(By Buzz Knight) An email is sent with no response, a phone call is not returned, a collaboration ends with no explanation. Productivity in business can be measured in various shapes and sizes, but nothing can bring the spirit of a venture to a halt like these nagging aspects of simple communication.
The past year has taken its toll on the human condition as what was once effortless has become complicated. The rules have changed without warning.
One victim of the pandemic has been the standard rules of business etiquette. Even though there is some light at the end of the tunnel, it still seems as one day turns into the next, everybody has been taken off their game. Each day seems to bleed into the next as one Zoom meeting turns into another.
Zoom has zapped our brains.
Along the way, business etiquette has almost vanished. This was a problem before COVID, and it has accelerated and become an epidemic. Leaders need to realize that making business etiquette and courtesy priorities will help define their organization moving forward.
The courtesies of an email response, a returned phone call, a thank you note all need to return to business as standard operating procedure. There is hope if we bring etiquette back to the real world and the business world.
Former COO of Hubbard and Bonneville Drew Horowitz and I have some thoughts on how we might help. Here’s our conversation on business etiquette, where we conclude it’s time to find a new competitive advantage.
Buzz Knight: Drew, it is so great to connect with you about a topic we both believe needs discussion: business etiquette. I appreciate you putting on my radar an article in the Wall Street Journal by Rachel Feintzeig titled “We live in a new age of email etiquette angst.” That article talks about someone named Meg Keene who reveals the tale of the emails in her inbox that she just can’t muster a response to. “I think about them every day,” she says of the emails that she leaves without a response.
There is another tale in the article about someone named Caroline Van Der Wilt, who refers to her emails, her inbox, and her lack of response and says, “It just feels like a lot of pressure.”
Drew, What’s going on here? Are there lots of examples of Meg and Caroline in the business world?
Drew Horowitz: Yes, there are for sure, and they are part of what I refer to as the “just-in-time society.” We are looking at immediate responses and expediency in how we communicate today; that is a recent phenomenon in our fast-paced world. What we must be aware of is that when you have communication via email, I think the expectation today is that someone is going to read it and immediately respond.
I think that is a byproduct of an environment of isolation because of the COVID situation, and because we are dealing with people who are feeling the pressure to communicate and respond in a timely way.
But my suggestion is that what people should think about is taking a moment before responding. Do not feel that angst and pressure to respond instantaneously, and slow down, because what we tend to do is be prone to making mistakes, or responding in a negative way rather than an emotionally intelligent way.
I think that is really an environment we are all dealing with, and it has gotten exacerbated in the last year and a half living in an isolated COVID world.
Buzz Knight: What are some concrete examples in your opinion that need a spotlight put on them? And why do we need specifically to bring etiquette back to the framework of businesses today?
Drew Horowitz: I think diminishing formality in business has been evolving over the last two or three decades, and really probably in the last 10 years, because of the technology evolution. We have created what I will call “a generational technology gap” where people are dependent upon communication via technology, whether it is text messaging, email, or voicemail. However, they are communicating with people, and that has created this informality in how we approach our business.
I believe the soft skills and manners that exist in people are fundamentally sound, but we get lazy. And, because we don’t have that direct human contact, we really need to work at reacquainting ourselves with the people we are communicating with and how that interaction unfolds.
I think that both personally and corporately, if you don’t make an attempt to understand there are people at the other end of the dialogue and that you need to keep the human element involved in the process, you are missing a major opportunity. I mean, I cannot remember the last time I got a thank you note from someone I had a communication with, especially in a business situation where I’ve taken the time and effort to help that person.
In the olden days, you would have basically sent a written thank you note to someone for taking the time and to appreciate their efforts.
This simple act has disappeared from core business etiquette values. There is no follow-through today, in this environment, and I think that has evolved into the behavior we all frequently experience. This existed pre-COVID and has accelerated during COVID. There are other issues companies are dealing with — such as people who really do not know how to behave appropriately in the office at times, especially when attending in-office meetings.
They don’t understand what’s acceptable and not acceptable behavior in those meetings, how we communicate properly in those meetings, and what is expected from their attendance.
It has really gotten to the point where it is a free-for-all, when I look back at a lot of meetings; everybody is fighting to get their voices heard. I think it is a correctable situation, but I think we really need to let people know that it is important and help them correct their behavior. It starts with leadership setting guidelines and expectations.
Buzz Knight: Do you think this is a generational thing, or something that goes beyond generations?
Drew Horowitz: Yes — I think it would be easy to say it is a generational gap even though it goes beyond that. I think a lot of it rests on leadership today and setting expectations for people on how leadership want to have business conducted on their behalf at their companies.
I just think that the new environments, whether it is a Google or a Facebook, they have created this collaborative environment where everybody is working together and hanging out and it’s just very relaxed and very easy and, “We’ll give you a lunch and some snacks.” And I think that whole environment has basically created this inappropriate office behavior, because it’s kind of like you’re hanging out with your friends and not your colleagues. How you behave with friends may be different from how you behave with colleagues that you spend every day with and work with.
I do not think it is a lack of awareness. I just think that there is no expectation.That is where that generational component comes in: there is no expectation that people should behave in a certain way. And I think it is generational that we have allowed it to go beyond the realm of what is realistic for creating an environment of communication, on the corporate side and on the employee side.
Buzz Knight: Don’t someone’s personal actions reflect on their personal brand?
Drew Horowitz: I think you’re right, Buzz. I think it is a situation where how you behave in the office, how you interact appropriately or inappropriately in a business setting, how you dress, how you present yourself are all critical components for your future growth.
Wherever you are working, if you do not project the right persona for yourself, if you do not communicate respectfully with the people you work with every day, and they do not feel that respect and respond to that, I think that ultimately that could be damaging for future growth for you in your career.
Going back to what I said earlier, living in this “just-in-time society,” I think people do not think about that as much anymore. I put a lot of the responsibility for this on the expectations of ownership or leadership of companies. If they do not have proper business etiquette as part of the culture of the company, people are going to do whatever is easiest and most comfortable.
Buzz Knight: When you think of business etiquette and a person’s dedication to their craft, how important it is? Do the little things all add up?
Drew Horowitz: Absolutely. That becomes an extremely critical component on the go-forward for people who do not even have any concept of what the mid- to long-term impact of not developing that business acumen means, and how to grow their skill sets.
I think that is a big negative when you are isolated and working in a remote situation.
I think those are very potentially negative byproducts for the economy. I just think communication with people increases worker productivity and employee satisfaction.
Buzz Knight: How do you think you and I would be able to help organizations truly gain a competitive advantage by bringing etiquette back?
Drew Horowitz: I think that proper business etiquette is a reflection of the core values of the company the people work for. They need to understand the importance of good business etiquette and how it reflects on client perceptions, and how it reflects on them within their own companies.
I think it’s an important ingredient in reflecting integrity and trust within the business environment, and a byproduct of ensuring that their business remains successful.
By training the staff in proper business etiquette and formality, you’re basically using the training and business etiquette rules of the road to build trust with your clients, and internally with your employees.
This allows you to both grow professionally yourself as an individual, and helps your business prosper as well.
I think what we can do is help people understand how those all integrate into creating a much more productive environment for themselves and for their companies. Their brand identity becomes affiliated with being a high-integrity, high-value company that delivers quality results through quality resources and people. I think we could help people integrate that into their strategic planning process to make them a highly productive company and a well-respected company in their field.
Buzz Knight: Thanks, Drew, for helping bring so much clarity on this problem.
Drew Horowitz: I think we can help solve this. The timing is perfect for this. As we are moving away from COVID, and slowly moving back into the workplace, what a perfect time for companies to take a step back and say hey, we need to improve within this space.
They can say, “We can do better and make our business and our company better by doing this.”
Our timing is good, and I hope people realize they should take advantage of that as COVID become less of an issue in the future.