A Good Upbringing

On the Way Out or a USP in the Digital Age?

We are agile, we are ready for change and we have learned to choose the most suitable in volatile, even disruptive contexts under a maximum of creative solution scenarios. But above all we are team players. And yet, despite all our professionalism, there is one skill that is often in danger of being forgotten in the omnipresent technical and organizational haste and tension: good education, appropriate behavior or: upbringing.

Kinderstube: Auslaufmodell oder USP

By Marc Wagner


The solid set of common fundamental values, known long ago under the rather quaint heading of “etiquette and propriety,” includes such attributes as attentiveness, courtesy, punctuality, dependability, honesty, integrity, respect, and loyalty. Today, companies – or their ivory tower departments – like to put these virtues into writing in the form of “Guiding Principles” or “Corporate Values” and hang them up at every corridor crossing, signaling: Job done! But actually practiced? Not a trace.

Do I sound old-fashioned? Do you detect a musty smell of self-righteous mothballs and of self-evident concepts that are slightly outdated? And yet, doesn’t the smooth functioning of advanced, high-performing, and strongly innovative teams who by and large steer themselves on their own responsibility depend on basic prerequisites that they do not create for themselves, but also cannot repeatedly discuss anew? Are not good manners, i.e., the internalized, generally accepted ways of dealing with other people, precisely the rules that must underly even the most inspiring entropy in creative biotopes with super-flat hierarchies?

My own observations reveal something entirely different, however. An ongoing rumination, over and over again, of the same maxims and abstract principles without any consequences coupled with concomitant ignorance in getting things done on a daily basis appears to me to be the norm. This is for me an indication of egocentric corporate cultures that are often hostile to innovation, cultures in which values are frequently instrumentalized so that jockeying for career advantages acquire a humanitarian veneer. In such cultures, the arrogance of rank, hubris, and ruthless pursuit of each person’s own advantage dominate the grueling daily business, guided by a skewed idea of man in which elbows are the primary means of getting ahead and people love to quote the cliché of “survival of the fittest.”

Here are some examples of behavior that I find annoying in any situation, but that can infuriate me to the boiling point and beyond in business situations.

1. Status pride and heedlessness

It is familiar to us all from observing stars and wannabe stars: every decision is made within a few seconds strictly in terms of personal benefit (i.e., judged according to the “importance scan”) and the next step follows accordingly. Can the other person offer me an immediate benefit (if at all possible, financial gain or a rise in prestige or power)? Is the person above me in the pecking order? Will the person help me to advance professionally? To establish contacts? To open doors? With an image transfer? Yes? – In that case: immediate eye contact, a friendly smile, the hint of a bow, and an exaggeratedly hearty greeting (with the most heavy-handed use of name and title possible). Has that ever happened to you as well? You have just been promoted, and no sooner has the promotion been announced on the intranet than those people who used to look right through you as if you were nonexistent suddenly want to have a cup of coffee with you.

This type of communication utilizing the signal flags of importance becomes more subtle every time another rung on the career ladder is taken, especially in large corporations that are as convoluted as they are spoiled by success. Low-ranking employees are ignored completely. A simple “Good morning!”, a smile on the elevator (whereby the Powerbeats in the ears and the smartphone display are good protection from such unwanted familiarities), a halfway honestly meant “How are you?” when people meet? Forget it! For me, the height of social autism (seen again and again): despite eye contact, no response follows a friendly greeting. Blatant expression of a principle: You are (for me, for my advancement) not important.

2. Indifference and juggling options

Another experience. The organizer of an event or a training program receives 25 firm commitments and 15 “with reservation” that can be treated as declining responses (these are either the usual appointment collectors who want to have their calendars as full as possible so that they appear important, or simply a secretariat has agreed by default clause). A lot of time is invested in preparations, and the question arises: Is a room for 25 people big enough? Shouldn’t I take a larger room and order catering for 30 people as a precaution? This is another situation in which you can observe widely divergent corporate cultures. I have worked in companies where this is exactly the right basis for the planning – but such companies are becoming more difficult to find. A more typical result: 14 people appear for the event – but not the 14 who accepted the invitation (more likely only 8 of them); instead, there are 6 new participants who spontaneously recognized that the topic was interesting. An absolute horror for every organizer and an annoying waste of resources to boot. What is more, this displays a lack of respect – for the organizer as well as for the entire company, which has invested time, energy, and financial resources.

We find the same behavior in a lot of meetings. Participants arrive 15 minutes late to a one-hour meeting and are then preoccupied for the next 23 minutes with their smartphones, even though there are plenty of studies documenting that multitasking is utter nonsense in terms of productivity. (Is there perhaps a connection here with the fact that more and more working days are being suffocated almost entirely with superfluous internal meetings?) A desirable alternative would be to question the necessity of the meeting ahead of time and to notify the organizer in advance that at the moment there are other priorities rather than to use up what little fresh air there is, burden the already strained elasticity of people’s nerves, and eat conference cookies full of sugar with mere physical presence, but mental absence.

These bad habits are generally defended by referring to the unbelievable amount of work and the many important topics so very important for the company’s success that must all be handled at the same time. And this is certainly true! Nonetheless, a robust sense of one’s own significance (in layman’s terms: self-centeredness) and a much less well-developed ability to set priorities appropriate to the purpose and the matter at hand most likely, at least on occasion, feed into this game of a thousand opportunities to be a part of everything. That brings to my mind Tim Bendzko’s refrain: “Have to go save the world right quick.”

At the end of the day, we manager lemmings in particular race with our tongues hanging out from one meeting to next – consequently always late, but at least we are always everywhere. We might otherwise miss something.

3. Efficiency artistry or thoughtlessness

Oh, yes, there is another observation I would like to share with you. Either a file attachment with a draft that has not been finalized goes out per digital carbon copy to any number of email recipients on the team and contains (in addition to the message that the sender has an appointment with his dentist) the implicit demand: “Take care of the rest!” or you receive an email that has you wondering: “Why isn’t there anything in this message (except the automatic signature)?” No, this is not spam – it is a “business email.” If you look a little more closely, you will discover that the sender has confused the email system with Twitter and put the entire message in the subject line. It is completely self-evident, of course, that there is no room for a greeting or a closing along the lines of “Best regards, XYZ.” And even when the actual “content” has finally been identified, greeting and closing are simply left out most of the time. Presumably, this is done for reasons of efficiency or to highlight simultaneously the sender’s advanced skills in the field of time management.

“What to do?” Lenin might have asked at this point

But I am not seeking to foment revolution. Instead, to encourage reflection, to call to mind memories that will cause us to pause and think about our actions. I admit that I have drawn an extreme image here, and its generalization is absolutely inappropriate. After all, many of the behavioral patterns illustrated and implied here are the consequences of a world that is increasingly overwhelming and complex. The enticing “simplification” promises of digitalization have not really been fulfilled – in many cases, at least – and organizations frequently duplicate and preserve complexity instead of reducing it. As we struggle to find our way in this twisting labyrinth, our sense of common humanity and our desire to live by and exemplify fundamental virtues and social rules falls by the wayside. I want to state explicitly that I am no exception; as I write these words, I am aware that every once in a while this or that pattern of deplorable behavior appears in my actions as well.

But do things have to be that way? A rhetorical question. Of course not! I would also like to quote once again the well-worn platitude: “It doesn’t cost anything to smile.” Haven’t you also been shocked (in a positive sense) now and then when, completely unexpectedly, you were the subject of a friendly word or an appreciative gesture? And doesn’t the sense of being appreciated stay with you much longer than some of your monetary or political power successes? It’s not necessary here to reach for the lofty idea of a “random act of kindness,” but isn’t it true that many special achievements, valuable flashes of inspiration, and productive team results come from precisely those environments in which the self-evident concepts quoted above are genuinely practiced and in which courtesy, attentiveness, honesty, uprightness, and mutual respect represent core values?

Doesn’t recalling a good upbringing, propriety, tact, and attentiveness offer to some people the unique (and easily achieved) opportunity to set themselves apart in a positive sense and to gain a “competitive advantage of value”? And there are plenty of studies describing how social skills, of which appropriate communication is presumably the most important one, are virtually the only differentiation advantage over robots and “learning” machines.

An image from a completely different area comes forcefully to my mind. My family and I have been going to Portorož, an enchanting vacation spot on the Slovenian coast of the Adriatic, almost every year for a long time, and we always stay at the same hotel. The landscape is great, the food is fantastic, and the furnishings are perfect, but these things alone are not what draws us back so often. No, we go there because we are treated like individuals, because we are met with friendliness and consideration everywhere we go – and not just draped in the costume of a trained service attitude, but from people’s hearts. What does us so much good is the feeling of being part of a genuine, familial normality.

And isn’t that what is important? Creating a kind of familial working atmosphere? What does the family stand for in the end? For reciprocity, trust, and respect that find expression in many small gestures, and for a form of “cooperation” that can rely on everyone knowing and taking to heart the fundamental rules of getting along with one another, respecting others in their roles, but also treating them as (fellow) human beings. And that is exactly what makes the difference and ultimately shows us in the mirror what condition the culture of our company is in – or could be in!

Just give this kind of comparison a try! You may be very surprised.

What has been your experience?

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