Politeness is an unusual topic to find in management and political literature. This is why Edward Luce’s article in the Financial Times two years ago (May 6, 2013) was so striking. Luce reminded us of Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Luce lamented the changing times in American politics in relation to how we speak about others, and gave us the examples of two currently well known Republican personalities: Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, as two extremes in the body politic of the United States today. In the political arena of management, this too has significance.
Governor Snyder, Luce tells us, has extended Reagan’s 11th Commandment to include Democrats as well as Republicans, which has resulted in his pushing through some very tough reforms. Indeed, few governors have pushed through so much change in such a short period. Although unions have lost organizational rights, it is difficult to find Democrats who have a harsh word to say of him. Has politeness been the key to making reforms possible in Michigan?
Then Mr. Luce turns to the senator and remarks “… (Cruz) makes a virtue of incivility. The ruder he is, the more the base loves it.” It would seem to some, like Senator Cruz, that the way to get ahead in modern politics is to ‘trash’ others in order to ingrain oneself with particular audiences. For example, at a public hearing on the nomination of Chuck Hegel as Defense Secretary this year, Senator Cruz pushed the limits of rudeness to the extreme in his manner of questioning the nominee, Hegel, a fellow Republican. It was an attempt, wrote the Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, “to smear Hagel, with no supporting evidence, with insinuations that his fellow Republican received money from foreign governments”. Even Senator John McCain cautioned Cruz not to “be disrespectful or malign Hegel’s character”. But, we ask, what has Cruz achieved by this behavior except divide the Republican Party more and alienate many potential voters?
Peter Drucker, the management guru, gave us some advice when he wrote “Good manners are the lubricating oil of organizations”. Although politeness is not strictly a virtue, its practice can be a strategy or the beginning of virtue. As there is no gene for politeness, we must learn it. Indeed, Aristotle tells us that the best way to learn it is by doing it. The French philosopher, Comte-Sponville, advises us that we first acquire the appearance and manner of the ‘good’ and then imitate it. From this we can acquire the habits of politeness. Others will counsel that we should make great efforts to move from the “I” to the “we”- it is about identifying with others rather than yourself. So do manners maketh the man?