Friday, 27 May 2016

When Silence Isn't Golden

Last week a lady called Rosalinda contacted our office seeking to have a translation done. She emailed the document to us; we acknowledged her request and sent her our procedures.  Shortly afterwards we received a telephone call from Mrs B - Rosalinda’s boss, a solicitor.   She later sent us an email outlining her concerns – words to the effect that she did not agree with a particular condition in the procedures her client had received.  Essentially she wanted us to waive our request for a 50% deposit before the work began.  She added that she would be paying for the translation and would commit to paying the full amount upon receipt of the completed document.

When I saw her communication I was somewhat taken aback.  I noted she had taken the time to let us know that she works for a large well-known, reputable firm which over time had engaged the services of many translators and they had never been asked for a deposit.  She also made it clear that she was a person of integrity and her word would be her honour. 

I am thankful for most things in life and on this occasion I was especially grateful for the training and years of experience I have had in diplomatic service.  I was well aware that I could not document what I actually thought but I knew that I had to balance diplomacy with education. There is a Jamaican proverb that says:  It is not everything that is good to eat that is good to talk.  Some things are better left unsaid but somehow I needed to enter her world and take her into mine. I acknowledged her email and explained that we were not prepared to change our procedures.  I suggested to her that this was an instance when she may be better off accessing her bank of translators who are willing to work in accordance with her requirements.  To my surprise I received a prompt response in a totally different tone - she understood why we had to operate in that manner and she would advise her client accordingly.  In 10 minutes Rosalinda accepted our procedures and made the 50% deposit we had requested.  We processed the document; she settled the remainder and it was dispatched to her as agreed.  She later acknowledged receipt and expressed gratitude for and satisfaction with the service.

So what was all the fuss about?  I have for some time come to the realisation that if you do not stand up for something people will take you down for nothing. I have seen people who sacrifice their souls “for a peaceful life” or for fear of being regarded as aggressive.  Sometimes we have to say NO and not let desperation, fear or other factors rob us of our objectivity.  We should say “Yes” when we are in accord and “No” when we mean no.  William Shakespeare, in Henry IV, said:  Tell the truth and shame the devil.  The aim should not be to hurt the feelings of others but we should not keep quiet just because it’s easier.  We need to establish boundaries which allow us to maintain a clear conscience, knowing that we did what we thought was right, not what was comfortable.  Equally, we need to choose our battles so that we do not find ourselves caught up in unnecessary strife which will adversely impact on our quality of life.  There are moments when it’s better to let go, for the struggle is not worth the reward.

Negotiation is a viable approach in many cases. Considering the scenario above, it could be that Mrs B is accustomed to getting her own way.  She may genuinely have believed that she was entitled to what she demanded based on her past “successes”.  What she requested was not impossible in theory – we do have clients with whom we operate a 30-day payment term.  However, those are longstanding clients who have an account with us.  This was our first encounter with Rosalinda and with Mrs B.  Negotiation entails listening to others and finding win-win solutions.  It requires two-way communication and giving and taking of feedback but ultimately you have to decide the outcome that is acceptable to you and whether the end justifies the means. 

We do not live our lives in a straight line; there are bends and crosses that we have to navigate in order to come out on the other side. I wanted Mrs B and her client to take their troubles and go away but they opted to remain and we were able to work together and achieve a positive outcome for all parties.  There is a Spanish proverb:  De cuerdo y loco todos tenemos un poco - All of us have a little sanity as well as a little craziness within.   We sometimes have to look beyond the weaknesses and find in the person the characteristic we need in order to make progress.  Being able to work with individuals we don’t like is a skill.  It demands goal setting, objective thinking, focus, and a high dose of professionalism which will enable us to keep our eye on the goal while we traverse the challenges we may have to encounter. 

Being assertive does not hurt your character; rather, it upholds your integrity.  I remember in my early working life I was appointed to provide secretarial support to several senior personnel.  I was often at loggerheads with them because over a period of time they had grown accustomed to treating their subordinates without much respect.  I did not set out to be a controversial junior officer but I felt compelled to fight my corner for the values I deemed important.  In the end I sustained far more meaningful relationships with my bosses and I felt a lot more respected than many of my peers who adopted a code of silence.  I realised then that people cannot ill-treat you without your consent. To this day some of my former colleagues are bitter about missed opportunities for further/higher education and promotion because they allowed themselves to be bullied by their then bosses.

How do we as business people demonstrate assertiveness? As business owners we have to check facts and listen to our gut when we are presented with business proposals, opportunities to work in partnership, requests for character references, among others.  We have to take into account a number of variables including reputation, business activities, track record, objectives, etc and be careful not to sacrifice our values for potential profits.  If your company is strategically positioned and has a good reputation there will be no shortage of entities seeking to establish commercial relationships for ‘mutually beneficial’ outcomes.  While it is great to build alliances, bear in mind that not everything is glitters is gold.  Sometimes we have to say NO.

Listening is a very important life skill, an art that many people cannot seem to grasp.  Last week I attended a business show in London’s Excel centre. I met an exhibitor who was promoting her CRM software and having seen my visitors’ card which revealed my position in a training institution she seized her opportunity, explaining how and why her software would be perfect for my company.  I explained that the system would not be a strategic fit for my company model but she would not listen; she had already made up her mind that hers was the ultimate programme that would enhance the operations of my organisation.  She proceeded to outline hypothetical scenarios of how the system would enhance my business – totally out of sync with our operations. Her insistence bordered on aggression - totally unproductive, desperate behaviour. According to the French, Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre – No one is as deaf as the one who does not want to listen (there are none so blind as those who will not see). I simply allowed her to rant and rave then I said thank you and moved on.  I did not think it was worth my expending further energy on this occasion as the outcome was already clear to me.

As it relates to our personnel we should allow them to have an opinion and avoid cultivating oppressive cultures that hinder open, two-way communication.  We may not like what we hear but we should not feel threatened by the truth.   As managers we have to be candid in our communication with our staff and be emotionally intelligent.  We need to be self-aware, be able to manage our emotions, be motivated, show empathy and develop social skills.  This includes active listening and responding accordingly, whether we are in agreement or not, bearing in mind that we do not all share the same starting point and our values do differ. We then follow up with positive feedback and reflective thinking, recognising that we too consistently learn. 

As effective managers we assume and accept responsibility, recognise and accept our mistakes and apologise when necessary.  We delegate responsibility and empower people, giving them enough autonomy to perform in their roles.  At times we may have to allow our employees to make mistakes ensuring that an appropriate mechanism is in place for learning to be consolidated. We implement fair procedures and are not afraid to pursue a necessary course of action because it is more comfortable to do so.  We have to be assertive, not aggressive.

Contemporary organisations, especially those based in cosmopolitan cities are melting pots of cultures and we are charged with driving productivity in this challenging environment.  We need to ensure that we build learning organisations which offer a range of developmental opportunities across our organisations and which allow our people to be assertive. 

In business silence is not golden.

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