This article written by me in 2001, was published in the Deccan Herald, a leading newspaper from Bangalore. Please give allowance for the time gap in case readers experience flavour and relevance of an earlier period...
It was after over a decade that I started writing again when I started my blog...
"We in the 21st century live in an age of information explosion. Today there is total transparency in the corporate world.With the internet and Email facilities, anyone can access information and communicate their views to any level of organizational hierarchy without the fear of disapproval."
The above statement is similar to saying that "India is now a developed country. The status of her being a nuclear power, the wide choice option of automobiles, electronics and other goods enjoyed by its citizens are all proof of its developed state."
We all know that reality is far removed in both the statements.In respect of corporates, the statement is true of very few companies having a genuine computerized environment.In most brick and mortar companies nothing much has changed with respect to channels of communication.The feudal mindset continues to thrive and prevail. Various gates check and inhibit free flow of information, ideas or opinions. The gatekeeper is ever vigilant protecting his boss from inconveniences.
The personal secretaries and personal staff of senior executives described as 'gatekeepers' often bask in the privilege of free access to the boss. They often tend to get carried away, even risking the very effectiveness of the bosses whose roles they are expected to enhance. Of course there are exceptions to the general tendency and not all of the personal staff exhibit such behaviour . The employees who are exceptions in this connection, are a pleasure to deal with. They not only contribute to effective working but also enhance the image of their bosses.
Although at a first glance the subject under discussion may appear to be unimportant,obnoxious behaviour of gatekeepers cause grave damage to the communication function which is acknowledged by academicians and practitioners as key to effective working.The problems arise due to a lack of clarity of the secretary/personal staff as to their actual role in the office.The secretary does not see himself as an aid enabling the boss to carry out his duties effectively.On the contrary, he sees himself as a 'door keeper'who has to keep people away from the 'busy'boss. In the process he himself begins to gain a lot of importance. He can enjoy the vicarious pleasure of curtly telling a manager to wait or listening to an employee pleading for an audience with the boss. It is a fact that it is difficult to detect arrogant persons since such persons are seldom unpleasant to those who have the power to make decisions affecting their career.
A retired director sadly remarked "We have ourselves contributed in some way to these people behaving the way they do."Yet the fact remains that if by a magic wand we could take the clock back to his pre-retirement period, the executive would deal with his staff in exactly the same way permitting them undue liberties. One of the main reasons for the behaviour of personal staff being what they are, is the total and helpless dependence of the boss on the personal staff like that of a newborn on his mother for all his personal work, be it booking cooking gas for the residence, drawing money from the bank, even investment in stock markets. To the net savvy, it may appear that these are no longer relevant or major issues which can be attended to by the 'busy'executive himself with the click of a button. Yet, the fact remains that the dependence is still a reality. The compulsive dependence works very well to the advantage of the staff but it almost invariably lowers the image of the boss who is perceived as weak and ineffective if he allows the staff to overstep their authority/ brief.
While a gatekeeper's role may appear vital and relevant as he seemingly saves precious senior executive time from being wasted, in reality it proves counter productive when officers reporting to the boss are prevented from meeting him by the 'gate keeper'who is more concerned with the inflation of his own ego to either see or understand the urgency of the matter brought for decision/discussion.
There is a saying in Kannada language which when translated reads "Even if the Lord is prepared to give a boon (vara) the pujari is unwilling to do so." We have also heard of a folk tale of a poet who wanted to meet the king but was prevented by the gate keeper.He was finally allowed inside on the condition that he give 50% of the presents he gets from the king to the gate keeper.The poet asked the king for a hundred lashes.We need to check with the boss whether in reality some of the instructions attributed to him are in fact given by him. We need to keep the boss informed of occasions when our functioning has been adversely affected by the behaviour of an overzealous gate keeper.
Persons who are in the role of the boss need to educate their personal staff as to the correct expectations from them. The right signals will go a long way in ensuring appropriate behaviour from the staff.An important requirement in this regard is to provide continuous training to the personal staff clarifying their roles and expectations as also appropriate behaviour in different situations.
Free access to information and communication still appears a mirage.It may still be quite a while before the mirage becomes a reality in corporates of all hues.Access to information and transparency will not only ensure smooth communication and harmony in working but also help the personal staff to retain their relevance in the future as well, even in a paperless environment.