Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Watching back to back Downton Abbey episodes it is hard to escape the focus on manners and tradition in the English way of life. Form matters. What you wear, how you behave to a lady or to one another, defines you in the eyes of the people around you.
But working in a silicon valley technology company does this matter? Do English manners have a place?
I believe they not only have a place, but they particularly have a place in business. The small behaviors that indicate respect make a huge difference in how the people around you feel, and the behaviors cut both ways between the genders.
Consider, for example, being late. When you are late for a meeting you are telling the people waiting for you that you think your time is more important than theirs. Of course, sometimes you get held up, but a person who is repeatedly late (as Marissa Meyer is purported to be) is abusing power and disrespecting the people around them. In time, you yourself lose the respect of your team if you can't, or won't manage your time. In contrast, when you are on time you respect the other person's time, as the team at Andreessen Horowitz strives to do.
Many of the behaviors we consider as good manners have a cultural bias in how men should treat women. Holding a door open, standing up when a woman enters the room or paying for a meal but, in today's business world, these behaviors are as appropriate for a woman as for a man. One of the marvelous side effects of women's growing equality in the office is that while it would be risky to treat your female office mates with patronizing chivalry, treating everyone politely allows women to display chivalry towards men.
When a customer walks into a conference room you should stand up, of course. Welcome them into the room. Offer to fetch a cup of coffee or glass of water. When you are walking through a door it's polite to hold the door open for the next person, whether they are a man or a woman. If you go out for a meal the most senior person should pay, or the vendor should pay, or if you are with business peers offer to pay. Anything else is just crass.
And one of the areas that I (as essentially English) wish more people would pay attention to is manners at the table. When you wait for the other people at the table to start eating you respect that you are sharing a meal with them. When you carefully watch their pace to make sure you finish your plate just after them you ensure that no one else feels embarrassed to be finishing last. Common courtesy.
Saying thank you, sending a small thank you note (or email) when someone has spent time with you, or done a favor for you, goes a really long way in establishing relationship.
In the end, it does not matter what role you are in, or whether you are male or female, treating the people around you with respect - through your manners - makes a positive impression, and will earn you respect. Behaving badly, disrespecting others with your behavior may not change whether you are the boss or not, it may not change whether someone buys from you or not, but it does change what people privately think about you, and over time, whether they want to work with you or not.
William of Wykeham used Manners Makyth Man as the motto for the colleges he founded 650 years ago. And the value of manners is as true today as it was then, especially in business.