Isha and Making Leaders of Administrators

Sameer Sharma
23 Feb 2017

Recently, the Isha foundation has started one-week leadership training for All-India Service officers. By learning and doing Shambhavi Maha Mudra the inner self can be re-engineered, which in turn leads to making leaders of administrators. In order to understand this let us see how administrators decide and what parts of the brain they use.

Largely based on the work of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his associates, there is a broad consensus that the brain consists of two systems. System 1 makes decisions automatically, quickly and effortlessly while System 2 requires effort, is thoughtful and decides what to think about and what to do. During the course of their career administrators build up a large, diverse repertoire of experiences and they largely depend on these experiences to decide.  These experiences contain the know what and know how of decisions made/not made. These are part of System I.

In a new situation where decisions have to be made, System I scans through the repertoire of experiences searching for similar features between the present situation and repertoire of experiences. Based on the level of similarity quick, effortless decisions are made. Over- reliance on System I is natural among administrators (and human beings) because it is cognitively less tiring. However, this often impairs decisions because of the presence of several biases. The problem becomes worse because the biases are embedded and administrators are unaware of these tacit biases.

Let us look at a few examples. One common bias is confirmation bias. The repertoire of experiences contains the know what and know how of decisions. Often, administrators believe that their long years of experience have built up a know what and know how, which is infallible. They pick information that fits into their existing experiences and pay less attention to information that challenges their existing know how and know what. As a result, they are unable to look at situations objectively, ignore alternatives and the result is poor decisions. The effect is stronger if emotions are attached with an experience.

Another common bias is sunk cost bias. Administrators often expend effort, time and resources in an endeavour. Even after all evidence shows that the programme is going astray and results are unlikely to be achieved, administrators still continue with the earlier course of action. They focus on the past and focus on the time and effort spent rather than what they will get out of it in the future. An important consideration is that the resources invested in the past will become wasted if course is changed mid-way.

A third bias is called anchor and insufficient adjustment bias. Here, administrators take an initial position and rest their decisions on this stand and fail to sufficiently move away from the  first point of view. All administrators are aware of the stickiness of the first noting on file. This was noted by Paul Appleby in his report on public administration as far back as 1953: “Structure of administration restricts and inhibits formal delegation. But there is more unconscious than conscious delegation. The view of the man at the bottom of the hierarchy who writes the first note on a file is all important in most instances”.

One way of being aware of our biases is to start operating System II.  Using System II is extremely taxing and causes mental fatigue. Importantly, switching between System I and II requires a lot of practice and self-awareness. There are more than 90 biases – imagine the mental fatigue if System II has to apply thought to experiences in order to reduce the influence of biases in our decision-making. This is one reason why humans cannot use System II for long periods of time.  As a result there is an innate tendency to revert back to use of System I in day-to-day life. Often this is tacit and the person is unaware that she is operating on System I or a switch to System II is required.

Inner engineering consists of three parts – upa yoga, yoga namaskar and Shambhavi Maha Mudra. In a different context, the effect of inner engineering is best explained by Dr. Viktor Frankel who was a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna. He and his family were arrested transported separately to Nazi concentration camps in 1942. He was liberated three years later, but his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died. In 1946 Frankl wrote about his experiences in the concentration camp, both as an inmate and a psychiatrist.

Frankl writes about the physical and psychological brutality of life in a concentration camp. There is an acute longing for home and family and disgust at the ugliness and humiliation of daily life. There is fear, hunger and pain and finally apathy sets in. This was a necessary self-defense against the daily beatings and the uncertainty of survival. Eventually there is an intensification of inner life that helped him to find a refuge from the emptiness and desolation – “My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she was alive. I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by know: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance”. What he means is that everything can be taken from a man but one thing except the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.

This is what inner engineering makes you learn. The body’s chemistry and brain’s neural circuitry is changed in a way that one is able to move effortlessly to and fro between System I and System II at one’s own volition. At the same time breath control increased the mental stamina and prevents mental fatigue arising from constant use of System II.  Scott Fitzgerald simply quote say this eloquently  – “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”. In a different way Jiddu Krishnamurti said that “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”

Such an empowerment enables one to get over the thinking errors hardwired in the brain, not completely, but, say, by 5-10 percent and this is enough to improve decision-making immensely by administrators.

(Author is civil servant. Views are personal)

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