The ability to resist the temptation to declare ‘I know it already’, is an ability to be discreet. Discretion is a very important attribute for a manager because carelessness and indiscretion in corporate life can do great harm to others and to the organisation. In many cases, even harm to yourself!
Letitia Baldridge, the high priestess of business etiquette in the US, lists discretion as one of the six cardinal rules of business etiquette—the first being, punctuality!
At a time when tabloids want to ‘disclose all’ about various members of the royal family, when books appear on the shelves claiming to be authorised biographies of the rich and the famous; or autobiographies written by ghost writers; when biographers claim to tell you ‘the real truth for the first time’ or when investigative books are published telling the ‘story behind the story’, then perhaps, there is a need to look again at the concept of ‘discretion’.
An agent from Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently told us about what really happened when he was in the service. Princess Diana was helped by an author to spell out her predicament in an unhappy marriage. The former president of India, Zail Singh, told us the story of his presidency. Sonia Gandhi gave vignettes of the life of her famous husband. And Pupul Jayakar gave an insight into the life of her close personal friend, Indira Gandhi.
It is a world of openness. A world of telling all, either before the event, during the event, or after the event. Or so it would seem. In this scenario, the executive has to reassess the environment. The executive is privy to many secrets—about company plans, research and development, financial arrangements and personnel. How much should he disclose, how and when?
Gopal was being interviewed for the position of marketing manager by the managing director (MD) of a pharmaceuticals company. Sometime during the interview, when all the preliminaries were over, and the in-depth interview had begun, the MD asked him what the sales of a recently introduced product were, and the size of the promotion budget.
Gopal excused himself. He said he knew the figures, but could not disclose them. It was ‘in company information’.
The MD asked him what plans his present company had for new introductions in the next few years, considering the difficult economic scenario.
Again, Gopal said he could not answer him.
The MD seemed visibly upset over such a non-disclosure attitude.
The interview ended on a pleasant note.
But Gopal did not get the job. He had been discreet and it had not paid off.
On the other hand, Sam, in a similar situation at an interview, did tell the interviewer a good deal about his company’s plans and recent achievements.
All he needed was a little encouragement and he came out with all he knew—and sometimes, even with what he did not know, but presumed!
Sam did not get the job either.
This MD felt that Sam would be as forthcoming with his company’s secrets after he joined the organisation, as he was with the secrets of his present company.
Krishnan was distribution manager in the company where I worked as marketing manager—and he reported to me. When I left the company to take on another assignment, Deepak took my place. My relations with colleagues in my earlier company were always cordial and continued that way even when I met them many years later.
However, I only found Krishnan to be a little cold. Every time I met him (which was not often), the colder and more distant he seemed to be.
One day, I asked him directly whether something was wrong between us. Not surprisingly, he said, YES.
It seems, after I had left the company, Deepak had told Krishnan that he had gone through the personnel records and had found that Krishnan’s promotion to commercial manager had been blocked because of my comments in the annual evaluation—and that now Deepak would ensure that the situation was corrected.
Deepak had thus tried to buy Krishnan’s loyalty by being indiscreet about confidential personnel records.
Pradip was a people-oriented manager. His concern for people was even greater than his concern for the task. There was a time when the MD (the big boss) began applying pressure on Pradip to get rid of Arun, the advertising executive.
Arun was perceived by the MD to be inept and inefficient, in spite of Pradip’s protestations. Pradip tried to help Arun, by recommending him for two assignments in other companies which he knew were open and where Arun would qualify.
Unfortunately, Arun did not make it at both places. He was disappointed and so was Pradip.
But Arun decided that he would try another track. He went and met the chief executive officer (CEO) one day and told him that Pradip said that the MD was putting pressure on him to terminate Arun. Arun told him that he had been sent for two interviews by Pradip.
The MD was furious. He did not want himself projected as a brute. Pradip had been indiscreet by disclosing confidences.
Relations between the MD and Pradip got very strained. A few months later, Pradip was forced to leave the company. Arun stayed on for many years thereafter!
Sanjay worked in the research and development (R&D) department of a public sector unit (PSU). He had some friends who owned small chemical units, but did not have the wherewithal to conduct research.
However, they were smart enough to know a direction from a minor lead. And Sanjay’s small indiscretions cost the PSU unit heavily.
The result was that new products and processes were being introduced in the market by these small companies, much earlier than by the monolith that Sanjay worked for, and which kept sinking in large amounts of money in R&D.
No wonder, Ms Baldridge lists discretion as a cardinal rule in business protocol. The executive is a repository of company plans, forecasts, and personal confidences. He must be worthy of the title of manager, by not being—what in street parlance would be called—a ‘loudmouth’.
(Adapted from The Winning manager by Walter Vieira)