It is a national sport in some countries to thwart other people’s desires in the work environment by responding to every request with “no.” The ability to avoid work and responsibility is a martial art of friendly refusal, “You need to get X’s permission,” “You need Y’s approval,” “Please submit a detailed plan,” and “I will need Z’s signature on that.” The simplest manifestation is the omnipresent, “Of course I will do anything to help you, I am ready to help you but the rules don’t allow me to.” A few times I have heard this from the person who made the rule in the first place and when I point this out I get raised hands, raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders and the injured protest of “But it is the rule!”
As a Western woman, I start with two disadvantages. Being Western, I expect people to communicate unhappiness, confusion and/or disapproval, which rarely happens in the Middle East. I sat down to join a meeting with ten people and my boss whispered to me, “You caused me a big problem.” I stared at him, utterly lost. We had been communicating through e-mail for the past week I had thought and he had not brought up any problems. I wondered what was going on and at the end of the meeting, as he was packing up to leave I said, “We need to talk.” He turned, surprised and asked “Why?” I said, “You mentioned that I had caused a problem, what happened?” He then explained how he thought I had deliberately contradicted his orders which led to him being publicly screamed at by one of the company’s owners. I explained my actions and we seemed to solve the problem but it’s startling that if I hadn’t, by chance, sat next to him and forced the issue after the meeting, he might have never told me.
Secondly, as a Westerner I can’t dissemble fast and smoothly. I have never learned to roll compliments off at the drop of a hat, whereas Arab co-workers can render kindly praise as easy as breathing. I apologized to a colleague for missing a presentation he had given. He replied, “I am the one that is sorry! I missed you in the audience!” Surprised, I blurted out, “Why?” “You are such a good listener!” he beamed at me. I should have simply said thank you and let it go but I was still so surprised at this reversal of compliments, that I asked, “But weren’t there over 50 people there?” “Oh yes! But I missed you because you are such a careful listener!” When I mentioned to a colleague that I had appreciated his question in a meeting, he replied, “But my question was because of you! I have to thank you! Your good question that you asked first gave me the courage and motivation to speak! Thank you!”
I simply can’t hedge and dissemble that quickly. I once sat in a meeting with X and the three people who had ganged up and kicked X out of his managerial position the day before. All four laughed and joked together. If you had videotaped the exchange I don’t think even an expert in non-verbal communication would be able to figure out which man was the aggrieved party. This is a skill I don’t have. Several people have said to me, in the tone of voice usually reserved for descriptions of the Angel of Mons, “You are very clear! You show what you are thinking.” Yes, I do.
On the other hand, I have a few major advantages. The most important one is that I can say “no” directly. Giving bad news is something to be avoided in Middle Eastern cultures, often to the point in which someone would rather simply stay silent about a huge, looming problem and deal with the consequences. Being able to say “no” means people come to me to get dirty jobs done, even small requests such as some colleagues once wanted a group of people to leave a room but it would be impolite to ask them directly, they asked me. I walked over to the people and said, “I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine, the door – please meet the door – the door is a lovely door.” They laughed and left; the colleague expressed amazement and wonder.
At one meeting, the presenter put up a slide announcing the (weekend) date of an “all company retreat;” within minutes, three different people sidled over to me and hissed “Tell him! Tell him! We don’t want the retreat that day!” Once at a meeting I railed on about a potential crisis at an upcoming event that was open to the public. No one agreed with me during the meeting, but four people came up to me afterwards and whispered, “I am glad you told him.” But given that there was no support for my warning, it wasn’t heeded and what I predicted came to pass.
I treasure General John Vessey’s wise motto, “Our strategy is one of preventing war by making it self-evident to our enemies that they’re going to get their clocks cleaned if they start one.” But in addition to swinging a mean metaphorical stick, I can also walk softly, saying “thank you” as often as I can, to secretaries, to anyone who brings something to my office, in e-mails, and for work that has nothing to do with my responsibilities as in “Thanks for making the website look so nice,” “Thanks for getting back to the clients” and “Thanks for finishing the projections on time.”
Another advantage is that I can say that I am sorry when I make a mistake. Given the above point of not mentioning bad news, when someone makes a mistake – the first rule is to quickly find someone else to blame or use the passive voice (“mistakes were made”) and sweep it under the carpet. For me to say in a straight-forward manner, “I did that wrong, I am so sorry” is utterly disarming. I always try to remember that “there is…a simple but lucid treaty holding that when one side does something particularly fatheaded and self-destructive the other will respond by shooting itself in the foot within a period of from 17 to 30 days” (A. M. Rosenthal). This gives me courage when I need to own up that I blew it. I figure I need to apologize quickly so I am ready to enjoy the other person’s mishap.
I can also say “I am not sure.” I am “a participant in the doctrine of constructive ambiguity” (Vernon Walters). I learned early in my work career to say “I am sorry, I don’t know” to all requests from loathsome people. This will whisk them out of my office and off to bother someone else. I get an occasional “You don’t know?!” in a snide voice, but if the choice is demonstrating my knowledge and having to deal with the twit showing up again to pester me with questions or having the person think I don’t know what I should know, the first-choice wins. “Gosh, I really don’t know,” “Oh heavens, that’s a good question, maybe Florence would be able to help you,” “My! I’m stumped” are all handy phrases to have on hand.
“Constructive ambiguity” also means that I can start on something without knowing the end. Most of the committees I am part of work backwards – the manager decides the outcome and then the committee figures out how to do it, with usually disastrous results. I can start a project with questions, ask questions as I go along, get and respond to input and end up with a plan with wide-approval.
I can also be realistic. Some managers seem to be searching for hills to metaphorically die on. Over eight years at Middle Eastern companies and I am still stunned to find men who will support the most unqualified person for jobs or devise impossible schemes. One of my favorites is the manager who decided to move his entire department to another building so that he could have a bigger office. Then there is the one who decided to advocate for three secretaries, more than the owner of the company had. One insisted on purchasing a very expensive computer program for his team – but refused to provide training on how to use it. The issue is not just the ridiculous fight they are undertaking, but (back to the “never say no” point), when it looks like it won’t happen, they flop around trying to find someone else to blame or some complicated secret plot.
Lastly and most importantly – I have cookies. I can, with true sincerity and an encouraging smile, listen to the most egregious whining and sympathize with people’s horrendous, deliberate mistakes, then hand them a cookie. I have taken to heart Patrick Swaze’s immortal words: “You are nice until it is time not to be nice.” Thus, I have a box of cookies in my office at all times for co-workers who have decided on self-destructive schemes. I know I can whip out a “no” if needed, but in the meantime, have a cookie!
One committee I chaired had eight people, divided neatly in half on almost every issue. I called it “the screaming committee” as that’s what everyone did. Someone who had walked by my office during a meeting asked me “Who ARE those people?” Everyone was furious over perceived threats to their power so I brought a huge box of cookies to every meeting and when it all started to get out of control, I would pass the box around the table. Within three months, everyone had sheathed their claws and we actually finished our mandate.
There are days I want to chuck it all. There are days when I wing off memos like scattering rose petals and days when I somehow find the courage to fight bad decisions as 10 people sit there silently agreeing with me but refusing to offer any sign of support. Management is not for the faint-hearted and not for those without cookies.
- “Do everything you ask of those you command,” General Patton, i.e. never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do / haven’t done (not in the technical sense, like doing statistics, but in the sense of fairness, i.e. if I make each member of the committee take the minutes, I start by doing the minutes first.)
- “You will neither eat, nor drink, nor smoke, nor sit down, nor lean against a tree until you have personally seen that your men [and women] have first had the chance to do these things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the ends of the earth,” Field Marshall William Slim
- “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity,” General Patton. This is the sausage making rule – don’t watch; don’t even stay in the same room. If you HAVE to have the activity done in a certain, specific way, do it yourself.
- “A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later,” General Patton (I really like Patton, although I don’t agree with “In case of doubt, attack.”)
- “No one can guarantee success in war [aka management], but only deserve it,” Winston Churchill
- “Superior advantages binds you to larger generosity,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
- Give advice when asked, but only on the point in question. Never give advice that the person can’t follow, has already disparaged and/ or when the person has already decided what they are going to do.
- People who tell you something positive about themselves when they first meet you are lying. “Hi, I’m Janice. I really believe in open communication” means “I am a blow-hard, braggart, conversation-hogging troll.”
- Good intentions will not suffice. Act properly or stay home.
- Smile and say ‘Good morning’ to everyone.
- There are stupid people, evil people, and stupid/evil people about. It is best not to be in any of the three categories. Learn to differentiate between the three categories.
- Scott, not Amundsen
- Pretend not to notice anything that can’t be fixed immediately (either by you or someone else at hand) – call careful and gentle attention to anything amiss that can be fixed – spinach in teeth, spelling mistakes on documents that haven’t been distributed.
- Happiness is not a zero-sum game. An increase in someone else’s happiness can never diminish your own happiness. Casting cold water on someone else’s happiness, big or small, will never increase your chances for success. Gloating in a discernible public way over another’s problems or failing to celebrate another’s joys will leave you alone on the days when you would most like someone to celebrate with and will insure that when things go wrong for you, others will take a particular and noted interest.
I have learned:
- If someone comes to complain, always ask them to put it in writing.
- In a meeting, if another person and you agree on the same course of action, let him or her make all their points first, then signal agreement.
- You get better information for surviving in the corporate world by reading war strategy books than by reading managerial or business strategy books. I recommend Edward Luttwak, anything by an SAS trooper/officer or the classic Art of War. Bemelmans and George McDonald Fraser (the McAuslan stories) are also helpful.