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Creating a Motivational Environment: A Structural-Functional Approach
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Col Anil Athale | Date:11 May , 2023 0 Comments
Col Anil Athale
Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

This essay won a ‘special prize’ in the first Chief of Army Staff Gold Medal Essay competition in 1987. Though dated in some geo-political aspects, it retains its relevance even today. General K. Sunderji, who gave this ‘special’ prize to the author told me during the prize distribution ceremony that the evaluation committee had shortlisted it but not recommended it. While he felt that it deserved recognition hence the special treatment. For its time the ideas and language of the essay were thought to be too volatile for the times and remained unpublished.  

‘In the Red Army, an advancing soldier knows that he faces a probable death by enemy bullets, but a certain one through our own bullets if he does not!’

— Leon Trotsky (Widely regarded as the father of the Red Army)[i]

‘Men like dogs, like to please their master. So the more work one demands, the more work men will do’.

— A General in conversation with this author (then his Aide) Nainital, Sep 1973.

‘Let thousands die, but the provider for thousands must live!’

— Baji Prabhu Deshpande

On the eve battle of Pawan Khind in the 17th century, asked King Shivaji to escape to the safety of Vishalgad fort while he held the pass (khind) against pursuing enemy and made the supreme sacrifice.


Interesting thoughts of eminent men, all have a grain of truth. This shows the multifaceted dimensions of motivation. President Harry Truman, on hearing of the election of General Eisenhower as President of the USA, is reported to have remarked, ‘Now Ike will know how difficult it is to get things moving, so far in the army he was used to ordering and things moved!’

Motivation could also be divided into wartime and peacetime or motivating leaders and followers. But this would lead to a fragmentary approach. There are also no rigid boundaries between wartime and peacetime environments.

Truman was only partially right. Even in the army things may move on orders, but not necessarily at the desired pace or even in the desired direction. The power of motivation is an important attribute of military command. [ii]In our context, the result of a contest between two equally well-trained and equipped armies may well be decided by the level of motivation. Motivation is also a factor in the achievement of a desired level of military efficiency in the preparatory period.

Motivation can also be situational and issue-specific. The gallant fight put up by the 15th battalion of the Punjab Regiment in December 1971 while defending Hussaini Wala Enclave is one such example. The very place, Samadhi (memorial) of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, had a special significance to the soldiers and was in itself a powerful motivating factor.[iii]

This in no way detracts from the importance of the crucial leadership on the spot, but merely suggests that an occasion or the place can be a factor in success. It is worth remembering the way Israeli Army was motivated during the 1967 war when it marched to the tune of song Jerusalem by Daliah Levi to capture the Wailing Wall and East Jerusalem. [iv] Motivation in these cases is an external factor. Yet the favourable results could only be obtained in a conducive environment.

Motivation could also be divided into wartime and peacetime or motivating leaders and followers. But this would lead to a fragmentary approach. There are also no rigid boundaries between wartime and peacetime environments. The two are both interlinked and interdependent. The causes that motivate leaders are also the same that may enthuse the followers. 

In this essay, we shall restrict ourselves to the discussion of the process of creating a motivational environment in order to achieve organizational goals. The whole thrust will be analytical with only a few ideas toward prescription in the later part. This is mainly to gain acceptance by the ‘system’. The dictum is ‘to know is to act’. The initial analysis will be reductionist in nature, ie, we move from the complex to the simple. This is not very different from Newtonian mechanics, which after analysis of a number of complex motions, arrives at simple but fundamental ‘laws of motion’. Common aversion to theorizing notwithstanding, it is essential for analysis so as to put our effort on a sound footing to make it long-lasting. In support one can quote from Hito Upnishad,

Those who only know, live in darkness. Those who act without knowing, live in greater darkness.  Those who neither know nor act, do not live at all.’

A Reality Check

The standard understanding of motivation is that it is a tool in the hands of leadership to achieve organizational goals. The unstated assumption is that the leaders’ goals and coterminous with that of the organization. All that one then needs is to get the rank and file to work using regional, religious, and personal motivation factors. This standard understanding leaves several questions unanswered.

The unstated assumption is that the leaders’ goals and coterminous with that of the organization.

•  What exactly are the organizational goals?

•  Are the leadership’s goals in tune with those of the organization?

•  Are the means used by the leadership, namely religion or regionalism contradictory to the organizations/nation’s goals?

There is no gainsaying the fact that Indian values are undergoing a change in the process of ‘modernization’. There is a widely accepted view the world over (and even in some quarters in India) that technology and industry with it bring in ‘modern’ values, Western/European  in origin.[v] It is even argued that without this change modernization cannot take place. [vi]The Western technological triumphs are often attributed to Hobbesian/Lockean materialism, Kantian logic, and Newtonian science. [vii] These basic philosophies spring from the Western understanding of ‘Man’, the nature and Man nature relationship. Our primary concern here being ‘Man’ (human aspects), we will leave ‘nature’ alone. In the Western view, Man has been defined as an eternally vile and selfish animal. Thomas Hobbes, the 16th century English philosopher aptly puts it thus,

‘Man in a natural state is in a constant war of everyone against everyone. In continual danger and fear of violent death, man’s life, nasty brutish and short!’[viii]

Thus was born the basic organization of the state in order to control interindividual conflict and make civilization possible. A system of checks and balances is thus inherent to all ‘modern’ organizations. This system springs from the basic Western understanding of ‘man’. Even the 20th-century theories like the ‘games theory’ applied to nuclear deterrence have pay-off/profit-maximizing behaviour as a foundation. When we relate this philosophy to the realm of security, we have arms race as the outcome. [ix]

+The Indian understanding of man is different and more complex. Man is thought to be composed of ‘Tri Gunas’ or three attributes. These are Sat or the Truth or spiritual, Rajo (material and worldly) and Tamo (aggression, violence, and animal instincts). [x] Thus all situations and events are explained in terms of clashes between these three, in various permutations and combinations. Tracing behaviour to these basic tenets, even Ram the Godhead, bowed to Ravana the demon after slaying him. By doing this he was acknowledging the ‘Sat’ guna in him. This is in spite of the fact that he, Ram, fought against the Tamo and Rajo in him. The Indian penchant for compromise rather than conflict, our celebrated tolerance and lack of killer instinct can all be traced back to this fundamental worldview. [xi][xii]

Nearly seventy percent of the officer cadre of the army comes from urban areas.

Indians will seldom talk ill of a dead, even an out-and-out scoundrel. We apologize profusely even if our feet accidentally touch others. Indians have a very strong sense of right and wrong. [xiii]These attitudes and behaviour have been shaped by our great epics. Incidentally, the Ramayan and Mahabharata are national epics of many South East Asian countries like Indonesia and Laos. The deep influence of these epics is seen when one witnesses great respect shown to soldiers in even a rank commercial city like Mumbai. In frequent rail travels one experienced the same reverence by general population, while even a rich industrialist is referred to as ‘Bania’, a pejorative term. It is seems that the talk about rampant materialism in the Indian society is rather premature. [xiv]

It is indeed true that we are currently in a transition phase and its resultant turmoil as a titanic struggle between Indian and Western value systems is being waged. [xv]The factors that will shape the outcome of this struggle are beyond the scope of this essay and do not yield a simplistic understanding. In any case, these mighty forces of history are not easy to understand or control. Prudence lies in understanding the reality and work within it rather than in opposition to these forces.

Nearly seventy percent of the officer cadre of the army comes from urban areas. This is precisely the geography where thanks to the all-pervasive electronic media, the process of replacement of Indian values with Western ones is at its fastest. On the other hand, in the rural areas, from where the bulk of the soldiery comes, the traditional values and behaviour are unchanged. Concepts like ‘Izzat’, the sanctity ofspoken word and respect for the elders, are some of the residual behavioural traits. [xvi]

In a time like the present one when society is going through a transition and changes are uneven, it would make sense to design our system keeping in view both the modern and traditional value systems.

One came across this dichotomy recently in an infantry unit. After a particularly disastrous performance in small arms firing by the unit, there was general dismay and alarm.  The men were most concerned as it was seen as a loss of ‘Izzat’ ( self respect). On the other hand, the commanding officer was more worried about the reaction of the Brigade commander and the effect on his own career. After an intensive bout of training, the unit recorded 300 percent improvement in performance. For the men, ‘Izzat’ was restored while for the commanding officer, a career crisis averted. 

The moral of the story is that in a time like the present one when society is going through a transition and changes are uneven, it would make sense to design our system keeping in view both the modern and traditional value systems.

At this stage of analysis as well as prescription, a caveat is appropriate. The so called modern or materialist theories are not unknown to India. [xvii] These were propagated by Indian Philosophers like Charvak and Brihaspati. Society at large however, rejected them and these remained peripheral. Abundance of means of livelihood at that period as well as need to keep social peace may have played a role in this rejection by our ancients. Social peace is not possible under these philosophies and they were referred derisively in popular phrases like ‘Speaking like Brihaspati’ to denote shallow knowledge.

It must also be noted that one Asian nation, Japan, has modernized itself at par with the West while keeping its traditional value system intact. Be it family relationships or work ethic. It should be possible for us also  to attempt a similar synthesis between traditional and modern values. And finally, it is a sobering thought that the ‘tail’ 1.1 million army,  cannot wag the nearly 900 million dog! Can the army remain aloof from the prevailing national milieu?

The totality of our circumstances thus leads us to a structure-function or systems approach for motivation. [xviii] Else we will be bogged down in the uncertain field of values and norms. The systems approach [xix]also offers some other advantages as well,

•  It is reasonably value-free and therefore suitable for a transitional period.

•  Is immune from the periodic changes of leadership personalities.

•  It is based on the solid foundation of a basic understanding of human nature, distilled wisdom of thousands of years of speculation and thinking that has stood the test of time.

The Organizational Goals

The meta tasks for the armed forces can be defined as the defence of the state from external and internal threats. In order to achieve these the organization sets certain macro goals. The first and foremost is the achievement of military efficiency. This would include the right man-machine mix, sound training, physical well-being and fitness, and sound administration to assure the serviceability of equipment and high morale.

Lack of truthfulness at that level and stage would have got us into a strategic stalemate and not a clear victory that we got.

It is proposed to add two more meta goals to the armed forces objective. The first one is TRUTH or truthfulness and the second is ‘Izzat’.

Truth or truthfulness in this context has no moral connotations but has strategic and tactical significance. Truthful reporting about the true state of our own forces could well have saved us the 1962 mess. [xx] The army folklore has it that in March 1971 General (later Field Marshal) SHFJ Manekshaw told the government that the army was not ready yet and needed six months of preparations before going into Pakistan. Even a junior officer like this author was aware of the kind of material deficiencies we had from helmets to anti-tank ammunition et al. In the six months that we got these lacunae were removed and we achieved results. Lack of truthfulness at that level and stage would have got us into a strategic stalemate and not a clear victory that we got.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic and misogynistic, military commanders with troops and resources are like women with Gold! Both want more and more.  The logic of each commander considering the worst-case scenario as the basis of planning is often justified on the basis of prudence and caution. But a deeper probe will reveal that this is linked to the naked self-interest of self-preservation. This results in unimportant and less threatened sectors/areas eating away vital resources, needed elsewhere. Thus we find that even in a short war, the bulk of the army does not engage the enemy at all, being held back in reserve. [xxi]

Even at the tactical level, truth is valuable. Correct and truthful reporting about the state of men and material in peacetime helps in taking timely remedial action. A false ‘all ok’ breeds a false sense of security and the deficiencies get disclosed only at the time of actual crisis, when it is too late to take remedial action. During the conflict, it is only truthful reporting that can help the higher commander discern the enemy’s intentions and employ his reserves at the right time and place. Imagine the plight of a brigade commander with only one squadron of tanks in reserve, getting reports of tank threats from all three battalions! We have a classic case of 1962 operations in NEFA when fireflies were mistaken for Chinese torches and entire formations bolted from defences. [xxii]Lack of truthful reporting can have a snowballing effect resulting in paralysis at higher command at a crucial time.

One could well add to the Napoleonic quip about wanting lucky Generals, and add,  ‘truthful’ as an adjective. The acceptance of the doctrine of truth has to percolate from the top downward in order to achieve a reverse flow.

The third goal for the army organization is ‘Izzat’. There is no real English equivalent to the concept and only the original can convey the correct meaning and flavour. Izzat is an enduring Indian concept and more bravery in war and efficiency in peace can be attributed to this single factor than all other motivations put together. Izzat is particularly important in small rural communities wherein loss of Izzat or ‘Be Izzati’ can have severe consequences not just for the individual but also his entire family.  Organizationally the aim is to keep the Izzat of the organization and the men working in it and not lower it in the eyes of the nation by mindless use of the army and its men in unsoldierly tasks.

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