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Always Be Sweet ... if You Can Manage That

March 15, 2004|Patricia Eliot Tobias

Humor columnist Dave Barry once said, "A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person." The business equivalent is: "A manager who is nice to clients but indifferent, unpleasant or unfair to the staff is not a good manager."

Which leads us to the very public troubles of Martha Stewart (soon-to-be former head of everything Martha Stewart), Michael Eisner (soon-to-be former head of Disney) and Howell Raines (already former executive editor of the New York Times).

Academics long ago learned that companies -- and business leaders -- fared better when they created positive, confirming corporate cultures.

A confirming culture is one in which employees feel valued. If you say to me, "I just turned in my project," a confirming response might be: "That's great! You worked hard, and it must be a relief to be finished."

People who receive confirming responses tend to have better morale, work harder and longer, don't jump ship, take fewer sick days and are more productive.

But far too often, managers offer a "disconfirming" response: ignoring you, cutting you off in mid-sentence, changing the subject, going off on a tangent, being condescending, reacting ambiguously, etc. The subtext is that their time, their interests, their lives are more important than yours. Disconfirming responses can be toxic.

Which brings us back to Stewart, Eisner and Raines. Each of them has, by all reports, treated subordinates badly.

When these moguls required help, the people they needed were the ones they had demeaned. The assistant who was treated rudely by Stewart was willing to testify against her. The employees and shareholders at Disney made it clear that Eisner's regime needed to change. And when push came to shove with Raines over the Jayson Blair scandal, the employees shoved him out.

This lesson should frighten managers everywhere. If you don't treat your staff members with dignity, they will not stand with you when things get tough.

I can guarantee that, even though some may lose their jobs in the next few months, any of Stewart's employees who have felt mistreated are gloating over her downfall.

When Eisner finally leaves Disney, you can bet there will be joy in Mouseland.

And when Raines departed the New York Times -- despite his qualifications as a journalist -- few on the staff were sorry to see him go.

Managers and corporate leaders should be as accountable to their subordinates as they are to the annual report. Otherwise, no one will catch them when they stumble. And there will be cheers when they fall down. Is that any way to run a business?


Patricia Eliot Tobias is an editor for a Writers Guild of America, west publication.

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