The Victorians were big on etiquette. It is a word we hardly hear these days. It rarely gets aired in popular usage, nor do we hear of it much in management training. Etiquette was a word that was taken to the hearts of the Victorians who recognised that, in an organised society, structured rules of social conduct not only offered an indication of grooming, self-discipline and credibility, they were a way to organise human behaviour in ways that allowed us to interact in respectful ways.
The cynic could regard this as a form of ancient social order that reinforced class and gender boundaries and, yes, there was an element of old-style etiquette that reflected some of that. But there was often a sensible logic to it. Allowing a woman to access a door first, was not only a mark of respect but quite a reasonable arrangement given that her garb of the day, was probably more voluminous and more difficult to control than that of a betrousered male. The same is true of allowing a female to ascend stairs first. The reality is females are usual smaller and tend to be lighter than adult males. Females stumbling backwards can often have that descent arrested by a male. A male stumbling backwards will probably carry a lighter female with him.
Many such “courtesies” were, therefore, functional as well as indicating respect in a social order.
Fast-forward a century or so and we see little of formal etiquette. We might still see it at a table, with a carefully-set array of forks, but this rarely goes beyond two these days in formal dinners that only feature three courses.
But it is not the gentility of rules organising social events and inter-gender behaviour that I am alluding to here, the 21st century has seen a fundamental form of etiquette in business dying off.
Emails have produced truncated language, where they are often just prefaced with one’s name, rather than some form of greeting, and most end with “regards” rather than something that is more apropos the relationship in hand. People don’t get back to you anymore or give you a ring. Increasingly now, they merely “revert”.
True business courtesy is really important. Take, for example, the “I’ll get back to you”, usually within an agreed timescale, exchange. This actually really should mean doing just that, yet failure to do so happens too often. Frequently, someone gets overtaken with other priorities or is forgetful, or a timescale slides, or new events cause complications to a situation and yet the individual fails to proffer updates. We live in a world now where, rather than expecting the common courtesy of someone honouring their word, we have to “progress chase” as a norm. I really do believe in “say what you do and do what you say” as the mark of your integrity in business. To my growing disappointment, this appears a declining practice. Failure to respond to someone within an agreed framework carries the risk of a number of implicit assumptions being made, e.g.:
1) You devalue the person you are communicating with;
2) You indicate that you have other priorities and this isn’t important;
3) The “ psychological contract” between parties is left ambiguous;
4) It communicates that you are not particularly good at management of yourself.
The list could go on, but I will stop there.
In a day of gridlocked traffic, we often have people turning up late. This is true in a modern world, we can get communication log jams etc, but I have known many simply not update the meeting they are attending that they are running late, perhaps as a result of poor planning by the individual. In a world of “just in time” lifestyles and industrial processes, this preplanning can seem a luxury, but actually I would disagree, it contributes to one’s overall time management. It’s something I painfully have to readdress myself from time to time, because the simple truth is we can all find reasons for not doing as we say we will do.
Another area of failed courtesy is failing to understand another person’s world. I was recently invited to a meeting for many organisations, wherein the convener, working to expediencies, assumed that by because it is normally convened very early in the morning almost everybody would be present at five working days’ notice. In reality, busy people start early, their diaries are full and good time management means that any meeting of import should ideally receive at least three weeks’ notice to ensure that you get a reasonable attendance, quoracy and effectiveness of the activity.
This timescale can be reduced in terms of internal functions within organisations, but in complex multi-organisational interfaces, any less than this is likely to cause unnecessary renegotiations on date, qualified attendance, substitutes, people giving apologies, arriving late or leaving early. The follow-ons include misunderstandings, wasteful remedial actions and disputes, all because of over focus on task getting in the way of a sensitive approach to ensure inclusion.
Then let’s take an alternative to meetings, the booked call. It is amazing how many people solicit planned telephone calls and then either fail to ring on time or are suddenly in a meeting when you call. Booked calls need to be effectively coordinated. The very purpose of such calls is to be efficient, to avoid the need for face to face interaction yet deal with the importance of the subject matter, within a manageable timescale. Everything about the action reflects a desire for interactivity with economy of effort. Booked calls have to be right. When they go wrong, what is communicated by the errant party is fundamental to how the rapport in that business relationship subsequently flows.
Now that’s not saying that we don’t commit faux pas’, make mistakes. To err is human, to forgive is possible, but to create a poor first impression or to be a repeat offender, means that whoever you are dealing with subsequently forms a view about you which their inbuilt confirmation bias will take a long time to displace. So long in many cases, that that relationship never ferments into anything more meaningful. We know from psychology research it can take 90 seconds or less to form an opinion about someone and it can take many many interactions for the opinion once formed, be it positive or negative, to be displaced.
Moving on, let’s take the subject of dress. Whilst “suited and booted” appearances are not always conducive to business engagement, they are a strong statement, even in a world of casual designer garb, that one has taken the time and trouble to be at ones best for the people whose presence you will be in. It’s to notice that the civil service now no longer require ties in their dress code. I have slightly mixed feelings about that personally but accept that trends move on.
Fundamental to all relationships, business or otherwise, is congruency of action. When we are incongruent to our actions, be they large or small, this communicates something sublimely to our audience and creates a sense of discomfort or doubt. At a subliminal level, the individual starts to evaluate the behaviour of the other in a meta position, that of “is this individual trustworthy?”, “does this person deliver?”, “can I rely on this person to maintain confidentiality/deadlines/ deliver change?”. Again, the list goes on.
What we communicate to others is not lost. Very often it is stored within the recipient’s subconscious mind and helps to create and maintain a subjective opinion about you, your business and most importantly about the way you do business. One of the best ways of maintaining congruency, is to always bear in mind courtesy and a reasonable level of etiquette towards our business associates, and for that matter our friends, partners etc. We are not talking Victorian formality here, but we are talking human respect, something that we can lose very easily when “just in time” becomes “slip” and “catch up”.
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.