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Mind your manners: Success in workplace relies on relationships |
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Mind your manners: Success in workplace relies on relationships

| Sunday, January 20, 2013 9:17 p.m.
Business etiquette illustration Michael McParlane

Once upon a time, workplace etiquette faux pas were reserved for those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college graduates who were eager to get their foot on the corporate ladder and begin climbing. Eager, but green.

“With age comes wisdom,” the saying goes, but not everything is so cut and dry these days. In today’s corporate environment, social graces are slipping across the board, from interns to seasoned executives with years of experience.

“I get a lot of calls about this. It’s definitely on a lot of people’s minds,” says Sheryl Trower, president of The Etiquette School of Central Pennsylvania. “Everyone has gotten so casual, and I think we’ve just lost our formality as a society. We’ve become more casual in everything we do, and that falls into the workplace.”

But what is proper etiquette, exactly? Mention those two little words, and it isn’t hard to conjure up an image of a gnarled finger wagging in your direction, a sermon of “don’t do that!” suffocating the air.

“The word ‘proper’ carries the kind of negative connotation about what etiquette really is; that it’s about strict, formal rules of conduct,” says Peter Post, managing director of The Emily Post Institute, author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success,” and the great-grandson of the lady herself. “What etiquette helps you do is built strong relationships. Business is built on relationships — the success you are going to have in your business life is going to be, in large measure, your ability to build relationships with colleagues, customers, bosses. Emily Post built relationships with people. Within a few minutes, people felt like they were her best friend and they had known her forever.”

Those who are skeptical of how much of an asset good etiquette can be in the climb up the corporate ladder, take note: Recent studies conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Institute indicated that 85 percent of future success depends on social skills, including the ability to put another at ease, with only 15 percent attributed to technical skills.

That ability to genuinely connect to others and its direct correlation to success in the workplace is one of the cornerstones of The Dale Carnegie Leadership Training program, which recently celebrated its 100th year of professional and personal development.

“It’s so important,” says John Rodgers, president of the Dale Carnegie franchise in Western Pennsylvania. “Everyone gets very good at the technical aspects of their job, which is why many people get promoted. But then they hit kind of a wall or a challenge on the leadership side on how they really relate to people. At some point, it’s less about what you can do and more about what you can get done through other people.

“So, the question then becomes, ‘How do I truly unleash the talents in my team?’ Anybody can be a boss. If you give me enough authority, I can tell you to do something and I will get performance. Research shows again and again that leaders can lead an engaged workforce if they lead in inspiration, with a positive attitude, positive motivation and being enthusiastic. (That’s) where etiquette, manners and good human relations (come in). It’s that inner engine that runs. That’s what people connect with.”

According to the experts, it’s up to the head honcho to set the precedents in the office. In other words, “monkey see, monkey do.” If the boss isn’t setting the standard with etiquette protocol, chances are his or her employees will begin to mirror the negative behaviors.

“(I see) high-end, high-paid execs that don’t have the confidence to work through conflict. Don’t have the confidence to admit when they’re wrong, to make other people feel important. It’s just amazing to me. We have this saying, ‘What you do shouts so loud, I can’t hear what you say.’ So, etiquette isn’t just what we say to people, it’s what we choose to do,” Rodgers says.

So, what happened? When did etiquette hit skid row? According to Post, look no further than the swinging 1960s, when looking out for No. 1 became an unchallenged priority, not just in the workplace, but society in general.

“It became all about me. We became a ‘me-ism” society,” Post says. “In business, the opinion of the other person matters.”

By the late 1980s and ’90s, negative press about how uncivil the workplace was becoming ushered in a backlash against bad behavior, Post says. People were fed up, studies showed, and changes were in order. Behaviors changed, businesses shaped up. Etiquette, for all intents and purposes, appeared ready to be taken off of life support.

And then, along came technology, bringing with it an entirely new level of good, bad and ugly, to which no one seems immune. Scandals are born with one hit of the “send” button, in 140 characters or less, on message boards, and on status updates. Cellphones are the most common utensil on the dinner table. Inner monologues have been given a megaphone that lacks a mute button.

“Technology … it’s a love/hate relationship,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “It can be one of your biggest downfalls, because we rely on it as a substitute for communication. Technology has advanced us, but it’s also allowed us to take a hit. We are so reliant on it we don’t know when to (turn) it off. It’s a big deal. It’s a huge, huge deal.”

It’s also spawned an era of etiquette known as “netiquette,” a social code of conduct for the Internet. This virtual breeding ground of bad behavior can have huge consequences on not only your social life and reputation, but your career. One temper-tweet or boss-blasting email later, and you could find yourself out of the job. And while you might like to think that no one is watching or paying attention, chances are good that somebody is. Consider it the pinnacle of better-safe-than-sorry behavior.

“Technology is relatively new, and we’re still working out what the conventions are that help us use it in a positive way,” Post says. “The dark side is the mistakes we make. It’s just wonderful for me, because every week there’s another example of someone who abused email and, in the process, has caused themselves some serious problems.

“It comes down to the ‘Bulletin Board Rule’ — don’t put anything on that email that you wouldn’t put up on a bulletin board. Your emails on your business computer do not belong to you — they belong to the company. If you think it’s private and it’s yours, you’re nuts.”

Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-380-8515.

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