Episode 8: From Command to Empathy: Suman Ghose



Our guest today is Suman Ghose, who has co-authored the book From Command to Empathy along with Avik Chand. In this podcast, he talks about what led them to writing the book, his journey along the way that uncovered aspects of empathy and emotional intelligence – terms that are often considered abstract and understood by a few. Suman speaks about the overarching importance of inculcating a culture and habit of developing Emotional Intelligence and Empathy, which in essence are 2 sides of the same coin. They can bring about a gradual change in the mindsets of each and every individual. He talks about why it is the right time for organizations to get serious about bringing empathy to their employees and how it can help employees cope with the changing times. He touches on how it helps understand the mindset of millennials and helps bridge the generation divide.





Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. Today, I’m very excited to have amongst us Suman Ghose who is an acclaimed author of the book called From Command to Empathy that was published by Harper Collins. This book was on the best seller’s list of Amazon in the month of April 2018. Welcome, Suman.

Suman Ghose: Thank you, Nitesh.

Nitesh Batra:  One of the things that I really like to do is getting to know our guest. And for myself and for our listeners, I like to ask them a little bit about their background, their upbringing, maybe something that has prompted them to be where they are today. We’ll talk about your current company that you formed in 2014 and all that. But before that, if you can introduce yourself and tell us a little bit, that’ll be great.

Suman Ghose: Sure, Nitesh. So let me start right from the beginning. You talked about growing up. So I come from– I belong to Kolkata. I grew up there. I’m from a family of Engineers. My brother, father. My mother also is an Engineer. And so, no points for guessing. I also became an Engineer. I went to IIT Kharagpur. This was late ’80’s. I graduated in 1990. Then got a job with Cadbury’s. It was a factory job but not too bad considering I was making chocolates in the factory. And then I think in the nick of time before I got too comfortable there, I left to do my MBA. And so I went to, IIM-Bangalore–’94-’96. In terms of family,. I met my wife actually right after joining IIM. That was a really awesome time. She’s a qualitative market researcher. She currently works for Wells Fargo.

Suman Ghose: We have two children. My son is in second year of college. He in Ashoka University and my daughter is Class 11 and she’s pursuing science. So that’s a little bit about my background. I’ve been, as I in, I always introduce myself as a, you know, I was a typical boring IT guy and something happened. And we’ll talk about that–what made me kind of take quite a radical departure. And I started this company called Inroads Leadership Development, about four to five years ago, completely driven by the passion to do it along with one other ex-colleague of mine. And there are 3 of us who run the company today. In the process, I also wrote this book called From Command to Empathy, which is also again, an amazing experience considering it was the first book that I was writing. Very happy that Harper Collins agreed to publish it. And, yeah, so here we are.

Nitesh Batra: Thank you, Suman. Many congratulations on the first book. It’s, it’s fantastic to read about empathy and, know about EQ. And I’ll ask about your co-author, Avik Chanda. Unfortunately I don’t know much about him and I would like to know how did you both come up with writing this book?

Suman Ghosh: Okay. So Avik and I actually go back a long way from our PricewaterhouseCoopers days. He was Interesting–in that, he was an IT guy with, a creative angle. He was into writing, painting, sculpture, all of that. He came to me with the idea of writing a book. And I immediately jumped at the idea, even though I had never written a book. I mean, there’s always a first time for everything. And because I’d started this company and I thought, you know, this could definitely kind of, it’ll help me and it’ll help you know, the people who are, who I’m training and coaching, so it would be a win-win. The journey was hard but interesting and a lot of learning. It took me about more than a year, I think almost a year and a half to complete the book. And then when it was almost done, we gave it to Harper and I was quite apprehensive as to what kind of feedback they’ll come back with.

Suman Ghose: And what they came back with was really surprising because it’s something that we didn’t expect at all. They said we are very happy that you’ve actually finished the book. I said, what do you mean by that? He said, well, you and a co-author wrote it. So often, our experience is when there are two people writing it, often they don’t finish it. They start fighting by the middle of it. So that was really something- the fact that– and we did have our challenges, I must agree. And we would talk to each other about EQ–saying that we should be the, since we’re talking about empathy, we should show it, show empathy towards each other. And so we did finish the book and we had a great working relationship. So we actually finished it. The second thing they said was that it did not feel like there were two authors. Often, you know, the style of writing could be different, but that it kind of read seamlessly.

Suman Ghose: So that was nice. And the third is that we were actually writing this book from two different locations. I was in Bangalore, he was in Kolkata. But thanks to technology today, it’s possible. So overall, that’s been the journey with Avik and it’s been a very fruitful journey. His background is–as I said, he was creative. He could actually bounce off ideas from each other and his command on the language is also very good. He’s from– he has done his Masters from Delhi School of Economics. So he also brings his strengths. So that’s where it was kind of a win win combination.

Nitesh Batra: Whenever anyone embarks on a journey like writing a book or maybe going on a track or maybe going from place a to b, if everything goes smoothly, you never remember it. That’s what happens. And it took a year and a half- 18 months- to write this book. And you mentioned some of the challenges you guys faced. Can you talk of any anecdotes that come to your mind during that time period that really made you look inside and, and think about, you know, why you are writing this book and why are you on this journey and why you’re working with Avik? Anything along those lines?

Suman Ghose: Yeah. There were quite a few such incidents that happened, you know. For instance, just this entire consensus building between the two of us was an immense challenge. And I think as part of EQ we were talking about social skills and relationship management. But the toughest was to continue having that relationship, between me and my co-author, each of us respecting the other person’s point of view. And sometimes it was about me letting go and sometimes about him letting go as to what we wanted to say. Because the moment you get your ego into the picture, it can be very difficult to get out of that. And we did face some challenges, but luckily we were able to resolve them. But that also taught me a lot in terms of just the give and take between two people. So that, you know, keeping the end objective in mind and not letting the egos come in the way.

Nitesh Batra: Did the book change you in any way? That part of 18 months? When you started writing it and by the end of that, is there something interesting that you discovered about yourself that you weren’t aware of?

Suman Ghose: Well, one was the writing itself. But I think overall when I look back, what changed me was the research that I did for the book. You know, it was almost like I discovered an entire aspect and entire dimension, which I didn’t know existed, right? So it started with a passion, a liking towards the subject. But as I got deeper into it, I realized that there was so much more to it. Whether it is nuances of, you know, positive psychology or neuroscience or power of habits. So I think a lot of the research did help me a lot. I think that’s been the biggest learning.

Nitesh Batra: So talking about empathy, talking about EQ, I think it’s a topic that some of us are aware of and some of us are not. I would like you to enlighten our listeners. What is your understanding of what EQ is, and why is this relevant at this point of time?

Suman Ghose: That’s a, that’s a good question.

Suman Ghose: So I was also thinking as to, you know, initially when Avik came to me and wanted to do and we decided to write a book, actually I had a few options as to where I should focus on. Because it could be in any of the leadership aspects because that’s something that I teach as part of Teach & Consult as part of Inroads. But why I chose this particular topic is that I feel very strongly about it, right? From a couple of dimensions. I think firstly, you know, just like the current education system we all feel is completely out of tune with the new world that we’re living in. I think so is the management style in organizations. You know, both have their roots in the industrial revolution? The entire focus on the STEM–Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. If you go back in time, Engineering as we know it today, where there’s a clear hierarchy of STEM coming right at the top and then you have humanities and fine arts and now there’s a clear hierarchy and that happened because that was the need of the hour in the industrial revolution where people were coming into the factories and, working.

Suman Ghose: Here what’s happening is, you know, we keep hearing that today, everyday we keep hearing that there’s more automation that’s coming in and people are losing their jobs. The other thing that we also hear is this war for talent, right? And it’s almost like paradoxical. How can you have a war for talent when the number of jobs itself is coming down? And I think that’s because the new requirement is that people need to be much more broad based, much more multidimensional skills. What required 10 people yesterday is being done by two people. Given the kind of productivity, the need is the ability to inspire and motivate people. In other words, what is needed is Emotional Intelligence. I keep getting reminded of this book by Marshall Goldsmith that says What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There.

Suman Ghose: And I think that’s a good metaphor for the IQ and EQ debate. IQ does get us to where we are. And IQ is very important up to a certain point and it’s not that we don’t need IQ. IQ is necessary but not sufficient. So, beyond a certain level, it is what EQ that counts. And that’s why I was very passionate about this. And I think EQ is something–and as I mentioned about the education system, it’s not something in our curriculum, it’s not something that we’re taught. Whereas at the same time this is extremely important and that’s the reason why I chose this topic and I think this is a very, very, very relevant and very important, especially in the Indian context.

Nitesh Batra: One of the things that you talk in your book is about millennials and I’m very interested in millennials and you have two young adult children. When you started thinking about going into what kind of leadership trainings you should do or thinking about empathy or EQ, are there certain things you have learned from them or have they learned from you over the years which made you realize that yes, it is something very important for the current generation to incorporate empathy or EQ in their lives? And if so, how?

Nitesh Batra: A lot of companies are now starting to incorporate things like mindfulness, compassion, empathy, and such trainings. Google has come up with SIYLI has their own internal department, which takes care of teaching mindfulness to its employees. You decided to leave your corporate career at at a time when you were growing in your career. Why did you decide to leave everything and start to Inroads.

Suman Ghose: Again. Very interesting– how it all turned out and there were certain triggers that happen. So I’d like to start with a small story. It was a kind of a turning point in my life. I was joining them in their leadership team, they had an assessment that needed to be done. It was an external assessment for which I had to spend the day with an external body. A whole day, where they would assess me and actually give the results and give the final results to the company based on which they would decide whether to hire me.

Suman Ghose: That was a very intense experience. And, there was a lot of case studies and discussions that happened as part of the assessment. And in one of those, the person who was on the other side, we were supposed to do a role modeling– and he gave me a case study and I was supposed to convince him of some decision. And he gave me the case study and I read it and I analyzed it and when I was discussing with him, you know, it went off fine. And then in the end he said, but Suman, I will not do what you told me to do. And I said, why? He said, you know, what were spot on in terms of analyzing, dissecting what this case study was about, but the way you described it to me, I didn’t feel the emotion or I didn’t feel the energy. And being the typical left brain analytical person that I was, that got me thinking.

Suman Ghose:  And I said, you know, what is this energy and what is this emotion that he’s talking about? I mean, my job is to analyze and tell him what the decision is, right? I mean, end of the day leadership is all about making decisions and the right decisions. And that got me thinking and I think, and the more I read about it, I realized that while rationales help us make, um, you know, makes us analyze options, it is emotions that actually drives us to actions. So this rationale is good in terms of just analyzing and there’s a lot of neuroscience which is backing that up, but finally, end of the day, something like a decision making, which we typically think is a very rational process is actually a very emotional one. So by nature we are very emotional.

Suman Ghose:  Human beings are emotional and that’s how we are different from machines. So that was a turning point. There is a story in the book which is called Mastering the Forest. And with your permission, I’d like to read a little bit from that, if that’s okay with you?

Nitesh Batra: Absolutely, please do.

Suman Ghose: So the story goes that in medieval times, a Japanese warlord once sent his son to a zen master to further his education. And the Zen master gave him some instructions and told him to actually go and check out the forest and master the forest and come back when he thought he was ready. The boy went, he thought, you know, he spent considerable time there. He thought he had mastered the forest. He came back and the master asked him that how was it? So he explained what his experience was and the master just shook his head said, you’re not ready.

Suman Ghose: And then he went back again and each time it was more of a learning for him. And this had to happen quite a few times before the master-the Zen master finally said, yes, you’re ready to go home. He had finally mastered the forest. So what this tells us, I write in the book and I don’t want to give away the story, but I’m just reading this paragraph, which is right after that. It goes like this. The take away from the Zen story is simple. While true leadership entails a high level of emotional maturity, this quality cannot be imbibed overnight . Rather, it must be built gradually and painstakingly overtime. It’s not an entitlement that a person can lay claim to once he has attained a position of power, nor is it about knowing or conquering the forest. Rather, it is about being connected and truly becoming one with the elements. Great leaders are inspiring and people want to follow them because such great leaders have the ability to touch their hearts and engage with them at a basic emotional level. Seen through this prism, leadership is a function of emotional intelligence.

Suman Ghose: I really believe in this story, it’s not something, it’s not about the tool and technique that you just learned. This is something that you have to imbibe and it is difficult. It’s incredibly hard to do that. It’s about reflecting, making sure you know, each day, am I doing it better than what I did? It’s not going to change overnight. It’s a lifelong journey.

Nitesh Batra: And that brings to the next question and I think it’s a good segue to that question as well. This is something that we learn over a period or time and we have to keep practicing it and it’s, it’s a gradual thing and I believe they should be more a part of our curriculum, our education system?

Nitesh Batra: And I think we are still following the industrial revolution –the story you brought up– that we’re still following the same curriculum and the same things. And because of that, these things which are, which are more common sensical, are not common sensical anymore. Why is that you think that these things like empathy, mindfulness are not part of our day to day life?

Suman Ghose: I talked about the war for talent, which is more at the individual level. What Got Us Here, Won’t Get You There. So individually, we all need to build those emotional intelligence skills, right? Which will help us both professionally and personally. Let’s look at what’s happening within the organization. You know, if I look at the general environment, we are moving from the industrial economy to the knowledge economy and then to the creative economy. So it’s not so much about obedience or diligence, right? It’s more about initiative, creativity and passion. And this change is real. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. This is not something that you read in a textbook and it’s happening in one part of Silicon Valley. This is happening right here. I stay in Bangalore. If you look out, there is an industrial company, there is you know the IT Service Providers which are more into the knowledge economy and then you have the whole bunch of startups which are really in the creative economy. So all of them are kind of coexisting. Each of them are already very much part of our system right now. But the guy who is working in a creative economy, who’s probably more in a startup kind of mode, the skills that he or she needs to have is very different. Right? It’s really about creativity and passion more than just you know, just bringing yourself to the job and about diligence and even intellect, okay?

Suman Ghose: So companies will have to do a radical shift in their thinking. You know, it requires a completely different way of looking at things in terms of motivating people. Not the typical carrot and stick approach which comes from the industrial revolution, but one which is more about autonomy, more about mastery and purpose. And these things actually run counter to our basic understanding of the management sciences. If you really go back to management sciences, the way it evolved with the gurus like Frederick Taylor and Deming that actually came from the industrial revolution. But today we are talking of something totally different. You’re talking autonomy, which is really about ownership as opposed to responsibility. Responsibility is given, ownership is taken. You need people with initiative, right? So that is something very different. Things like mastery, which is really about having the right mindset and continuous learning because we’re living in a VUCA world where things are changing at a way too rapid pace.

Suman Ghose: So it’s not so much about how I know, but the ability to pick up something very quickly and adapt and about purpose. So it’s no longer about incentive, but am I able to see the big picture? So from all these aspects, I think we’re living in a world, already living in a world which is not like in the future but right here, right now, which requires a completely new way of thinking both for an individual as well as for a company. Having said that, my experience is that most companies are very slow to change. For large companies, they are into the command and control mode. I think there is a realization that things need to change. But I see that a lot of companies are still figuring out as to where they need to change or what is it that they need to change.

Suman Ghose: And because this is a complete departure from often running you know, it’s often pulling in opposite directions. It’s a lot about letting go and letting go is very difficult and that’s why the change is so slow. You know, we hear even debates like, you know, simple things about even a dress code for instance? It’s so difficult to let go and that’s why you find these kinds of issues coming up in corporations. And again, that’s where the generation gap also comes in. For instance, if you look at millennials, they are driven by a different set of purpose. You know, their motivations are very different as opposed to the so called old timers. That’s what’s creating the conflict. So I think in terms of need, I think it’s very much the need of the hour and I write, I spent a lot of time in the book talking about the why instead of the what and how. Because I think we need to first be convinced that this is the way to go. We need to be convinced of the need for emotional intelligence both for individuals as well as for companies before we even start making that shift within ourselves.

Nitesh Batra: You talk about radical changes and I think one of the things that I have realized over a period of time is that when we approach an organization which is in in the business of making money and profit making, we’re in a capitalistic economy and it’s about maximizing profit if it’s a company that’s that’s on a stock exchange. And when go and talk to these organizations or when we talk to some of the leaders, does the need really need to be radical or can it be like you mentioned, a gradual change and see the benefits of it and I think you mentioned briefly that neuroplasticity is backing what empathy brings or what mindfulness brings in. If we can talk a little bit about, you know, why should organizations think of these changes gradually rather than making a 360 degree turn which may impact their bottom line as to what they think is most important for them, which is which is profit making?

Nitesh Batra: How can we move into, this mindset change of gradual shift as to slowly making these changes into the company rather than making a complete turnaround? And if they see the benefits, they will see those changes eventually, right? Absolutely. So I, I did not mean it more from a sudden turnaround for the company. What I was trying to say is that it requires a departure from our current way of thinking-which is often about– which is more about unlearning and learning. So because we have to unlearn and often let go of things in order to imbibe some of these newer things. You know, command and control by its very essence– control itself runs opposite to empathy and letting go, right? So it requires a huge mind shift change, you know, change of mindsets which is again, very difficult. Behavioral change is often the most difficult. And of course, I mean it has to be done in a way that it does not disrupt the functioning of the company. But those small changes have to happen on a continuous basis so that the company can start reaping those benefits.

Nitesh Batra: So when I read the book, you know, there were a lot of interesting things within the book and if there was one takeaway that you would like our listeners to do a think about, what would that be?

Suman Ghose: Well, that’s a difficult one because there’s so many topics that I talk about. But if I have to give a message, if somebody just asks me about the book, what I would tell them is that, you know, build your emotional intelligence. First, try and understand what that is. What is emotional intelligence? Be convinced that that is something that is important, that is the need of the hour and it’ll help you. Both professionally and personally. Professionally, it will help you in your career growth. Personally, it help you lead a richer, more fulfilling life. And often, these two are intertwined. You know, somebody who has got high well-being and who’s happy in their personal life can only bring in real value in the, in the corporate domain. One is, build your emotional intelligence. First be convinced that this is important and then continuously practice it. back to mastering the forest, this is not about, you know, just learning a tool and technique which you can start using immediately.

Suman Ghose: How many of us have fallen prey to road rage, for instance, right? This entire emotional hijack, which is the essence of emotional intelligence, which is managing our emotions. It’s very difficult to do. I was talking to a business leader recently. He said, you know, I read your book, it’s nice. I like to practice it, but what happens is when I’m under stress, I defer it back to my normal way of working and that is why it’s so difficult. I mean, if we do that, then we are not doing justice to it. It’s not about, we employ these techniques only when, you know, we are in a calm state of mind, which is rare. Today I think everybody is in a stressful job. It’s a stressful environment. So it’s about practicing it, not when we are calm, but even when we are stressed and to be able to do it consistently when it becomes second nature for us, when we don’t realize that we are even doing it, and that’s a long journey. But it’s important and I have a lot of stories in the book. I even talk about simple stories, but powerful stories in which there was one incident that happened and there was, you know, we talk about automatic behavior, sometimes we behave in a way we don’t even realize that we are an automatic mode. That from a neuroscience perspective, that’s our brain’s way of actually reducing stress on the system, right? So often we are an automatic modes. So let me ask you this. Have you ever felt, for instance, after long day at work in the evening when you think back and it feels like an entire day, the entire day was a blur and you don’t remember anything that happened?

Suman Ghose: Iask this question to a lot of people who I train and almost everybody kind of agrees and it resonates. They say, yeah, it happens to me all the time. And that is a perfect example of an automatic behavior. So are we able to come out of this automatic behavior? Because if you don’t, then we will be giving those automatic responses. There’s one story which I talk about where this small thing happened. The person was very distraught and he came and asked her manager something and the manager gave a standard response, which would have been absolutely fine in a normal circumstance, which was an automatic response, but it was not fine in this particular one where she was in a distressed state and it required a different way of handling. But unfortunately the manager was in automatic mode of automatic state.

Suman Ghose: So you know, it takes time to build that resilience, to be able to be self aware of what our emotions are, what our strengths are to self regulate our emotions. To be able to reflect on a continuous basis, to see what have we done? Because we’re going to make the same mistakes over and over again. Like if I tell you right now, it doesn’t mean that if somebody has an anger issue, it’s not that after reading the book that’s going to get solved. But it’s only if that person is able to observe himself, be mindful and be reflective, over time, it’s going to bring that change in him.

Nitesh Batra: Well, we have a few minutes left. If there is anything that you would like to share with our listeners, please go ahead.

Suman Ghose: So I was talking about the–you asked about the Indian environment –and this book essentially is focused on the Indian context, Indian organizations. So Indian organizations in general have been relying too much on the old ways of working, as I mentioned earlier, right? So there is a very interesting study, a 2016 study found that 6 of the 10 least empathetic companies in terms of the global empathy index are from India. Right?

Suman Ghose: So again, one can always argue, one can always challenge and I think this is what we like doing as Indians. We see that all the time. You know, we can immediately jump and say how did we get those figures? But again, without getting too defensive about it, if 6 out of 10 are from India, then obviously there seems to be a problem which is very unique, very specific to the Indian environment. And interestingly these, six companies which are all giants in their own field, were not from a particular sector or industry. They belong to different sectors like Oil & Gas, Pharma, Finance, Telecom, Technology and Infrastructure. So it’s across the board that Indian companies are seen to have low empathy and this is something that all of us need to as leaders, we need to bring in that change. So it’s highly important. The time is now. It’s not something out there in the future. The time is right now. We need to change our mindset and our way of thinking, move more from command and control to something which is based more around compassion and empathy.

Nitesh Batra: That’s a great way to bring this interview to an end. Thank you. Thank you so much, Suman. I really enjoyed listening to your thoughts and viewpoints, knowing more about what went behind making From Command to Empathy. For our listeners, the book is available on Amazon. Please go ahead and get a copy for yourself. Thank you so much for being a part of our podcast. Thank you.

Suman Ghose: Thank you, Nitesh. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

Nitesh Batra: If you like our podcast, please go ahead and share it with your friends and family. Thank you so much for listening to The Mindful Initiative podcast.

Transcription by: Gita Venkat

Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna

2 thoughts on “Episode 8: From Command to Empathy: Suman Ghose

  • Very interesting podcast. I’ve a background in psychology and have worked 10+ years as an organizational psychologist. EQ is something that has always fascinated me because despite so much information and discussion about it…Organizations and people alike still struggle to understand and inculcate it in their lives. As Suman rightly said, its a slow process but crucial for both personal and professional effectiveness. And I’m glad that Suman has written this book focusing on the Indian environment and perspective.

    During my work as an organizational psychologist – wherein I would develop psychometric tools to analyze and understand an individual’s ‘fit’ for a work role, I saw that most of the reference and information we had was of assessment tools developed abroad. While there’s no doubt with regard to the authenticity and robustness of the instrument…arbitrarily applying it to analyze people in an entirely different cultural context was something that always.. and still does irk me. So its great to see a book written from culturally fit perspective. Thanks Suman Ghose and Avik Chand for authoring this book. Would surely buy and read.

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