Business etiquette: Management lessons that don’t require an MBA

There are more books on business than can be named, on everything you need to know about management without getting an MBA. While the real business impact of these books is more likely for the profitability of the authors than for the readers, I do agree that experience – specifically from seeing everything right and wrong among peers, teams, and managers – is a far better instructor than a book. Indeed, there are some aspects of common sense – stemming from Victorian etiquette standards – that are applicable to the business case:

Always RSVP. Disagreements are an endemic part of business. These are necessary, healthy aspects of different personalities and functions coming together for a common vision. When issues inevitably arise, coming together to resolve them and doing a post mortem to avoid similar pitfalls in the future is common practice. Not responding to an issue, or hiding from being part of a resolution is not only irresponsible, it’s immature. Responding and being present to a situation – the good and the bad – is simply responsible leadership.

Do not discuss scandal or rumors. We may, at some point, all have been guilty of publicly venting about a particular person’s performance. While this hallway gossip is a sin unto itself, not sharing that sentiment with the subject itself may be even worse. Without providing clear and direct feedback – both positive and negative – it can hinder employee performance and career progression, while doing a disservice to teammates and/or customers as well. Fact-based and well-intentioned feedback is a cornerstone of professional development, and on a more personal level, trust. Bluntly, we are not in high school anymore.

Maintain eye contact. I have no poker face – I wish I did, I might be better at not only cards but also life. While I’m far from perfect in communications, I do prefer being direct to saying one thing and doing another. Indeed, subtle, “passive-aggressive” behavior – unreciprocated ‘hellos’ in the hallway, being excluded from relevant meetings – can have serious impacts on retention and talent management. Furthermore, studies show that the victims of this treatment are usually the top performers in terms of intelligence, competence, and accomplishment.

Never come empty-handed. Perhaps the biggest issue – and related to all of the above – is inadequately trained management. As a consultant, it was a learning experience for me to see the progression of my performance review criteria shift from analytics to people skills.

As a manager, you are responsible not just to check the boxes on work being done, but also – and more importantly – to add value. Whether through tactical recommendations or higher-level coaching, the biggest value of a manager is to make the whole of a team greater than the sum of its parts. Without adequately trained management, an organization runs the risk of stagnating to a least common denominator level of quality – whereas it should be innovating and growing.

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