Monday, February 29, 2016

We live in a trust deficit world while lawyers spin circles around us

It seems like a long time ago, when I started my career as a fresher with a simple one page appointment letter issued by the company. The letter had a designation, department, location, joining date, probation period, and compensation, and was signed by HR. I did not require a dictionary or assistance from an attorney to understand any of the clauses, intent, or my role in the company. Along with me, three others also had no trouble deciphering the language on that precious piece of paper.

Climbing the corporate ladder rather quickly, I reached a place where I was issuing two page letters to young aspirants who liked the simplicity of communication. There was no ambiguity in anyone’s mind on what was expected, exclusions, inclusions, KRAs, official work times, rules and regulations because none of these challenged the new hires in their comprehension; there was an inclusive feeling of welcome-ness, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, contribute and become part of the family that the enterprise represented.

With passing time, in a position of authority, power and responsibility, vendors engaged to solicit business, selling their wares, offering services, architecting the future one step at a time. Consultants big and small sought to create success in intent and execution, the good work thus acknowledged by the Management team. Towards the turn of the millennium, scams had tainted corporate ethics, hype had overtaken reality, euphoria and expectations rising sky high, the end rose to prominence with lowered regard to the means.

The meltdown, slowdown, trough of disillusionment with crashed expectations led to everyone covering real and perceived risk in any engagement, every eventuality however remote. Documents started expanding, if, but, therefore, hereinto, whereas, words hitherto unused in normal business communication started appearing in every document that attempted to bring two or more parties together. Unable to grasp the complexity, the shake of hands, gentleman to gentleman agreements now need corroboration in legalese.

Slowly and steadily the document stack continued to grow, legal teams took over the task of negotiating clauses; the engagement shifted from wanting to collaborate and achieve something to covering all risks and pinning down obligations such that any deviation, misstep or mistake would bring the sky down. The approach began to weigh down on ability to move fast, create new market opportunities or compete with agility; one-upmanship became the rule and relationship based engagement has disappeared.

Trust is earned is the new mantra today implicitly indicating that I shall not trust you until there is evidence – direct or referential – that you are trustworthy. Reference checks, customer visits, case studies, collateral, reports from external agencies, and now the internet contribute to building a persona for the individual or company. Despite all the due diligence, we still struggle with allegedly misrepresentations and continue to use contracts and legal documents to protect our interest, surprisingly on both sides.

As an entrepreneur I worry about someone plagiarizing my idea, large companies not honoring their commitments, overdue payments, despite the written word in the contract; I hesitate to agree to clauses that appear to be unilateral leaving me no recourse, but then I accept it with my inability to change the words and my need being higher than the counterparties. I wonder what happened to the world in which I started working not too long back, a world where we trusted each other despite not having a voluminous contract to enforce.

Going deeper into the changing human psyche, the emerging business and economic environment, technology led disruptive models, and the no holds barred race to riches, it is evident that it is a mercenary world now. Collaboration is a necessity driven out of need for survival or at times for convenience to get ahead of a pesky competitor. Our DNA has changed rapidly giving rise to new models of engagement, rather transactional way of doing business until the next big wave changes our reality and we start all over again.

Comparisons indicate growing complexity of engagement as well as highly targeted tacit knowledge based arrangements. These are non-frivolous yet transient in nature creating value for stakeholders, leaving behind firm and lasting impressions. Today contracts have become a necessity to set clear expectations and boundaries for coexistence. I believe that when intent overrides the intricacies of legalese, the resultant simplification works wonders in creating win-win opportunities; and that is a good place to be for all of us !

Finally to quote Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in this world !

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