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.”


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.

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.



If you have character, you have the better part of wealth

January 17, 2009

Satyam Computers, once regarded as a corporate success story is now fallen from grace. Much is being written about fudging of accounts, role of auditors, role of regulatory authorities, government’s efforts in resolving the matter and strengthen the system of corporate governance. 


 It is not the first such episode. Nor is it going to be the last one, for sure. Enron, World-Com, Tyco and Global Crossing have dominated the newspapers headlines in the US, quite like the media attention that the Satyam saga is getting these days in India.  


The full story is still unfolding. There are several policy and regulatory recommendations in the offing. But will that be the solution is the key question. Laws/regulations alone will not suffice. Punishing those who are found guilty will also not be enough. People need to change from within and do business in an ethical way. It is time to do something about ‘integrity’ in our lives. John Griggs wrote a nice story “The Night We Won the Buick”, which I would like to share briefly.


A young boy was ashamed because his poor family was the only one in town that did not own a car. His mother used to advise him “if you have character, you have the better part of wealth”. However, the boy wondered what use was character if it could not buy a car. An opportunity came in form of a country fair in which a new Buick Roadmaster was to be raffled off.  His father’s name was announced as the winner. The boy was elated to see the dream come true. The brand new car was theirs. However, he found his parents engaged in an ethical debate. His mother explained the dilemma. Father had bought two tickets-one for himself and another one for his boss. He had marked the name of his boss on one of the studs.  The ticket that won the car was actually his boss’s, not his. The boss did not know the number of his ticket. The boy felt there was no need to inform the boss about it for the  boss was extremely rich; he possessed a fleet of cars already; and there was no way he was ever going to know that it was his ticket that won the car. However, the father phoned his boss and asked him to take the car. The family could not afford to buy a car for several years more and the boy grew up. As time went on, his mother’s aphorism, “ if you have character, you have the better part of wealth” took a new meaning for him. Looking back, he realized that they were never richer than they were at the moment, when his father made that telephone call, and returned the car to his boss. He did what was the right thing to do.


 … I am glad John Grigg’s story is included in school books ( I read it in my daughter’s school book). It is so important to give lessons in integrity and character at an early stage. It is time that business schools gave more focus in imparting practical lessons in integrity and ethical management of business.