Personal Growth - Ultimatums can backfire
by Suma Varughese
How to retain your staff while protecting your boundaries
Avijit,” came Mom’s voice sharply from the kitchen to where the children were sprawling on the floor of the drawing room, reading, “Come and help me cut vegetables for dinner at once.” There were sounds of vessels crashing on the ground. The kids glanced at each other. Their normally placid and compassionate mother was on a war path. Avijit gave Nisha a pleading look. “Why don’t you come too?” he begged.
Nisha was about to refuse but her heart smote her. Besides, Mom was rarely this angry. Something must have happened. “Come on,” she said and the duo made their appearance apprehensively at the kitchen door.
As the eldest, Avijit was the first to be roused up for kitchen duty when the need arose. Mom was determined that he should learn to cook and look after the household. “You will thank me for it someday, and more so, your wife will. All men must learn to be independent around the house,” she had said.
Avijit enjoyed cooking and was happy to help out his mother whom he adored. But today was certainly different. Mom looked different too. Her forehead was cleaved in two by a heavy frown and there was a ‘don’t mess with me’ look about her. Tightening her lips, she rapped out her instructions. “Slice this cabbage as fine as you can,” she told Avijit, “And Nisha I want you to cube some potatoes. After that, Avijit, make the masala for egg curry and Nisha, you knead some dough for chappatis.”
“But where’s Gouri?” said Nisha in dismay, viewing the mountain of wheat flour she was meant to knead. Kneading dough was her least favourite chore. Mom’s lips tightened even more until there was nothing but a thin line. “She has not come,” she said shortly.
The mystery of the mommy rage was now solved. Cherchez the maid.
Later, as they sat down to their Sunday dinner, Mom still looked wound up. Dad looked tenderly at her from time to time and finally said, “Sweetie, what’s up?”
“This is the third day Gouri has not come to help me with dinner this week,” Mom said in a frustrated voice. “And that too, without notice. I had specifically told her yesterday that she must let me know if she is not coming and that as far as possible she must give me prior notice.
"All these people have mobiles these days. Why can’t they use it? I feel so angry, so taken for granted. I am going to give her an ultimatum tomorrow. If she cannot come in the evening to help me with dinner, she had better not come around at all. I am going to look for someone else.”
Dad said nothing at all for a while. Then he said quietly, “If that is what you really want.” “No, that is not what I really want,” cried Mom, “Gouri is a good maid. I like her, but I have to put my foot down or she will walk all over me.”
“I totally understand,” said Dad, “but ultimatums may not be the way to go. You see when you give an ultimatum to someone, you are actually challenging them. And most people feel they owe it to their self-respect to take up the ultimatum, even if they secretly don’t want to. This happened to me at work just last month. You remember Kiran, that bright young accountant who joined me six months back? She was perfect in every way, except that she was a habitual late-comer. Well, after tolerating her tardiness for five months and giving her innumerable late marks, I finally gave her an ultimatum. One more late mark and she was gone. You know what she did? She simply stopped working. I never heard another word from her. Her replacement is nowhere as good. That is when I learnt that ultimatums don’t always work.”
“So what do you suggest, then?” said Mom. “I am simply not taking her going AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) on me anymore.”
“You don’t have to,” said Dad. “I thought about how I should have handled Kiran and I realised that I should have explained to her that I valued her services and that I truly wanted her to stay but that I was not willing to compromise on her latecoming. I think that would have safeguarded her self-respect and helped her to act rationally instead of reactively.”
Mom took a huge breath of relief. “You know, I think I am going to try that.” She smiled around the table. “So, who would like some dessert?” she asked affably. “Whew,” said Avijit surreptitiously to Nisha, pretending to wipe some sweat from his brow, “The Wicked Witch of the West has transmogrified into Mom again. Thank you, God!”
To his mother, he said cheekily, “Welcome back, Mom.” His mother laughed. “I was a little hard on you kids, wasn’t I?” she asked a little remorsefully. “Nothing two helpings of dessert won’t put right, Mom,” assured Avijit airily, reaching out for his share of delicious mango soufflé.
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