How to say no?

March 29, 2017

Which are the major decisions you took in your professional life that you feel happy about? – This was the question someone asked me recently.

With a bit of reflection, I could share a decision I had once made. I had said ‘no’ to a very senior officer. Instead of heeding to his demand to offer a short-term contract to an individual, I explained the process that I would follow as per rules. He was not too happy to hear the response. A “No” — no matter how polite and logical it is — does not go well with people who are used to listening to “yes”. It did affect my relationship with his department, which incidentally was key to us. Instead of agreeing to a high-cost short-term arrangement to help an individual, I thought through the process and took the decision to introduce a change in the system, which would be beneficial to the programme in the long run. This worked well; and is still working.

At times, all of us feel pressurized to comply with a request that we are not comfortable with. The problem is greater if it comes from a senior person. Doing something unethical, illegal or simply against our values is one of the most challenging dilemmas in our career.

How does one say “no” in such situations? Here are a few ideas:

Buy time, if possible: It helps to buy time to think over the issue, weigh the various pros and cons and then respond. “I will think over it and get back to you” is a good strategy. But remember to get back within the time you promised. Pressure on you will increase day by day, if you don’t respond; and this will further reduce your confidence to say no.

Ask yourself if you have strong reasons to say “no”: Once you have thought over the issue well, then frame your response, based on facts, logic, correctness of procedures, etc. This way you will be able to justify your answer. It helps to consult some trust-worthy friends and colleagues. You may receive some good advice.

How do you say “no” is the key: Once you have established why are you saying no, you need to present it in a way that the recipient is compelled to acknowledge. Remember, the initial reaction is not going to be good. Be ready for all kind of reactions, outbursts, unnecessary questioning, even yelling etc. Hold on to your temperament. Your attitude, your tone of voice, your confidence all play a role. Remember, if you are right then you have the edge. The recipient would, sooner or later, appreciate the merit of your response.

Having said this, I must add that these situations are a test of our integrity. One has to be ready to make personal sacrifices if one wants to go this road. Lord Milner puts it so well, “If we believe a thing to be bad, and if we have a right to prevent it, it is our duty to try to prevent it and damn the consequences.”


A silent signal of truth is louder than a voice of lie

May 28, 2016

At the time when the US presidential election is all over in the news, I take you back to 2004 when Victor Yushchenko stood for the presidency of the Ukraine. Despite all tricks of the ruling party and threats to his life, he did not give up. On the day of the election, he was leading but the results were tampered with. The news anchor of the state run state-run channel UT1 reported, “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”

Natalia Dmitruk was a sign language interpreter on the channel. She was on duty to translate the news for the deaf community. She refused to translate the lies. Deviating from the official script followed by the voice announcer, she instead signed to viewers, “I am addressing everybody who is deaf in Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies…. and I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you.”

The deaf community sprang into action. Her co-workers at the channel; and other channels resolved to report fairly. Mass protests led to the “Orange Revolution” when over a million people, wearing orange, made their way to the capital demanding a new election, which happened and Victor Yushchenko became the president.

Natalia’s act demonstrated the strength of her character, integrity and raised the bar for fair reporting of media. When asked why did she do this? Natalia’s answer was modest and simple, “I just went in and did what my conscience told me to do.”

It is important that we all listen to our inner voice —our conscience—that keeps telling us the right thing to do. This reinforces the lesson I shared in one of my previous posts, “If you have character, you have the better part of wealth.”

We are living in the information age, surrounded by 24X7 news. Imagine the impact if we have journalists like Natalia everywhere who tell the truth, expose the oppressors, and take up the rights of innocent people no matter what colour or race they have; and whether they are in Syria, Palestine, Yemen,  Nigeria, Europe, America,  or any other part of the world.

If a person appearing in a lower corner of the television screen can cause a revolution without even speaking a word, the loud voices on media can certainly do much more in these troubled times!

 

 


Identify and Promote Ethics

July 16, 2013

We are living in a world where “ideas” and “initiatives” are valued. What new ideas we have, how well we present them, and what initiatives we take to make them work define our ultimate success.

The organizations which promote an open exchange of ideas, irrespective of the hierarchy, are more successful.

True, some ideas don’t work. Some actually backfire.  It is always a challenge for managers on how to act upon different ideas, proposals and suggestions. However, a greater challenge is to be able to identify ideas that are ethical and give them their due recognition. An ethical idea as the one that is within the context of the larger goal of the organization, proposes what is the right thing to do, does not show favouritism, and attempts to make the best use of time and resources.

Managers need to ensure that ethical ideas are picked up and acted upon. And   people who give such ideas or work on them are given recognition. Some employees are too shy to speak publicly or are not so talkative by nature. They must be given the opportunity to share their views. This will promote ethical work environment.

In my experience, employees who talk more in meetings are generally less effective and productive.  There are people who give suggestions in their own vested interest and present half-baked information. There are some who steal someone else’s idea and present it as their own. Nothing can be more demotivating for a worker, if his/her genuine effort is not recognized or someone else gets the credit.

In one of my previous posts (January 2009), If you have character, you have the better part of wealth, I had shared the story written by John Griggs – The night we won the Buick. John’s Grigg’s story provided a life-long lesson on integrity. It is the story of a person who could have kept a new car but decided to return it to its rightful owner.  How many times do we see such a display of integrity in life or work places?

Managers certainly are responsible for setting up systems that promote integrity but it does not undermine the responsibility of workers in any way. One test of integrity at work is to raise important issues, even when they are not likely to be accepted or even disliked. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”


Ethics@Work

June 30, 2013

Ted Williams was one of the greatest baseball players. Towards the later part of his career, he suffered a pinched nerve in his neck. His performance dipped considerably that year. He was the highest paid player in sports that year.  The following year, when he was offered contract at the same level of salary, he declined. He said he wanted what he deserved, and cut his salary by a large amount.

What a different world it would be if everyone demonstrated this level of integrity?

Our work is a testing ground for our integrity. Rules of work ethics are often well-written but seldom followed. Organizations have set up systems to monitor if employees spend the required amount of time at work but they often fail to capture if employees use their working time properly, in the interest of the work or the organization. While these issues are critical, there are other equally important issues related to work ethics. We all need to ask ourselves:

  1. Do colleagues find us trustworthy?
  2. Are we transparent in our dealings?
  3. Do we try to find and present the truth?

Some people do not present the full picture and share only part of the story in the decision making process. They take advantage of the situations when boss is too busy to go into the details or does not want to do so. Some work less for their own success but more to fail others. Views are challenged not on their merit but on personal relationships. What pains most is to notice situations in which people kill a good idea just because it comes from a person whom they don’t like or want him or her to fail. Some push aggressively for their petty issues sacrificing the larger interest of the organization or people they are meant to serve.

What should one do in such situations? Should one change and be like others, should one confront them upfront and expose them. None of these may work always. All that is important is to hold on to your own values and ethics. It is important to keep the larger goal in mind and work towards that, patiently and persistently against all odds.  The great Indian Mahatma Gandhi sums it well, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”


Laying the foundation

March 22, 2009

I concluded the previous post emphasizing the critical role of parents in laying the foundation of core values in children. Parents need to be the role models for children. Their actions talk best. Getting involved in the affairs of children holds the key and provides opportunities to parents to lay a strong foundation: brick-by-brick. We all come across situation like these:

• In a children’s game of Football or Cricket, the ball hits the neighbour’s window and breaks the glass. Parents can ignore it thinking it is not only their child who did it. On the other hand, Parents can take the child to the neighbour’s house to apologize and offer to get the glass replaced. This simple act teaches the child some important lessons: accept responsibility for your action; apologize if your action has caused inconvenience or harm to someone; and how to be a good neighbour.
• Children are generally excited in their moments of successes. Parents need to find time to join them in such moments. However, it is essential to discuss with them how did they achieve what they did. The child may confide in us (that is where an open and friendly communication helps), for example, the referee or umpire could not notice the fault which the child or one of his/her team member had made, and they won the game. Now, we have an opportunity to impart another lesson of integrity: how you achieve something is more important that what you achieve. We can explore the options of correcting such a mistake like accepting it before the other team, coach or umpire, saying sorry, even returning the trophy, if possible. If the child does any of these, we must show our instant appreciation in words and action.
• The moments of failures also provide opportunities that must not be missed. Parents often make the mistake of burdening the children with huge expectations. This puts them under a lot of stress. Some children even take the ultimate step and commit suicide if they don’t achieve the desired result. What is the big deal if they don’t get above 90 %, don’t get selected in an entrance examination or win in a sport? We, as parents, need to acknowledge the effort put in by the child. It is a good idea to celebrate the effort of the child by taking him/her out for dinner or to a movie. The child feels good and is encouraged to try harder the next time and learns important lessons: put in your best effort and don’t worry about the result; there is always a next time; and even if you don’t achieve what you are aiming for, it is not the end of the world… there are more opportunities to explore.

There may be many more examples of actions that parents can take. Each action is like laying a brick in foundation of building character of our children. If the initial bricks are not laid properly, the building may not be strong.


When my father was a child…

February 22, 2009

I recently read this story by Alexandra Ruskin in my son’s text book. It is an interesting tale in which a child talks about his father’s childhood dreams. The story goes like this…

When my father was a child, he was often asked what you would like to be when you grew up. He had different answers each time. First he said he would become a night watchman so that he could roam around freely when everyone else was asleep. Next, he wanted to be an ice cream vendor – have as much ice cream as you want, and yet be able to roam around. Later, he aspired to become a railway engine driver. His parents would laugh at his answers. Father’s dreams kept on changing with time – becoming a pilot, to becoming an actor and so on. Finally, he said he wanted to become a dog. As a dog he could run fast on four legs, bark at people, run after them and laze around – all at his will. He had one problem though. He was unable to scratch his back with his leg like dogs do. He started spending time with dogs to learn the trick. One day an army officer passed by and asked him, “What are you doing with dogs”. Father replied, “I am learning how to be a dog”. When the officer asked why, father said,“ I have been a human for some time and now I want a change. The officer asked him if he knew what a human being was. The father said no and asked him to explain. The officer said, “think over it yourself” and left. Father kept on thinking and realized that he must first learn to become a human being. This time when he shared his desire with his parents, no one laughed. Father had finally got his lesson of life:be a good human being.

My son told me that the teacher asked children the same question in their class after the story. Most children wanted to be achievers in terms of position or money. Only a small group said they would like to be a good human being. When I asked about his response, my son said, “I wanted to be in the group that opted for good human being but most of my friends were in the other group. I was not sure how will I defend my choice. So, I also went with the other group”.

I asked him what does being a good human being mean to you. He thought for a while and said doing good deeds, helping others, etc. I said that is very good and posed another question, “If you see some people beating a man mercilessly on road, what will you do? Will you join the party who is beating because it is in majority or you will try to intervene to make peace and help the man. He said, he will try to intervene to help the man. Then we discussed what is meant by being a good human being. We summarized the discussion with three points: a) we need to do what we believe in and what we feel is the right thing to do. If a large number of people do something, it does not make it right; b) being a good human being does not mean that you can’t be an achiever. You must try to excel in your chosen field and yet be a good human being; and c) in race of life, never compromise on your values.

I hope my son will remember this. I need to reiterate this from time to time though. I shared this episode because it has learning for parents and teachers. Peer pressure plays a dominant role in forming values throughout our lives but is more central in formative years.  We need to talk to children as friends and lead by example. Times have changed. Parents have lesser time for children. Children are living in an environment in which everyone wants to get rich quickly. But we need to lay the foundation of core values in our children. We can’t afford to fail in this.


Do we apply our knowledge in the interest of work?

January 25, 2009

In one of my earlier jobs, I worked in the HR section for a while. Apart from other things, we dealt with performance appraisals. Based on appraisals, annual character role entries used to be made in personal files of officials. These entries played a key role regarding decisions related to career growth of officials, particularly in matters such as promotion. Appraisal done by immediate supervisors located in different locations, used to be finally endorsed by the Managing Director.  I noted that all appraisals had to end with a remark ‘Integrity certified’.  Being the last remark, it meant a lot: other things/contributions meant nothing, if a person did not work with integrity.

Once we were getting the MD’s final remarks on annual character roles of officials. In case of an officer, known for his excellent knowledge of work and was vast experience, the MD wrote, “An excellent officer, very competent, but I did not find that he used his expertise in the interest of the organization. Therefore, integrity not certified”. This remark stays with me till date. What a good test of integrity of people at workplace!

We can watch actions and decisions of people at workplaces. If they reflect the interest of organizational goal and objectives, of stakeholders, of consumers…  they work with integrity. On the other hand, if self-interest is paramount, convenience is a motive of action/decision, application to address critical issues is not found, we can form an impression about integrity of people around us.  In this context, 360 degree appraisal makes more sense rather than appraisals only by the boss/supervisors. Colleagues see a person’s conduct on a daily basis. Smaller acts covey more about integrity rather than one-off decision/act, which may not give the real picture. 

I am sure my colleagues, particularly my Secretary, are the second best judge of my integrity. But I am the best judge. I know my intentions. I know what is driving my action/decisions. I know if I am truthful, honest and ethical.    

… we are the best judge of our integrity. The acid test still remains the same. Do we apply our knowledge/expertise in the interest of organization? A regular introspection will help find the answer, and of course the remedial action.