Fifteen years after starting a company, I work with the same 4 co-founders – one of whom is my wife. The company has an additional handful of employees who have worked 10 years with the firm. I’ve started to break down the communications and culture that creates “organizational stickiness.” 

One of my childhood memories involved my family going to visit some friends and my Persian mother watching in dismay and horror as I proceeded to systematically devour a whole plate of fruit our host had served me. According to Persian culture norms – namely, the concept of Taarof – that was not kosher. Wikipedia described Taarof (pronounced Taw-Roaf) as “Iranian form of civility or art of etiquette that emphasizes both deference and social rank.”

Rejecting Your Roots

Everything about my demeanor that day was enough to send my mother into shock. Having moved from Iran to Canada at the age of 5, I grew up fully embracing Western cultures, including rejecting some of the tedious aspects of Taarof.

You can take the kid out of Tehran, but you can’t take Tehran out of the kid

Fast forward some 30 years… a couple of my lieutenants were discussing how one of their reports – “Terry” – was surprised to receive their criticism, since Terry felt like he was an all-star. 

As a guilty feeling overtook me, I felt compelled to interject: “I may have something to do with that…”

Incredulous, my two execs turned around, confusingly asking me “why? How come?”

Indeed, at a company-wide dinner, I’d found myself sitting next to Terry and despite not really knowing much about his contributions and performance, I was expressing not just gratitude for joining our organization, but also extending congratulations for his excellent work… it wasn’t so much that I was lying, rather it was typical of my idealistic viewpoint that “anyone can accomplish anything” if they relied on their comparative advantage, committed themselves to it and focused on getting better at it. Leadership, after all, is instilling in everyone the belief that they can accomplish almost anything; management is knowing they can’t get there alone and need help (something one appreciates over time as they grow more realistic and less idealistic).

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Now, reading an Iranian wife asking her British husband “what accomplishments” an Iranian immigration officer was complimenting him on resonated clearly and loudly with me. Guilty!

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

As WatchMojo celebrates its 15-year anniversary, I’m proud of the fact that we have so many of the early employees with us to this day. The same original 5 co-founders (one of whom is my wife), almost ten employees with 10+ years of tenure, etc. Admittedly, I’ve started to dissect my management style and mode of communication that created the kind of culture that explains our “organizational stickiness” for the most part. 

Invariably, I found my way to Taarof. At first, my natural instinct was to think I had shunned the practice, but as part of the purpose of my soul-searching exercise was my recognition that “what got me here may not get me there,” my jaw dropped to the floor when I read this passage from the 2006 NY Times article:

“In Iran, you praise people but you don’t mean it.”

What? Was I… a phony? (and not in the Michael Jordan kind of way). After all, this doesn’t mean that the compliments are not sincere;  but acknowledge that I compliment people way too much, way too prematurely… and it doesn’t necessarily help long term (why? more on that below). 

WTF is Taarof?

According to my hamshari (fellow country-person) Sarah Parvini’s LATimes article: anthropologists trace the origins of taarof to an Arabic word meaning “acquaintance” or “knowledge.” 

Indeed, Taarof is more than simply opening doors, giving up your chair, or sharing your meal with others. It’s customary elsewhere for people to seek gaining the upper hand, Parvini describes the decorum as a form of self-deprecating “self-lowering” to “get the lower hand.” Taarof’s goal, ultimately, is to be respectful: a combination of civility, deference, etiquette, empathy, sacrifice, even martyrdom to the extent that one strives to eliminate others’ pain and discomfort, even if it means somewhat masochist behavior.

Taarof in Management & Leadership: Servant Leadership – Here to Serve.

Management is the creation of rules and systems, leadership is knowing when to make exceptions. That kind of servant leadership which aims to serve others strives to create a bottom-up, egalitarian society where ideally employees feel a sense of fairness and justice. Admittedly, it’s a philosophy inspired by the Zoroastrianism motto of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

As a side note, people from Iran who refer to themselves as Persian are generally indicating a discontent with the current regime and political leadership. While cats are Persian, the people of Iran are generally referred to as Iranians, regardless of where they live, though in theory I use Iranian for someone who is a resident of Iran, versus a Persian who’s Iranian in origin but lives abroad. Notably, Iranians/Persians are Indo-Europeans, as opposed to Arabs who are Semitic. The language is Farsi. Whether an Iranian is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Bahai or Zoroastrian, Taarof is universal amongst Persians, regardless of where they live. 

Getting the Most Out of Your Team

While that exchange with Terry was a bit more of a benign externality of my mannerism and created a bit of a conundrum for management, overall, I wouldn’t change my overall approach to leading as it has served me and the company very well. For one, on the offensive front, it helped me lead a relatively speaking under-funded and scrappy startup to compete with, and on many levels, surpass the competition. On the defensive front (a strong foundation), it may have been the only way things would have worked. After all, as a very driven and competitive person, Taarof serves as the restrained yin to the uber competitive yang to counter-balance things. Life’s all about balance: greed vs fear, risk vs return, good vs evil. Were it not for that dovish approach, you have over-bearing entrepreneurs who overstep decorum and burn out their team.

Fortune magazine recognized GE’s Jack Welch as the Manager of the Century. He was well-known and widely quoted for saying that unless you’re #1 or #2 in your market, you may as well get out. But more noteworthy was his emphasis on People & Competition, which go hand-in-hand in winning. 

I always chalked up our healthy culture partly to me not having outside investors and a board, and not needing anyone to blame (aka CYA). We have tried many things over the years and fortunately struck platform/format fit; but lord knows not everything has worked – I’ve never blamed anyone for the results. Meanwhile, by default, I’m simply more comfortable to say that “Ernst & Young recognized WatchMojo’s accomplishments by granting us the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, emphasizing that while presented as an individual award, it’s really a reflection of the team.” I mean it, sincerely, but I do spot a pattern of just not being comfortable (despite being very transparent and opening up online) to make things about me. Giving credit to others while absolving anyone of any blame leads to a more laid-back environment where a team can truly dissect errors quickly and “Live and learn.”

But even on a day-to-day operational basis, there’s a lack of courtesy in Western norms that I always found unsavory and never adopted. For example, I will never tell an executive “get me this report by tomorrow.” Instead, I would be more likely to make the request by saying: “Hey, hope all is well. I am working on project X, I need to present by [date]. I’d love your POV before I do so. Can you take a look and lmk when you can get me your thoughts? Thanks.” 

Some may find that a bit passive aggressive. I would disagree. I’m empowering a colleague, instilling a sense of accountability. But that’s taarof, for better or worse. The recipient may see that as a favor and not a demand, and that may create some confusion, but net-net, over time, that tone engenders a better rapport between a boss and his subordinate, if it’s sincere.

Being Nice Makes Good Business Sense

When I interviewed my current CFO – who is older and more experienced than me – he said in passing “I presume when I’m on vacation, it’s cell phone in hand as I walk on the beach?”

I stared at him silently, thinking “why would I bother you on your vacation, let alone when you’re on the beach,” before replying “well, I’m always here for you if you need me, so yes, you can reach me anytime even when you’re on vacation, but I hope I never have to reach you then” before moving on.

The younger employees who haven’t worked elsewhere just take this as “normal,” but sometimes when I re-read email exchanges with a twenty-something colleague, one would assume I work for them – and that’s literally how it should be.

But to the more experienced managers I recruited a few years ago who (in their own words) suffered from PTSD they experienced elsewhere, a couple of things stood out. First, they were shocked that I never called or emailed them on evenings or weekends. Why would I? We have the whole week to discuss what needs to be discussed. That’s also why early on, I tell younger employees not to condition themselves into thinking they score points by working late/on weekends unless there’s an exception. Second, I failed to adequately give them constructive but critical feedback because I viewed them more as industry peers than my employees (they were all senior). As I saw the positives, instead of guiding them to adapt and change their playbook to deliver the results we all envisioned, I was effectively lowering the expectations and conditioning them in a manner that would not serve anyone well over time. It’s a trade-off: the day-to-day dynamic may be more cordial, but beneath it all Taarof can cloak situations that may not be sustainable over time. The kindness you show can be taken advantage of, even if not done out of malice and rather subconsciously.

Giving People a False Sense of Reality?

In fact, when employers ask me for a reference on former employees, I always focus on the positive and want to see former colleagues go on to succeed elsewhere. But occasionally, the feedback I receive when the new would-be employer passes on my former employee gives me reason to think that my lack of criticism and accountability combined with an tendency to compliment and paint a rosier, positive picture may not have served them well.

In that sense, Taarof truly is more of a management philosophy, if not outright life mindset than token gestures of etiquette. But, with the good comes some bad – and thus requires a more balanced perspective.

Ultimately, management fads come and go, but if you don’t have a corrosive management style and manage through empathy and genuinely care about others on every single play/day, then you then don’t need extraordinary window dressing programs where you pretend to care (because you burned people out in the first place). As much as I hate to admit it, the roots of that viewpoint is without a doubt Taarof. This doesn’t mean that sometimes members of your team can’t benefit from a good kick in the butt, but there’s a way to relay that without demeaning the individual or making it about them (focus on the process and assumptions that led to the underwhelming outcome, and what we’d all do differently with the benefit of hindsight and experience).

Everything Good Has Limitations

Iranians are known for their politeness and hospitality. Taarof is ultimately rooted in those traits. In practice, as this BBC article recaps, this goes above and beyond “refusing when they want to accept, say what is not meant, express what is not felt, invite when it is not intended,” but more notably to this entrepreneur and executive: “replace bad news with false hope.” Guilty once more.

I’ve oftentimes said that “entrepreneurs are masochists while executives are sadists” because of my own disposition. But reading “replace bad news with false hope,” I couldn’t help but think of the many times when someone I like and respect said or asked for something which I disagreed with or didn’t want to approve. Despite my penchant for a good debate, I may not get confrontational in person, because most people can’t truly take critical feedback. That’s why I may follow up with a very diplomatic response that’s thought-out and supported by facts and figures, but wrapped in compliments and a roadmap for how to obtain a positive response in the future.

As I grew older, I saw the pros of such an approach but also came to appreciate its limitations, namely, that in-person communications may be more effective (even though most people don’t really listen, meaning that written communications can serve as a good backup to reference). 

Candor, Truthfulness and Being Direct

This past week I was on CJAD talking about a number of touchy subjects. As always, I was direct and blunt. A long time friend text me: 

“I’ve probably told you before but it warrants being said again: my fav thing about you, going all the way back to college, is that you are the most real person I know. Never change amigo.”

I pride myself for my truthfulness and honesty. Growing up I would find myself telling a fib or white lie (usually to offset the awkwardness of arriving to Canada at the age of 6, i.e. “did I see ET? Yeah… of course”) but as I got older, it was clear that telling a lie wasn’t a sustainable option. The truth always comes out, so lying seemed pointless. Over time, I grew militantly honest partly because telling the truth is the right thing to do, but also because I would hate to get caught in a lie.

As a result, given my age when I arrived in Canada, I grew up very Canadian (or rather, American, in terms of culture). When the portrayal of Iranians to your contemporaries starts with the hostage crisis and is accentuated with movies like Not Without My Daughter, it’s quite normal that you reject your roots and embrace your adopted land’s culture. By the time I graduated college, it never really dawned on me that I was different. 9/11 changed that. As a finance graduate who had shifted to the media industry, being an Iranian, Muslim-born Canadian in Montreal came with unique challenges. 

It didn’t help that America’s fraught relationship with Iran led to a fair or unfair stereotype (NYT article): 

“It is certainly unfair to accuse all Iranians of being liars. The label is judgmental and reeks of stereotype. The more appropriate way to phrase the Iranian view toward honesty, the way many Iranians themselves describe it, is to say that being direct and telling the truth are not prized principles in Iran.”

Truthfulness vs Directness

Over time, I wondered, am I really direct or blunt? Am I truthful or transparent? A communication style rooted in Taarof comes with cons: namely “Ambiguity and misunderstanding are the offspring of Taarof, which in term might cause complexity when interacting with Iranians. In a business context, there are an extensive amount of indirect words and phrases.”

To say I’m passionate and fiery is an understatement, I compete and like to win, be it in business or in sports. But I’ve never really directly criticized let alone attacked someone personally. I get upset at outcomes and results, and then quickly want to learn from those setbacks to bounce back. But nothing is personal. Experienced colleagues recognize and appreciate that nuance, inexperienced ones don’t. Taarof also forces the leader to empathize with those who are more fragile and may break down if you don’t strike the right tone.

I’ve found it more effective to try to guide people, give anecdotes and point to examples of how I or more successful people approached a similar situation the person is facing. I attribute that to the Built to Last-inspired mantra of “building clocks, instead of telling people the time.” As that BBC article would conclude: “the truth is that taarof is not meant to appear to be taarof. The less obvious it is, the more successful.”

Does Too Much Kindness Lead to Ineffective Management?

Iranian artist Fereshteh Najafi adds: “Taarof represents the kind essence of Iranian people. In Persian culture, it can be impolite to express ourselves in very a direct and objective way.” 

Masud Valipour, owner of Ketabsara bookstore in Westwood, relates to the LA Times’ Parvini: “The heart of ta’arof is good. Sometimes people take advantage of it. It’s just like anything else.” 

As per the BBC article, while: “decorous manners are practised throughout the world, taarof differs by being far more elaborate and pervasive. In every social interaction, from buying groceries to negotiating a nuclear deal this highly valued behaviour dictates how people should treat each other. While the concept is generally positive, showing mutual deference, it can be manipulative when used improperly, when someone tries to benefit from the generosity of another. Such behaviour is seen as negative in Iranian society, as it masks arrogance rather than expresses humility.”

Taarof in Politics and Diplomacy

While the observations here transcend into business, it’s noteworthy to ask what the impact of Taarof is on diplomacy. According to the NYT article: “hearing what Iranians are really saying, not what Americans think they are saying, has become a priority” as Iran/American relations have been icy since Operation Ajax when Americans joined the British in overthrowing the democratically elected Mohammad Mosadegh.

More recently, when Iran and America experienced a detente, Secretary of State John Kerry was the chief conduit. Kerry’s son-in-law, it should be noted, is Iranian. Understanding that “declining what you really want and offering what you’ll never give up” may help go a long way in long term peace.

Communication Breakdown?

According to Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist who lived for many years in England and the United States before returning to Iran a decade ago. “Speech has a different function than it does in the West.  In the West, 80 percent of language is denotative. In Iran 80 percent is connotative. In the West, ‘yes’ generally means yes. In Iran, ‘yes’ can mean yes, but it often means maybe or no. In Iran, listeners are expected to understand that words don’t necessarily mean exactly what they mean.”

On that note, I realized maybe that’s why I am so reluctant to say yes, and hesitate to say no, and prefer to “think about it” before making a decision. But if I say yes, then I am more committed than anyone.

Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst and former government official in Tehran adds: “You can translate words, but can you translate feelings? British diplomats are more successful with us. They understand our ways and our culture. Americans are pragmatists and word choice is often based on the shortest route from here to there. Iranians are poets and tend to use language as though it were paint, to be spread out, blended, swirled. Words can be presented as pieces in a puzzle, pieces that may or may not fit together neatly.”

Nature Meet Nurture

Indeed, Americans and Iranians speak two different languages.

When I look back at my career, as a Canadian who competed at a high level in the American corporate arena over two decades, it’s as if I have been able to:

  • blend the hawkish go-getting American business culture with the dovish Taarof management style, while
  • combining the dealmaking pedigree Iranians have under the friendly veneer of Canadians’ demeanour.

Ultimately, the takeaway once again being that balance trumps any extreme.