Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 12 Feb 2010

The Bible tells the tale of the prophet Nathan who sought justice from his king, David for a poor man who had been wronged by a rich man. Rather than taking one from his own flocks to feed a traveler, the rich man claimed the one lamb that the poor neighbor dearly loved. David was understandably upset when he heard the complaint. He decreed that the rich man should die. No sooner did he take this decision than Nathan revealed that the rich man in his story was none other than David, a king with many wives. The poor neighbor was the Hittite, Uriah with whose only wife, Batsheba, the king had had an adulterous affair. By using the parable, Nathan had tricked the king into judging himself. He had made the king realize his own hypocrisy: quick to judge others but not himself.

Why did Nathan not simply tell the king that his actions were wrong? Would the king have heard him? Maybe he would have denied the crime, or simply made excuses for it. Despite being a representative of God, the prophet was wary of the king’s ego and anger. And so he used the Trojan horse method to address the sensitive issue.

The ability to communicate with a king with deference and dexterity is known in Sanskrit as Sabha-chaturya, which literally translated means ‘tactfulness-in-court’. It is a trait that ministers and courtiers had to possess if they wished to survive in court and get their jobs done. It is a trait that people who work with leaders must possess. It is a trait that even leaders need to possess if they wish to lead.

The foundation for this skill lies in the observation that people are uncomfortable with the truth, especially when it shows them in a bad light or has consequences that could affect them adversely. When confronted with it, they react negatively – with rage or denial. They may get defensive or simply reject the submission. So the work does not get done. One needs strategic communication. One needs Sabha-chaturya.

Rathodji mastered the art of Sabha-chaturya long ago. He knew his boss, Mr. Khilachand, was a brilliant man with a rags-to-riches story. He also knew his boss had an ego the size of a mountain. He refused to accept or admit a mistake. In fact if a mistake was pointed out, he would do everything in his power to justify it and stick to his guns. Mr. Khilachand was very fond of a distant cousin. So when a candidate presented himself before Mr. Khilachand with the cousin’s recommendation, he was, without much consideration, appointed manager in one of the many oil depots he owned.

The candidate was a good for nothing. He did no work and this caused a great deal of problems in the smooth running of operations. But no one dared tell this to Mr. Khilachand. To do so would mean that Mr. Khilachand was a fool to appoint a candidate purely on recommendation without checking credentials. And Mr. Khilachand did not appreciate being taken for a fool. In rage, just to prove he was right and everyone else who thought he was a fool was wrong, he would simply sack the guy who complained and give the candidate a raise and maybe even a promotion. It was irrational, but that’s the way he was. Rathodji knew this and so when the problem was presented to him, he pondered long and hard on how to give Mr. Khilachand the message without upsetting him and making matters worse.

The next day Mr. Khilachand and Rathodji had a long session gossiping about Mr. Khilachand’s archrival, Mr. Mathias. Rathodji told Mr. Khilachand how Mr. Mathias had foolishly selected a candidate on his sister’s recommendation and how the workers under the candidate were grumbling and planning to leave that firm and join their firm. Just while leaving, Rathodji gave Mr. Khilachand a file containing the new figures on operational efficiency with Mr. Khilachand.

The next day, Mr. Khilachand commented, “I feel it is time to get the new candidate to work in the head office. What do you think?” Rathodji agreed. Sabha-chaturya had worked its magic. The message had been passed. No feathers were ruffled. The dignity of all parties was maintained. A profitable decision was made and all was well.