How to Win Friends and Influence People: Q&A #4
By Bryan Caplan
Responses to the last round of comments:
Jared’s comment about winning low-quality friends resonated with me. At times I find myself in the position where I have been very kind and friendly toward someone that proves to be demanding and toxic in our continued interactions. This is usually more due to poor mental health or immaturity rather than malice, but it still puts me in a difficult position. How do you advise distancing from relationships that prove to be harmful to your overall influence and well-being, without harming the person in question? How would Carnegie advise me to proceed?
Carnegie studiously avoids this issue, but I’d just progressively starve the relationship for attention until the other person backed off. In extreme circumstances, I’d level with the person and say, “Sorry, this just isn’t a good match.” At that point, I wouldn’t give further details, which is more likely to make bad feelings worse.
I think this is where a lot of failed leaders fail: they don’t see that leading someone requires a real meeting of the minds and real uniting of the wills. These, in turn, rely on the leaders and the led being precisely clear about exactly what is to be done. My problem, and I suspect this is true of a lot of leaders (and if you’re a parent, you’re a leader whether you like it or not) is assuming people know what I’m talking about, then getting frustrated when they don’t, and implicitly if not explicitly thinking it is their fault and not mine.
What I said about teaching also applies to leadership. Take what you naively think people know about your plan. Then divide it by ten. Then, unless you’re dealing with people who’ve worked with you for years, divide by ten again.
That paragraph (your attempt at Carnegie-ese) was so tedious and annoying! I much preferred the straightforward paragraph. I think most people (both high and low IQ folks) can see through the Carnegian maneuvers. We’ve all had bosses who use these techniques, and a lot of times they don’t work. If I messed up, just tell me straightforwardly, I can take it, your point will come across clearer, and I will appreciate the directness. In my experience, bosses who are steeped in “leadership” literature (exemplified by the Carnegie book) are the worst bosses. I prefer the unschooled straightforward types, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
If you’re ever on my team, Alan, I will speak to you exactly as you’ve requested. But if this were a good general approach, I would have been popular in high school. I wasn’t. Also: tone matters. If you sound like you’re reading from a script, you will indeed sound tedious and annoying. So practice daily until you don’t sound like you’re reading from a script.
Re: Analysis, no. 1: I would prefer to be on the receiving end of your first formulation (clear, direct, matter of fact) than your second version (opaque, roundabout, sugar-coated).
Dale Carnegie assumes that an interlocutor want to be stroked. But— Yes, I said, “but”!—often an interlocutor wants her intelligence respected.
We make everyday distinctions and judgments about matching (a) elements from a thicket of norms of etiquette and (b) specific types of relationship; for example, education of children, casual interaction with strangers, instrumental relationships, professional circles, management of subordinates, personal friendship, mentoring, and so on. Dale Carnegie’s advice seems too general and, consequently, inapt in many contexts.
Since I know you, John, I’d use my first formulation on you. But you’re a rare personality type. I completely agree that context matters, but many people – even successful adults – struggle with the basics. Or to be more precise, they flounder, because “struggle” implies that they’re making an effort to improve rather than acting on impulse.
I’ve noticed that the people least likely to use these techniques are journey-level employees working with entry-level employees in low-paying jobs. Organizations will allow public embarrassment and criticism at that level that would be considered poor management if it came from someone further up the chain. The possible reasons for this are:
1. I’m wrong and my experience is too limited.
2. Tolerating bad leadership is a form of signaling, like tolerating hazing. An entry-level employee is showing off they can handle stress and thus could be given more responsibility.
If this were so, management would actively discourage good leadership at the journey-level. Which seems unlikely.
3. Getting to be a bad leader is a perk of the job. Displays of power are enjoyable. It’s far more important to keep a journey-level worker happy than an entry-level worker.
Kind of, as I’ve explained here in a slightly different context.
4. Training people on good leadership techniques is expensive and not worth it for working with entry-level employees where the marginal productivity is low.
Yes, especially because most leadership training is highly ineffective because the “students” are so stubborn and impulsive. That includes handing out copies of Dale Carnegie, of course.
Assuming I’m right, reason #3 may help explain why most people who are told of Carnegie’s ideas say something like “that’s common sense” but then rarely use those ideas. Displays of power are fun for most people. As people rise in organizations, however, I’ve noticed they generally become more likely to follow Carnegie’s principles. Perhaps they discover the cost of bad management starts to exceed the benefit.
Sure, though I suspect that selection is more important. The few people with good leadership skills rise.