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From the discomfort zone: Doubt and Confidence

The biggest post-election doubt is that the Opposition learnt no lesson from dynasty party’s defeat and has, as yet, limited confidence to select a non-dynasty leader.

Every milkman mixes water with the pure milk the good cow gives. This anecdotal example sets the ambiguous doubt-confidence paradox we live under. Confident about the milk’s source and quality, we habitually doubt the milkman’s integrity. As we cannot do without this intermediary function, we accept the inescapable delivery of tainted milk. There’s a French proverb, “On fait des affaires dans la confiance, pas dans la méfiance”, meaning business is done in confidence, not in doubt. In India, these diametrically opposed contradictions are married in our minds.

Social context: Historically, from being subjects under a variety of Hindu dynasties, followed by Mughal raj, to the British raj and the License raj, and now finally the liberalised economy, many fractions have ripped open our social fabric. One can say doubts have captured more space in our minds than confidence has.

Is it our cultural heritage in India that we love the divergent mixture of salt, sugar and pepper like no other culture relishes it? Or is tackling ambiguity, a skill we picked up for survival, as we had to always face and effectively handle the incongruous, divergent social and political elements that were at odds with one another?

An arranged marriage is full of doubtful factors. The couple that barely knows each other suddenly goes to bed after socially accepted religious rituals. From various research with women on different subjects, I’ve gathered that they experience profound anxiety in spite of their parents’ confidently assuring them that the two families are highly compatible culturally.

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Inside the joint family system, each and every person lives to doubt the other. Even in the contemporary trend of ZAP generation girls and boys sharing total freedom, there’s grave doubt about what will happen if they marry.

Doubt is constant about the breaking down of marriages even though the couple may previously have lived together. Actually, high divorce rates among working couples is a global phenomenon that arises from economic development. When European wives started working from the new 1970s consuming age, more infidelity occurred and ended marriages. With urbanisation, more disposable incomes and better living standards in India, the scope of doubt is increasing.

Even in consumer interactions, I’ve heard that consumers buy branded yoghurt fresh every day, like milk. That’s because they doubt the retailer, believing he switches off the power at night so the refrigerated yoghurt that’s best before two weeks takes a beating.


Political perspective: The heady sweet-and-salt lassi shake is like the ambiguity of doubt and confidence in Indian politics. Before our 2014 parliamentary election results, so many people declared they voted saffron for lack of confidence in the dynasty. So the current ruling party has to assuage and raise the confidence level of voters who did not proactively choose them. The biggest post-election doubt is that the Opposition learnt no lesson from dynasty party’s defeat and has, as yet, limited confidence to select a non-dynasty leader.
On the other hand, saffron will face continuous opposition on doubts raised over previous actions and the competence and vision of Cabinet members other than the leader people voted in. The masses generally have no expectation from the political powers-that-be. So the new government has been marked with the diametrical doubt-confidence ambiguity already.

Business environment: Indian proprietorship companies are bold enough to act and focus on delivery. But do those MBA schools that teach family business management give any relevant lessons? What’s largely taught is multi-national corporation culture theory emphasising on processes and operational issues including presentation skills. In Deming’s model of plan-do-check-act, MNCs want ‘plan-check-act’, while Indian proprietors want ‘do’; that’s action with results.

The management style of Indian proprietor-run companies can be quite mystifying to MBA managers. The characteristics and attitudes of promoter companies can differ vastly, such as: (1) very feudal managing style, (2) active sharing of responsibility by the owners and professionals, (3) boardroom leadership by the owner with the company being run by professional senior management, (4) appointing a few advisors who closely shadow the operational leaders, (5) interference in the business by the whole family.


So MBA managers often have no clue on how to handle Indian proprietors who demand and reward tangible decisive action and shareholder value delivery. Promoters are generally focused on cash inflows and outflows instead of working on complicated internal rate of return. We can learn the excellence of entrepreneurship from them.

However, if there’s vulnerability in the proprietor’s confidence level with the senior management, it impacts every employee layer across the company. If the proprietor is averse to taking risks, and frequently changes company priorities in seeking short-term gains, the management can face the danger of being shuffled. Long-term survivors in these companies may not necessarily be in the mainstream, but are functional operators who serve some flexible agenda of the promoter.

Sustaining business happens with confidence, never with doubt. How many things can a contract specify if there’s no moral and mutual assurance of confidence between employees and employers, partners and vendors? Abolishing the handicap of doubt and demonstrating confidence can really take the company far. Using digital technology, the company’s culture and activities, from the strategic to operational levels, can be mapped as gates where doubt is examined and erased to open the culture of confidence. A war room is great for challenging and redefining the business model; but not with doubt, only confidence.

With the transparency of digital technology, it’s now time to increase the confidence level as high as possible in every aspect in our society. We may all collectively need to work on how to kill doubt to move forward for a better future of the country.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

First published on: 01-06-2014 at 01:11 IST
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