The Art of “Non-Negotiables”

Abhishek Chatterjee
4 min readSep 26, 2020

How important is it? How big can it be? What is the “
Coût maximum”, I am willing to pay for it?

When I started thinking about my “non-negotiables”, these were the questions I was fighting in my mind. What if “something” happens in my work that falls into my non-negotiable? Should I walk out of my work? Am I willing to pay such a huge cost?

So what are “Non-negotiables” or rather the art of practising “non-negotibles”?

Non-negotiables are the set of rules that defines a person’s constitution. A moral fibre or few rules on which we can’t and we won’t make a compromise.

Why do you need it?

I don’t know on a broader level, but I needed it. I need it because it defines me, it defines my moral fibre and also defines my moral or ethical or professional “uncomfortable zone” where I don’t want to operate.

Don’t we have it already?

Yes, at a higher level. And No, at a granular level. Why do I say that? I say this because at a higher level we all have a moral compass example A No towards lie, no towards greed etc. However operating at a granular level, when our closed ones, could be our spouse or rest of the family, behave in the same way which earlier was wrong on moral compass, we now choose to ignore. This, right here can’t be “non-negotiable”.

Why is it Important?

It is important because it makes our decision making easier. It helps in setting right expectations with the other person without hurting them. Let me give you an example, I have enrolled to a course and the instructor told in the first class that things which I am going to ask you to do are tough and if you expect easy then quit right away. He clearly called out his “non-negotiable” that all of us (enrolled in that course) must join every class at least 5 mins earlier to the session. He mentioned that until we are all alive, there cannot be any other reason to get delayed even by one minute.

I killed it, I killed it in his class whereas I am generally a 5 min late person. Why because expectations around non-negotiables were set by him.

How to practise this art?

Personal level

Build a list of non-negotiables for yourself. Like I am going to join every meeting 5 min early or no task should be extended till the deadline.

Build a list of non-negotiables for work. Like I would never pass on the buck to my team and show extreme ownership to whatever be the consequence.

Build a list of non-negotiables around friends and family. Like I am always going to give honest feedback, I am always going to tell the truth and I am always going to find out time for them and not cite work as an excuse.

Once you have set and followed it on a personal level, you now have both the capability and the right to implement at a broader level.

For the outside world

If you are working in a team, running an org, it becomes very important to set a thumb rule of non-negotiables so that the expectations are rightly set.

For example, I would not ask you all to work on a weekend unless there is a huge fire to put out like whole system going down, massive business decisions etc. Now when and if I ask my team over the weekend, they clearly know why they have been asked.

Normally these things look very small and incomprehensible, but when you are able to practice these things on a day to day basis, it becomes an important tool to help you shaping your character, identity and decision making.

For example, One of the non-negotiable for me is “Extreme ownership” and I really stop thinking about the cost I have to pay but if there is a task to be done I am always up for it, if something goes wrong I do not have to look or find the person to blame or pass the buck because I am that person. Also, my team would know that if something has gone wrong they have to fix it and own it and I would not hear that it is someone else’s mistake because that’s a “non-negotiable” for me.

Things to keep in mind for our “non-negotiables”:

  • Don’t make a longlist, you might never be able to practice it or execute it.
  • Non-negotiables are not a list of things that you don’t like. It is a not a list at the first place.
  • Think about the non-negotiables that could help you define your character and a support system for decision making.
  • Begin with 2–3 non-negotiables and practice them without sharing with anyone, unless you have excelled at it. Never try to impose it on the outside world, (as earlier called out) before you have excelled at it.
  • As much as you like or dislike, you can practise your non-negotiables only in an enviroment where you have some control. Example: I can’t stop a certain Arnoob to spread fake news even if that is my non-negotiable because I don’t control or have a say in his environment.
  • You don’t need to let the world know about all of your “non-negotiables”. Tell them only the ones which is directly impacting them and not your entire operating constitution.
  • There are chances when your non-negotiables might clash with someone’s non-negotiable, believe me, it is a difficult situation and I have not been able to solve it yet :)

When I do, you will be reading my next post..Happy reading. BTW, need to make writing on weekends as my “non-negotiable”.