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Sridhar Jayanthi
Monday, January 30, 2006
Whenever I hear employees call their manager “Sir” or “Madam” or see the employee being subservient while addressing seniors in the company, I see barriers to communication. This is just one of the many hierarchical practices that are holding India back. It is bold given that in India this represents the culture in nearly 90 percent of the companies, despite many IT companies having dropped the formality for years.

Think of two similar aged people in your life – one you call by their name and one you call as “Sir” or “Madam.” Think about how you talk to each of them and what information you are ready to share and you will realize. Explicit hierarchy could be a hindrance to feeling equal in a global setting. Hierarchy should be purely used for operational efficiency and should not be taken personally.

There are many things that can be done to create a non-hierarchical environment that encourages open communication and freethinking. Having recognized this early, we address this at McAfee with a passion. The head of HR and I spend one full day with every new employee in McAfee a few weeks after they join. We ensure they leave some of their “shackles” behind to enter a freethinking environment where open communication and feedback is encouraged.

Apart from not being allowed to call anyone “Sir,” all employees have open access to every single person in McAfee. Each person has the right to call or email our CEO or President or any executive anywhere in the world with ideas, criticism, complaints and encouragement. Creating a flatter hierarchy requires understanding the employee demographics. There are many other ways to ensure people feel that their jobs are as important as those of their seniors’–except that we all have different levels of responsibilities. That brings about pride in one’s job and opens up people to higher levels of communication.

For instance, allowing someone with a good idea to showcase it themselves will help them feel valued. A more mundane example is there are no “office boys” at McAfee; we reinforce dignity of labor and self-reliance through elimination of work that requires subservience or can depict hierarchy. Over time this results in every single employee respecting each other regardless of seniority or title. This type of culture is not unique in the IT industry but certainly needs to be more widespread in India for the best ideas of our minds to come out.

It is not easy to create or change the culture of a company or even habits of employees. Some tips to create a non-hierarchical team:
1. Hire people who are passionate about the job. They will get their respect and pride from their jobs. l Find ways to make employees feel comfortable enough to challenge your views regardless of title or seniority
2. Ensure open door policy across all levels; ensure managers do not discourage employee talking to managers many levels above them or in other departments.

3. Respect for all employees regardless of role or title is critical.

4. Empower each individual to be creative.

Disallow employees being formal with seniors by calling them “Sir” or “Madam” and address by first name. This change will have a remarkable impact on communication.
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