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Manners, Trust, and Desperation

Originally published on LinkedIn in March 2018

I was puttering in the kitchen and my wife sat nearby, scrolling through headlines on newsfeeds and social media. She read something to the effect of: “How to behave in board rooms and business meetings: be on time, don’t interrupt, pay attention, and stay on topic.” Then she asked rhetorically, “Why do people need these lessons these days? Isn’t it surprising that people don’t know how to behave in an office?”

I thought about this for about 2.5 seconds before it all spilled it out in one connected train of thought. She hadn’t been looking for a response, and I didn’t know I had compiled the equation. But there it was. Her only response was that I should do something with it. Write about it, present it in a Ted Talk, teach it in courses. I’m both knowledgeable about it and passionate about it. Let me know what you think.

As human beings we evolved through thousands of years of hunter-gathering cultures, which have engrained in each of us the need to seek out and find trust in the people we share our villages and livelihoods with. A few thousand years ago, and in many cases, even a few hundred years ago, this would look like people encountering each other, looking each other in the eyes, stopping long enough to say good morning, to ask how the other is doing, to know something about that person’s life and their family and to mention it. This is basic civility and manners. But it is also a way of understanding that the person is who they say they are, that they belong amongst the team, that we are all in it together, and that they can trust us and we can trust them. For, in a hunter-gatherer culture, some people must be trusted to hunt on behalf of everyone, and some people have to be trusted to gather on behalf of everyone else, and some people have to be trusted to raise the children on behalf of everyone, and some people have to be trusted to stay awake all night and keep watch over everyone else while they sleep. Re-establishing trust often is extremely important, because if there is any likelihood that one person might let down the rest in any of these imperative duties, the security and functionality of the whole social structure and civilization would be risked. This is explained way better than I can do in the books The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson, and in Sapiens by Dr. Yuval Harari.

So while that need to establish trust and the behaviours associated with doing so are in our genes, and are innate or natural behaviours, our social structure has jumped ahead and changed faster than we could biologically evolve. We jumped up into capitalism pretty fast over the last few hundred years. And capitalism requires growth and constant work. There were times and cultures when people would show loyalty to their employers and be rewarded for as long as possible with employment, regardless of the fluctuations of workloads. Meaning that, when there was work assignments, we would all be busy, and when work was slow, we would still be employed, however bored. But we were all in it together, come what may.

It used to be that when someone asked, “Does anyone know John from accounting?” Someone on the team would be able to say, “Yes, we know him.” Because in fact, you did know him. You knew who he was, where he lived, how big his family was, what he did in the company, and possibly where he spent his vacation or what sport he liked to watch. Too often now, we hear that someone in accounting didn’t do what they were supposed to; and here we find that the rest of the people in the value chain have all been blindly trusting that a nameless entity would do something we expected. We are all let down, but why did we trust that things would go the way we expected them to?

Now, in the modern Western world, the younger generation entering the workforce often acts and speaks about their bosses or their work as though it is a priority that is outside of their control, and that it outweighs everything. For example, “I know we were supposed to meet for lunch, but my boss just asked me to work through lunch to meet an imaginary deadline.” Or, “Sorry for the short notice, but my client just called and I have to rework something for them immediately.” Or worse: “I saw your messages, but I have been busy working on a deal.” The list of examples goes on and on, but sufficed to say that what people are really saying is that they can cancel on anything, and ignore anyone, that may otherwise be important to me or you, if it relates to their work.

So at what point did it become okay for work, clients, and bosses, to outrank normal human relationships, normal manners, and normal life priorities?

It gets worse before it gets better: not only manners have gone out the window, but people have become cut-throat in business. The drive to pursue the deal has become so intensified, that people will act in ways that would make their mothers ashamed of them. It’s all in the name of business. So basically, hiding behind a big corporate brand makes it okay to act like we don’t care about other people, that we don’t have to treat them decently, or communicate with them clearly, and that we don’t have to be trustworthy. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just try being an account executive in the ICT industry for a week, and see how people react to your requests for a conversation.

When did it become okay for the demands of the company to outrank adequate communication and treating others fairly?

Fear is a priority that has gradually been elevated to eventually to outrank trust. People in business in North America today, especially the younger ones, are either afraid of losing their jobs, or afraid of not being recognized for adding value, such that they will prioritize looking like they are working, jumping to follow orders, bumping up the demands of clients, and winning at the deals; rather than keeping appointments, following-up with others in a timely and polite way, and acting in a normal decent way. And they dismiss this notion as quickly as it occurs, because they think that everyone is experiencing what they are experiencing. “Sorry for the short notice, but my manager just dumped a new load of work on my desk, so I can’t make it today. You understand how it is.” Actually, no we don’t understand how that is. Are you not allowed to plan a lunch meeting in advance, and will the work not still be there when you get back? Are you not allowed to have a weekend to yourself? Are you afraid of telling your manager that you have plans but that you will be back in an hour? Is your position so fragile that if you say that you will get to it on Monday, you may be replaced over the weekend? It wreaks of desperation. Desperation to keep your job, desperation to get ahead on the corporate ladder. Is this how businesses want to motivate loyal employees? By building and managing insecurities?

There are some basic rules that parents and kindergartens teach everyone, about how to get along with others in society. I don’t need to repeat them here; everyone obviously knows them. But it is worth noting that if you have started to skip these normal behaviours, then you are acting untrustworthy. Others cannot accept that you will show up on time, or that you will listen without looking at your phone. Others cannot trust that you can engage with them on the important things in life: security, sustenance, livelihood, etc., because you are overwhelmed with the priorities of someone else.

And that ‘someone else’ – company, employer, manager, client, investor, the players in the deal – is not loyal to you. They are loyal to money. (And I know a lot of people who say, and likely a lot of readers right now are saying, “So what’s wrong with that?” Short answer: money can’t by you happiness).

Basic manners, adding value, being punctual, focus on others, do what you say you are going to do, follow-up and follow-through, show investment in the people in your life, don’t take people for granted. It’s not just because it’s nice to have friends and family. It’s because it is the way to be considered reliable and trustworthy. Reliable and trustworthy people will have more relationships in their lives. And the longest-running study on happiness has taught us that having many trustworthy relationships throughout our lives is the key to happiness.

Do you really know the people that you depend on for your work and your company to succeed? Do you trust them?

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