May 01, 2014

Self Interest: the way to professional pride

It is trite to blame the collapse of professional pride amongst Indian officers- even those in their late twenties today with nearly a decade of experience behind them-on the longstanding atmosphere of distrust between sailors and employers. That is just one reason. And, while industry instigated practices (corruption during intake, the cavalier treatment of seamen) undoubtedly chip at a sailor’s self-esteem and therefore, chip at his pride in the profession- they do not tell us the whole story.  They do not explain, for example, the low professional pride even amongst those who have had an easy career path thus far.

Other acknowledged reasons for this collapse include the fact that sailing has become a low priority profession in India and is usually taken up when other avenues have failed. The added misconception amongst many youngsters that I see every day is that they expect to, somehow, make a crapload of money and quit sailing in a few years. The much higher commitment required for a career at sea is in scarce supply; chances are, therefore, that the officer will be substandard and uncommitted. The outcome is predictable; how can a disinterested youngster who knows he is substandard have high professional pride?

It is obvious that any industry- more so, an industry like shipping- needs high professional standards. How, then, do we convince our officers to become more committed, more capable?

The following is one way that I know.

First, the industry must treat all seafarers with respect, fairness and dignity. Filter this down the line to the clerks and juniors in your offices- that they will be evaluated by the treatment they mete to seagoing personnel, whether at the time of joining, signing off, in-house events or on email.

Second, discard the notion of ‘loyalty’. No officer joins a company with the aim of displaying loyalty to it. Or indeed, finding an alternate ‘family’ there.

Thirdly and most importantly, realise that people act out of self-interest and that is what needs to be addressed. Shipping needs to devote more time figuring out what drives its people who are at sea instead of going down the well-worn platitude route (loyalty) that has proven to be a failure.

So tell your sailors that higher professional standards and higher professional pride go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. Tell them why they need higher professional pride. Because it benefits them. Because it translates into faster promotions and more money (Tell them to calculate the difference between a Second Mate’s and Mate’s salary, for example, or the difference between a Mate’s and Master’s).

If senior officers are looking to move ashore, tell them that higher competence alone will make them stand out. Tell them that shipping is, barring some exceptions, a clean meritocracy. And act, in your organisation, to ensure that it is.

Above all, tell your seamen that higher professional pride and efficiency is good because it makes one feel good about oneself, one’s capabilities and will make them more confident, more successful people.

And then tell them again. And again.

This is what I do, once in each class, with the youngsters I teach who have still to go out to sea.  I work out their potential savings over the next seven years or so on the whiteboard. To do this I take the numbers they give me (gently modifying to more realistic figures if required). I factor in what they think they will earn, how long they think they will stay unemployed between contracts, what their tickets will cost them, what they will spend on ships and ashore- everything is taken into account. I find that, at the end of the exercise, everybody- almost without exception- is surprised that the amount of money they are likely to have in their hand at the end of seven years or so is not all that large. They expected to see a much higher figure. 

I then tell them about inflation and what a house or a car cost when I was their age and what they cost today. I tell them what a well to do household spends today, every month- a fraction of what it spent fifteen or twenty years ago.

I push the fact- based on the figures we have together worked out- that they will not be able to quit sailing in five or seven years. Not with a lot of money they won’t.  That they have, therefore, no option but to sail longer or to earn more money. That sailing, therefore, is not a one-night stand but a longer commitment.

I let it all sink in for a day or two.  

Then I tell them how doing their job well at sea will be financially and personally much more rewarding, making much the same arguments I have made here. I tell them that their careers, their self-esteem and their financial prosperity are all in their hands. That professional superiority is what will make the difference. That it does not matter where they have come from, only where they are going. That at sea, nobody cares what how rich or powerful one’s father is; only what you do matters.

I tell those who want to quit in a few years how much more money they would make if they were promoted faster. I tell those who claim long term commitment to shipping how their lives and careers will be better if they were more professional, more efficient. I tell everybody how lousy seamen will not just get paid less- they will probably get lousy and unsafe ships with lousy Captains in lousy companies. I tell them how badly this can impact safety; I tell them how they will put their lives on the line if they are professionally substandard.

Then, finally, I tell these youngsters- many of  whom come from families that are not that well off and most of whom have been academically poor students suffering from low self-esteem all their lives- how sailing can transform their personality and their confidence.

I do not, even once, mention the word loyalty. Loyalty- as I wrote in a letter to this same magazine maybe twenty years ago- is for dogs, not seamen.


Reid said...

Dear Manu,

I think your students are lucky! I had a similar instructor, an old Master who had come ashore to start his own seamanship school: Capt. Herbert Ellison, now sailing higher seas. He also instilled in his students respect for their profession and pride in their skills. It's an inestimable gift, and can shape a young sailor's career. God bless you!

What I like in your analysis is the emphasis on what the seaman can do for himself. The power of that knowledge is a potent antidote to the negatives that will assail him from time to time. We always have choices - and self-respect is essential for a satisfying life.

I've once or twice been pushed by superiors to do something I wasn't comfortable with. I won't go into details; but it was professional pride that told me not to compromise, in spite of the displeasure I knew it would bring down on my head. The result, in one case, was that I actually got more respect from those same people in the end. In another case, I paid a price. But that pain faded - my self-respect endured.

Great post!

Barista Uno said...

You've given some great advice that could apply to seafarers in general. I believe there's also a need to inculcate a love for the sea and the nautical life amongst those entering the merchant marineprofession. Without that, how can we even speak of professional pride?

manu said...

Thank you both for your comments. They mean a lot coming from you.

Alas, love for the sea has died out except amongst the very few. I have seen it amongst some of my European shipmates to an extent, but not so much in Asians. Can it be inculcated or is it something one is born with?

manu said...

And Reid, I agree completely with you on not compromising. One has to live with a shipping company for a few years, but one has to live with oneself for the rest of one's life.

Rajneesh said...

Asking an officer to have professional and personal self-esteem is like expecting your loyal dog to be proficient in algebra. Nothing, no sir nothing in this world can restore the pride in this profession - which is looked down upon except by the bottom strata of society for whom the salaries are better than say scavenging