There is this constant feeling of not knowing whether the person across the table or at the other end of the mobile phone – or behind the email inbox wall – is being truthful. “What if they’re lying?”
“Maybe they aren’t lying but what if they’re not disclosing the whole truth and maybe I’m the losing party in this negotiation.”
I’ve been told that this is human instinct and that it has stayed with us from the days when we were hunters and gatherers. We relied on the word of our fellow hunters, to tell us that there was indeed no lion behind a particular rock. Trust was non-negotiable in order for us to survive. If our tribes-member lied to us and there was a lion behind a rock and we were unprepared for it, it was likely the lion would not only eat me but also eat the chap who lied and maybe even the others who came looking for us when we didn’t show up in time for supper.
In today’s scenario, there are hardly any lions left in the wild, but we fear each other. The “What if…?” scenario-planning probably has us digging a large hole under our own feet.
While driving back from a family-day in Delhi yesterday, we were discussing about half-a-dozen work phone calls that I’d scheduled for the next day. Bharat, who heads strategy and partnerships at Naina.co, is also my sounding board. His perspectives are mostly entirely different from mine and hence, invaluable.
While discussing this one particular email I’d received where the sender responded to my “budget” mention with “we are in startup mode”, my Dad mentioned that I might like to dig a little deeper to determine whether they are actually in startup mode or not and that they might be trying to negotiate a cheaper deal with me.
Apart from my being a tad offended that my Dad would think I deal with people who lie to get their way ( I was feeling offended on the behalf of these people of course ), it made me think that this wasn’t a nice way to approach any business dealing or discussion.
The progression of how I’ve approached any business discussions during my career has been something like this : early years, I took each person at their word and ended up having quite a few bad experiences – I didn’t even know what language to use and some people who were more experienced than I was, probably took advantage of my wet-behind-the-ears, wide-eyed enthusiasm. Once I’d established, clearly, that I’d been taken for a ride multiple times by different people, it was time to feel bad and angry and finally realize that it was me who was the idiot. Since I had not spent time researching / learning and jumped into “winging it” from the get go, I had failed to safeguard my interests and it was only natural that the big fish eat the smaller one. This was the second phase in my progression with “trust” in my career. I was angry and I did not trust anyone. During this phase, I realized that not everyone’s my enemy. Most folks are simply trying to get from one day to the next, maybe trying to impress their boss with just how much of the departmental budget they ended up saving because they got “Naina” to work for a whole lot cheaper than usual. They weren’t doing it to hurt me ( even though their actions might have hurt my brand’s profitability ), they were doing it to better their own prospects. Instead of being angry about this, I started to empathise with it as I progressed to the third stage.
I am currently in stage three of this progression with how I deal with “trust” in business and work. I am a lot more secure about my work and my skills compared to what I used to be during before. Also I, now have my own “lines” sorted. After twelve years of dealing with many actual clients, hundreds of prospective ones, meeting with and exchanging messages with thousands of people, I am now comfortable with the fact that my well-being is my responsibility. Regardless of who I’m surrounded by, what any of them have to say or do, my actions and my brand’s profitability are my responsibility.
I have some bottom lines that I’ve fixed and those are not negotiable. For example, I only work on an assignment when I’m paid the 100% of the payment in advance. This is not negotiable. It does not matter who is at the other side of the table or the mobile phone or email inbox. It could be a multi-billion dollar global technology giant or the lady who wants to hire me to photograph her two year old son’s portrait.
You see what happened there? I don’t need to bring “trust” into a business equation anymore as a decider. I trust everyone because it is no longer a factor. My own work-rules are defined clearly. I no longer have to worry about whether the person across the table is lying. It doesn’t matter.
To me, this sounds like a no-brainer and such a simple thing to do. But it’s not. It’s taken me years of agonizing over thousands of work emails and I don’t even know the extent to which I’ve been screwed over. I’ve railed and ranted online ( on Twitter on this blog ) and spent way too much time thinking about how life is so unfair. It took me a very long time to set my rules down too. “What if no one wants to pay me 100% in advance?”
It’s not that no one wants to or can pay me 100% advance, for example, but it does happen. More because a lot of large brands are not at all used to “small fry” vendors telling them how they work and it take the brand’s team a few months or years to crawl out from under old-school rocks and finally hire me.
Leaving money on the table might not be a recommended business decision. After all, if my brand ceases to be profitable and I close it down, the learning and experiences that I share on here will probably be perceived as worthless. Equating “success” with monetary-worth is the subject for a different written piece altogether. But one of the aspects of deciding your own lines in the sand is sticking to those lines regardless of how much money is on the table. Leaving something on the table right now, in the short-run, might mean a much bigger pay off in the long run. There’s no business without risk, especially if you want to hit a home run. I have left X amount on the table, only to have the brand come back to me – maybe a year or two later – with a budget that’s 30X. The opposite scenario is also true – someone else pitched to the same brand and the brand paid them 30X when they were offering me only X. But the latter is hearsay and I aint got time for that.
I now go into each assignment with, “I want to do this!” Everything I have agreed to is what I’m happy to do. There is nothing I’m being forced to do – usually it’s our own selves that force us to do things we don’t really want to. I want to be “nice” to a paying client, so I might include extra deliverables – 2-3 extra deliverables ( when it comes to my being hired as a photographer, this can mean 2-3 extra images including editing ) is not a bad thing to delight the client with. But when your images might be priced at 200 dollars a pop, anything more than that is equivalent to you axing your own profitability. And I won’t be happy doing it – I’ll resent the client even though this is a call I took. But maybe the client alluded to my receiving another assignment in the second half of the year and now I’m tempted to show them “what a good boy I am” and I end up giving away my work for much less than it’s worth. This is likely to happen if you don’t have your “lines”. For a scenario like this, it helps to decide – at my end – that a client who spends X amount of their budget hiring me, gets Y number of freebies (this is just an example – I don’t HAVE to give out freebies to anyone). But put it in black and white on your end and watch the heart and head ache disappear.
I will always be leaving heaps of money on the table. But I will never doubt your credibility if you’re across the table from me. And I will be thrilled to be doing the work to boot.
Don’t bring the question of trust into your business dealings. Trust everyone equally but keep your lines clearly defined and don’t waver.
At some point in our lives – personal and professional – we need to stop focusing on “others” and what they want. Turning the focus inwards, upon ourselves, is where the meat is. It is painful to learn about and crawl out from. It causes me to snap at my Dad when he shows me the mirror – but learn we must. There is only stagnation without being open to learning. And mistrust. And heart break.
Draw your lines and walk away from the misery of doubt.