The courage to be honest

Some months ago, I was working with a client who wanted to set up a website with social commerce elements. (That’s Web 2.0 in fancy words.) They only seemed to have a very rough idea of what they wanted, so asked them right at the start of the meeting: "Why do you want social commerce?"

Their answer was interesting, and one that I had not expected. They said, "We want to project the image of an honest an open organisation."

Hmm. Fair enough.

So we went on with the meeting, discussing what they could do with blogs, how commenting would work, and so on. The main thing was to open up the site for the bank’s customers to talk freely.

At some point, one of the client’s team indicated that profanity and abusive comments would need to be filtered out, so moderation becomes important. "We don’t want to become liable for content that is on our site."

Fair point. While discussing that, another chipped in, saying "True. We will also need to monitor negative comments. We don’t want our site to have negative comments about our products."

A brief silence.

Many nods.

And the conversation continued.

I was too stunned to butt in immediately. But after a few minutes, I raised the point about negative comments. "You want to project the image of an honest and open organisation. If you filter out comments that say anything bad about you, how are you going to achieve that?"

They thought for a short while, and someone said: "Yes, the users will probably find out about it."

You can’t project an honest image unless you are honest. That means being honest about the good as well as the bad. Honesty is irrelevant for good news — no one lies about good news. Are you honest when delivering bad news? That requires courage.

This is worrisome. Someone saying "We don’t want negative comments" is a bit of an issue. But also worrying is their reason for why not. I had hoped that it would be "That’s not what an open an honest organisation does". Instead, it was "The users will probably find out about it."

This sort of behaviour stems from insecurity. It’s what keeps us late at work, not want to be the first to leave. It’s what makes us say "Yes" to things we would really rather say "No" to.

I remember a time when we were making slides late in the night. I finished mine quickly, and took printouts for the project leader to review. He word-smithed it on paper, I typed it back in, and took a printout again. (Yeah, he could’ve edited it himself. But…) And when all of that’s done, I’m still waiting, not wanting to "leave the team behind". I’m a team player after all.

It’s like drugs. You want to fit in. Be a team player. If the team’s doing it, you do it too.

These days, I’m the first to leave from work. Sometimes, it’s late when I leave, but I’m always the first to leave. And it hasn’t made any difference. At least not that I can tell.

A lot of the fear is in the mind, frankly.

There also was a time when I couldn’t say "No". When I left BCG, I spoke to a partner during an exit interview about how I wanted to work less hours. He thought the problem was more fundamental.

"Anand, knowing you, you’re the kind of person that will end up working hard no matter where you are. So will the move really make a difference?"

"The difference, James, is that here I’ve set up an expectation of saying ‘Yes’. I’ve gotten into the habit, and I’ve gotten others into the habit. At least in a new place, I’ll have a fresh start and set new expectations."

That’s happened, fortunately. These days, I consistently say ‘No’. With some folks, it’s easy.

"Anand, would you be able to help out with this?"

"No, sorry." (with an "please excuse me" smile on my face.)

Some people still scare me, though. (These are the aggressive Type A personalities that it is my occasional misfortune to come in contact with.) And when it does, I lie.

"Anand, we need this proposal out by Monday. Could you help out over the weekend?"

"Sorry, have plans for the weekend. I’m visiting a cousin at Brighton."

No, I don’t have a cousin at Brighton. I’m just scared to just say, "Sorry". It didn’t matter, though. The fear is real, but it still is only in your mind.

It’s the same with businesses. We’re collectively scared to admit something’s wrong with us, or that we can’t do something. I went for a meeting with a partner recently. The client mistook us for operations consultants. (We’re IT consultants.) So he asked us what operations experience we have. Our response should’ve been "None. We’re IT consultants."

Instead, our response was "Oh, we have several years of experience in the organisation. We’re this, we’re that, we’re great."

I don’t think we’d have been thought less of if we’d said "None". And we were found out in the next meeting anyway.

It’s the same about opening up to negative comments. If somebody makes a negative comment, it’s okay! Not that many people care. Hushing it up makes it worse (like for instance with BA and Virgin recently). Lying about it might work, but only for a while. The real problem with lying not that you might get caught out — it’s that you’ll get into the habit and in the long run, will get caught out.

For me, the best cure for this sort of fear is the firm belief that the world cares a lot less about us than we think. It’s okay to be a loser. No one cares but us. But it’s less okay to be a liar.

  1. Kalpesh says:

    As as Indian, I have noticed the expectation of being obedient and saying “Yes” to things (unwillingly).

    Also, I have seen examples where staying late at work shows that one is hard-working (which might not be the case).

    I don’t know who do we want to please? is it the interest of the boss? or the project?

    The example you state of visiting a cousin is also a tendency in Indians. Do we really need to give details?

    I was recently working with a company where people sent emails to the entire group (whether the writer was connected to me or not). So, almost everyday – I get emails from different people that had nothing to do with me, telling me “running late due to doctor’s appointment”, “working from home because my wife is not feeling well”. “i need to go for kid’s school meeting, so I will be leaving early”.

    WTF? Who cares? Do I know/work with you? Do I need to know that much detail?

    Do you think, we give reasons (whether true or false) without there being a need of giving it?

  2. Prasanna says:

    Hi Anand,
    Bumped into your blog recently. Terrific post this. While it is easier said than done, it is definitely something worth working on.

    Top post!

  3. Neha says:

    Hi Anand,

    Definitely easier said than done… I am a victim of this myself, end up doing lots of things that am not supposed to do or plain dont WANT to!

    I have made a conscious effort to say NO…but still end up saying Yes, though grudgingly!

    ๐Ÿ™‚ Good post….

  4. Kalidas says:

    Agree completely. I have seen that two kinds of pressure — a) Peer pressure: Others are seen working, so should I b) Perceived boss pressure: Imaginary pressure that boss expects me to work as late as he does

    Peer pressure often is real — one does hear snide comments from colleagues that you are leaving early. But waht the hell? You are professional — you know what you are doing and what is expected of you. Boss pressure is always imaginary but it plays everyone’s mind. I know guys who leave office a min after boss leaves ! Bingo….

    Nevertheless its all in the mind as you rightly put it.

  5. Ravi says:

    Hi Anand
    I myself is struggling with this. I agree with most of the issues you raised here. Saying No is very tough. And if you have a self doubt and trying to proof yourself then you will neither say yes or no.. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Loved this post. I hope you wont mind if I share it across.
    Regards,
    Ravi

  6. Sherene says:

    I’ve always been flabbergasted by the Asian work culture which emphasizes face-time more than efficiency and I had trouble dealing with it in Singapore and I imagine I would have similar issues in India – I would piss off quite a few people by walking out after my work was done, rather than sticking around with the team but I insisted on having a life outside of work even at the cost of a few peeved souls.

    Well-written piece, stumbled upon it through a friend’s Google Reader shared item and I notice you work somewhere close to my workplace ๐Ÿ™‚ Terrible weather, innit?

  7. Arun says:

    Anand,

    I liked the sentence “the world cares a lot less about us than we think.” in your post. Its 100 % true, no one realize that.

    Nice post

    Arun

  8. guru says:

    hi..I have been listening to hindi songs from your web site.I really like it as u can choose which particular song and movie.Infact it is only recently I realised that web site is yrs.Sorry without permission I started reading your collections and experiences.It is not very is to say no.
    Guru Hosdurga
    Bristol

  9. Kavitha says:

    Hi,
    just wanted to say that i’ve also gone thru similar emotions. its nice to see someone else feeling the way; most of the time i feel that i’m weird because of the way i think! ur blog made me feel happy. I just stumbled on ur website a few days ago when i was searching for tamil songs. u’ve got a wonderful collection. i dont know much abt IT, but i’m proud that someone frm my city(chn) has done so much.
    Thanks for making my life easier!
    Kavitha

  10. Sundaram says:

    Mr. Anand,
    An aptly placed dialogue on distinguishing and analysing situations on being HONEST with self. Well done.

  11. Abhishek Sinha says:

    good one! I personally experienced that, some times people donot expect us to say yes all the time , we rather think they do. In my current project, i started practice of saying no – and in the process learnt the word ‘Prioritise’. (Yes , i would like to help you out but right now i am working on other high priority items. well, if you want me to start this new work, i will have to drop another which, BTW, you told me is highest priority 2 days ago). It seems to be working for me. Also, realized that people are now little more deligent before approaching with a new work.

  12. […] writes about people put in late hours; about saying "NO".This really is a culture thing. Why do people think that if they work late they will be in your […]

  13. […] writes about people put in late hours; about saying “NO”. This really is a culture thing. Why do people think that if they work late they will be in your […]

  14. vasanth says:

    This is fantastic reply – could relate to many consultants in the market – “Oh, we have several years of experience in the organisation. Weโ€™re this, weโ€™re that, weโ€™re great.”

  15. Navneeth says:

    While I agree with what you say, I also want to point out about a questions that cross a person, especially like me, trying to juggle priorities ( Eg: I would love to work overnight on a presentation or meet a client, while I have my first anniversary celebrations planned ) . sample questions – What happens to my reputation if I say ‘NO’? would I be given an opportunity to do something big later if i say ‘NO’ now? would love to get to know your thoughts about this ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. […] writes about people put in late hours; about saying “NO”. This really is a culture thing. Why do people think that if they work late they will be in your […]