Do offices have secrets waiting to be discovered? Can these secrets help us become more effective managers? The answer is a resounding YES. Offices hold plenty of powerful and useful secrets, though not of the kind you think. These are not secret financial numbers or confidential strategy documents hidden away in locked drawers or in safes. Instead, they are simple secrets present all around us. Yet, we do not often see them.
This book offers a selection of fascinating and useful secrets that can help you be far more successful at your workplace. As a bonus, they can make you happier as well.
Let me tell you a few stories that exemplify the kind of secrets I am talking about. Some of these stories are fictional and pieced together from years of assorted observations, so please do not ask me if these specific people actually exist, but do believe me when I say that the lessons they teach us are totally real.
Let me begin with a true story. It was almost ten years back that I decided to write my first book. I work with the Tata Group in India, and I gathered the courage to request an appointment with a senior director of the organization, R. Gopalakrishnan, a well-known writer himself. I wanted to request his guidance on what I should write about. I knew him only remotely at that time and was unsure whether he would be able to give me time amid his hectic schedule. But to my pleasant surprise, he replied promptly, agreeing to meet me.
Gopal gave me over an hour of his time, to discuss the theme of my book and the specific stories that would feature in it. Later, when I was writing the book in the library of the Tata Management Training Centre in Pune, he came across to the centre, spoke with me and ascertained how my book was progressing. He also agreed to read the entire manuscript and write the foreword to the book.
In doing all this, he taught me a secret that many great leaders and managers know and practise—the secret of generosity. He was generous with his time and suggestions. He has similarly helped several other colleagues and friends. No wonder so many people I know go to him for advice and respect him greatly. Gopal is an expert in many areas of management, but it is his generosity with dispensing his expertise that makes him stand apart.
I have a colleague called Suresh*. He and I have sat through so many meetings together. Meetings of all kinds. Happy meetings, sad meetings, delightfully crisp meetings, infinitely long meetings. And we have also endured many painful and bad meetings, including some where we were pulled up severely, and others where long PowerPoint presentations were followed by important-sounding but totally useless discussions. You can say that ours is a kinship of meeting-induced suffering.
I would feel terrible after such meetings, and it would sometimes take me a full day to recover. Sometimes I would carry my funk with me into the next discussion. But I found that Suresh always quickly bounced back to his normal, ebullient self. How does he do this? I thought to myself. And so, I observed him closely for a few weeks.
I found that after every bad meeting, he would vanish for around half an hour. On following him a couple of times, I discovered that he would go out for a nice walk around the office block all by himself, stopping by for a cup of tea at a nearby place. When I asked him about this, he taught me the secret of thirty minutes of me-time, which helps one recover incredibly well after a bad meeting. ‘Be by yourself,’ he told me. ‘In fact, think of some of the ridiculous points of the meeting and smile. Reflect and let go. Only half an hour, but it restores your mental balance and your soul so well.’ I have tried Suresh’s secret recipe and it has, without fail, helped me swiftly bounce back to my productive best.
Whenever Noella* is in a discussion, she excels at sparking off the right conversations, which have often led the team to great new insights and brilliant ideas. She somehow achieves this even when she is not an expert on the topic at hand. This is not a one-off occurrence; I have noticed it time and again. Others have noticed it too, I think, because she gets invited to several important discussions.
I realized that her secret was in the art of asking the right follow-up question at the appropriate time. For instance, a colleague would have just delivered a presentation on a subject, say, on building stronger brands using the power of social media. Noella’s hand would promptly go up. She would ask a question regarding a specific point the speaker had made about engaging followers on Facebook or on Instagram. The speaker’s face would immediately light up because that topic was right up his alley. His response would then take us into deeper conversation on how exactly to build viewer engagement, leading to a very meaningful and relevant discussion.
In addition, these follow-up questions have also made Noella a popular person, because she is perceived as a good listener and one who is responsive to the thoughts being tabled. I have tried practising Noella’s secret in many meetings and it has inevitably worked very well.
Whenever I have visited Jai’s* office for a meeting, I have always come out happy. I have been there several times. Sometimes the meetings have been very useful. At other times, the discussions have not been so satisfying. Yet, every time, my happiness quotient has increased post a visit to Jai.
The reason is very simple; he serves excellent South Indian filter coffee in his office. It is steaming hot, golden-brown, frothy yet of thick consistency, as good filter coffee should be. It has just the right proportions of coffee and chicory, creating an unbeatable blend of aroma and strength.
I am told that a local coffee-making expert has taught the staff at Jai’s office pantry how to make superb filter coffee, though I have never specifically asked him about this. But I am shameless in saying that I love going across to his office because I quite look forward to the coffee. This is Jai’s secret of making his visitors feel special, and it gives them one more reason to say a quick yes to his requests for formal and informal meetings. (Here again, I have desisted from using Jai’s real name, lest there be a stampede outside his office. Let his name and location remain a secret for now.)
Truth be told, we are all human beings at heart: regardless of whether we are mighty chief executives, powerful finance managers, or somewhat tentative sales interns. We may study and practise the latest marketing strategies or digital techniques, we may attend important seminars or conferences in impressive- looking pinstriped suits, but in the deepest corners of our heart, we are greatly moved by things such as sheer generosity, or a steaming cup of coffee offered with love and care.
Such are the subjects that this book contains. The fifty essays you will read in the following pages will reveal and discuss these everyday secrets. You will find within a range of subjects—whether the best methods of fighting exhaustion, organizing your work desk, the power of listening, why kindness is so important, workplace lessons from Hercule Poirot and what you can learn from the cookies that your colleagues eat.
Some of these topics will delight you, others will provoke you by raising new questions in your mind, a few may even amuse you. Some essays are irreverent in their tone and others are reasonably serious. Yet, in all of them, you will find a light touch reminding us not to take our corporate avatars too seriously.
Regardless of what your specific emotive reactions are, I am confident these essays will leave you with fresh thoughts. New ideas on how to enhance your professional effectiveness in the office. Simple suggestions on how you can make a larger positive impact on the people around you. Some interesting concepts that can potentially trigger new joy or even a bit of happy consternation at your workplace. That is indeed the primary purpose of this book—to provide you new thoughts and ideas to toss around and use as you wish.
Excerpted from Office Secrets: 50 Human Truths You Should Absolutely Know by Harish Bhat, with permission from Penguin Random House.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata group.