic mandates may carry realistic qualifiers.
Coming back to one of the original questions: Does the concept of nishkama karma breed mediocrity? The answer is: The criterion for good performance is already built into the role dharma. Thus below-par performance cannot be passed off as dharmic compliance.
One final question – why are we introducing a fancy term dharma? Isn’t the term ‘duty’ adequate for the purpose?
Well, a big no. The terms dharma and dharmishtan are much more powerful concepts. They connote ownership, empowerment, self-image and even pride in the practice.
Note the above concepts are secular and simply practical – by no means altruistic.
Hope this clarifies.
So where do we go from here?
It’s quite a light and simple process. As an illustrative example, let’s take a software development shop and a professional working there in.
We give him a small set of dharmic principles that emanate from the organization’s vision and culture. We give him the choice of adding a few on his own, of course, in line with the operations of the organization and his role. We agree on how to look at his compliance over time. After,say, six months or so we do a supportive review to figure out how far he is gone in building the persona for himself. Note these principles are not to be confused with KRA’s or performance goals. Neither do we interfere with the customary review/appraisal process until we have more data and maturity in this experiment. The dharmic principles are not so volatile over time, they are not project specific, they are more to do with what is right for the professional to do in his role. Example: The bane of most organizations in this space is the failure to share knowledge. Would it get better if this is incorporated as a dharmic principle that he proudly owns as part of his professional persona?
Well, needs to be tried out.