What’s the best negotiating strategy you can use in a job? Ability, credibility and the willingness to walk away. Not my words. Strategic HR adviser Hema Ravichandar’s. Last Sunday, I called Ravichandar, who cut her teeth as HR head at Infosys Technologies, to get tips on negotiation. During our interview, I observed that E. Sreedharan, whom I admire unabashedly, must be a master negotiator. He reads the Gita for 45 minutes every morning, and has managed to keep the government at arm’s length as he builds a world-class Metro on his terms. How does he do it? “He has credibility and is willing to walk away from the job,” Ravichandar replied. A few hours later, as if to prove her words, she called back. “Turn the TV on. There has been a collapse in the construction of the Delhi Metro and Sreedharan just resigned.”
Strategy or scruples? Sreedharan offered to resign after an accident at a Metro site. Manish Swarup / AP
In an age when head honchos of all stripes cling to their jobs and positions, it is heartening to find a few public figures willing to give it all up. Nandan Nilekani recently gave up his perch atop spaceship Infosys. But he was heading into another role. Sreedharan, on the other hand, resigned—with no other job or option in hand—because he took “moral responsibility” for the terrible mishap that claimed six lives. Cynics will say that Sreedharan played his cards well; that he quit knowing full well that it wouldn’t be accepted; that it was a good negotiating strategy that served only to strengthen his position. I don’t think so. I think Sreedharan followed his conscience; that the only negotiating strategy he used was the simple question: Can I live with myself if I don’t do this? Is Sreedharan a good negotiator? I don’t know. I’ve never met the man.
Negotiation is a necessary evil in today’s business world and the fact that I am saying it this way betrays who I am. I hate negotiation because it involves confrontation. When I negotiate, mostly I want to air grievances. I am willing to cede all demands just for the privilege of being heard and understood. This is in stark contrast to others who are able to go point-by-point and make sure their demands are met. I call this the emotional type versus engineer type difference, but it could well be a man vs woman thing. According to Ravichandar, there is a lot of research to suggest that women sell themselves short. “Women will negotiate for everybody else—for the team, for the children—except themselves,” she says. “In fact, for many women, negotiation is just like a root canal.”
In journalism, negotiation happens over column space and visibility. Having a cover story, a lede, having your piece appear on page one of the paper. That’s what reporters fight for and if you are Indian, it is one of the hardest things to wrap your mind around. As a nation, we are poor negotiators. For better or worse, Indian culture takes a dim view of the “I, me, myself” world view, which is key to negotiation. In order to ask, nay, demand something from superiors, you have to feel that you deserve it. To many Indians, that seems horribly egotistical. Hinduism has a very evolved and nuanced view about the ego that mostly has to do with shedding it. Sreedharan supposedly has a quotation in his office that says, “Work I do. Not that ‘I’ do it.”
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This notion of karma yoga; of removing the self from the job; of working without expectation of reward as the Gita calls it, can take you to a higher spiritual plane, but does very little to help you climb the corporate ladder. Let me explain. Say you’ve been at the same job for three years and things are getting a bit stale. Small things bother you and part of you wants to dismiss it all. Your card says product manager and yet the guy who was hired after you is projected at marketing events. They don’t “promote” you at client gatherings. Worst of all, your job is getting undercut. You stay up all night to come up with a presentation and your boss chops it in half for valid but still frustrating reasons.?“The client wants us to close before lunch. Can you shorten your presentation?” she says. Good reason, but why not ask Smarty Pants with the slick smile to cut his presentation? Why yours? This never used to happen and now, it has happened three times in the last three months. What do you do? Three things, says Ravichandar. “Articulate your position clearly; don’t be diffident. Do your own homework thoroughly and make hard data the bedrock of your discussions. And finally, try not to fall into the trap of direct comparisons with peers. Smart negotiators will restrict the discussion to themselves.”
Fair enough, but what if “hard data” is not what’s at stake? Negotiating for a higher compensation, for instance, is a numbers game. You and your employer have to come up with a figure that both of you can live with. It is the fuzzier things that are harder: the corner office, the company car, flying first class instead of coach. Negotiating for perks and intangibles like visibility is hard. How do you ask for these things without appearing vain? How do you tell the movie producer that your name should appear above that genius hotshot cinematographer because…well, you are older? How do you tell your lab adviser that your name should appear above your peers on the research paper because you feel you deserve it?
If you are Indian, the mere fact that you are accentuating these things will make you feel horribly egoistic. Lots of older Indians I know, including—I would wager—Manmohan Singh, Sreedharan and my in-laws, never asked for salary raises, perks, promotions, nothing. They believed that these were crass accoutrements that had nothing to do with a job well done. In contrast, our generation is comfortable with asking for perks and job-related increases. It is very tricky to find the balance between karma and ambition that Sreedharan has; to walk that ineffable line between ego and self. To demand a gas-guzzling Mercedes in your company contract to ride on choked Indian roads is arguably ego. To buy and drive a Ferrari in private in your summer beach retreat just because you enjoy it is self. Or as Ravichandar says, “There are two types of people in the world: the ones who talk about quitting and the ones who quit. The two have to be handled very differently.”
I wonder which one I am.
Shoba Narayan is working up the nerve to invite E. Sreedharan to dinner. But she has to meet him first. Write to her at email@example.com