Guest AuthorHema Ravichandar

The fine art of lying low

Source | Hema Ravichandar (The Mint)

It is an art that is surprisingly unheralded. While its more celebrated cousins, “be visible, speak up, and make your opinion count”, find many vigorous campaigners, rarely do we acknowledge the power of “lying low”, or as politicians would say, the art of “masterly inactivity”. And yet, when you think of all the dark horses who breasted the finishing line with great aplomb, survivors who stoically saw through the tough times or contenders who were never really vocally visible yet emerged winners, this skill seems consistently present. What the protagonists had in good measure, and what in the final analysis helped them run their individual marathons wisely and prudently, was their ability to strategically lie low in critical times. So here are some of the times and some of the ways this rather
unsung skill comes in handy. Maybe some of them will resonate with you. Melt away in the corridor; do the Houdini act in the elevator…best deployed during performance cycles and ‘RIFing’ (reduction in force)

In the appraisal calendar, March and April are the times of the dreaded performance distribution curves. Meeting appraisal targets and reduction in force quotas worries most people managers. However much organizations
may deny having a forced ranking system, the pressure—subtle or otherwise —to bucket employees and weed out non-performers exists, more so when times are tough. And that’s when it helps to flex your “lying low” skills.

A veteran survivor of many layoffs says: “The secret is to lie low and not catch the boss’ attention. Never get caught alone with the species in an elevator or even make the mistake of making eye contact along a quiet corridor. Out of sight, out of mind is clearly the success mantra. Think remote locations or working from home options. Bury yourself well in the employee rolls so that they have to really dig deep to find you there.”

The end of the queue for me, please—better worthies can take it on the chin Failures and controversies are also great times for lying low. Learn the art from veterans of the cricketing world. Coaches, maybe? Some famous casualties set themselves up for target practice by being both visible and vocal at inopportune times. Their smarter brothers become invisible even when flaunting a string of failures, letting others—captains, out-of-form players, the Board of Control for Cricket in India and even umpires—take the flak, surviving to see another day. Smart tactics include absence at press conferences, skilful avoidance of the camera as it pans the despondent faces in the dugout, or even taking cover under the board’s gag orders; all worthy of emulating in the quest for survivorship. Winning the CEO sweepstakes Think dark horses, those who successfully lay low for long periods of their uneventful, if successful, careers, sweeping the chief executive officer (CEO) stakes in the final lap. This is as true in the Silicon Valley of the US as in our own indigenous one.

Board nomination committees have again and again surprised stakeholders by plumping for the “not in your face always” candidate even as their more famous peers fall off the contention lists. Reliable sources attribute the success of such dark horses to said horses’ low profiles, a focus on unglamorous but important businesses, and remaining quintessentially company persons even though they were seen at public events far less than eyeball-grabbing colleagues, or their non-Twitterati presence made them “almost” inconspicuous.

Simply duck! Aptly termed the “waterfall” model, this is popular when compensation increases are gold dust, or employee satisfaction scores have bottomed out. Senior leaders and human resource (HR) enlist hapless middle managers to share the onerous task of spreading the bad news. But those who have mastered the fine art of lying low know how to duck right out of the tough communication cascade. And so the torrent of bad news falls down straight—from the top directly down to the troops, with nary a mid-level say. Ducking, of course, involves disappearing from corporate podiums at all-hands’ meets and siding with the troops, physically if not figuratively, when they heckle the higher-ups. The reverse too can happen Smart leaders under siege often turn to their loyal aides to hold fort and counter-attack, while they themselves lie low till the storm clouds pass. Quite a common occurrence during many noisy Parliament debates, wouldn’t you agree? Watch out though for identified stand-ins themselves ducking at the opportune moment, fearing scapegoating perhaps or even damage to their own fledgling leadership aspirations.

New brooms can sweep clean, but first lie low Not cultivating this skill can be suicidal, some say, for new joinees as they assess corporate terrains and avoid potential minefields. Put another way, stoop silently to conquer. Brash, in-your-face suggestions or foolhardy recommendations may give one 2 minutes of glory in the sun, but in fact end up with the person being just that—a 2-minute wonder. Lie low initially, come to terms with ground realities and
tricky inter-departmental dynamics before opining away. Listen assiduously and take copious notes; offer lowly opinions only if you absolutely must.

‘Masterly inactivity’….Is how Lord John Lawrence, viceroy and governor general of India (1864-69), aptly termed the strategy when he deployed it for the British in their dealings with Afghanistan in the 19th century, after they had lost the first Indo-Afghan war. Historians, civil servants and the Internet are all great sources to detail the many advantages of this crafty policy. Joseph Gallivan, novelist, expounded the same philosophy, though more irreverently, when he said, “Old hippies don’t die, they just lie low until the laughter stops and their time comes round again.”

The analogy could hold true for corporate warriors as well.

Hema RaviHema Ravichandar is a strategic Human Resources Consultant and a HR Thought Leader. She is  a renowned Leadership Coach and serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

First published in The Mint. 

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