by Linda Hill, Kent Lineback
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by Heike Bruch, Catherine McCarthy, Diane Coutu, et al.
Barbara Pachter has seen it all. President of Pachter & Associates, a consultancy specializing in etiquette and gender issues, she’s coached executives around the world on the finer and grosser points of protocol—from who holds open the door for whom to how to tell the boss his fly is down. With clients ranging from DaimlerChrysler, IBM, and Pfizer to NASA and the Department of Defense, Pachter has witnessed all manner of etiquette blunder. The common thread: executives’ lack of self-awareness. In this conversation, edited here for length, HBR’s Gardiner Morse spoke with Pachter about how etiquette rules are evolving and the fundamentals that every executive should know.
What’s the most surprising etiquette violation you’ve seen?
I didn’t see this firsthand, but it was reported to me independently by two employees who were there when it happened. The vice president of the bank I was consulting for arrived early for a meeting. Some junior people had already arrived. He put his briefcase on the table, opened it up, took out a stick of deodorant, unbuttoned his shirt, and put it on. Nobody said anything, they were so stunned. And the VP seemed oblivious. But the cost to this guy will be high. If the people around him think he might at any moment whip out a deodorant, figuratively speaking, he’s never going to have the full consent of his followers.
Most bad business behavior is subtler than that. Are there common themes in executives’ etiquette lapses?
Most bad manners arise because executives aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing. Drinking too much at business events is surprisingly common. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea, but people do it anyway. Then there’s the whole class of behaviors that fall somewhere between bad manners and bad mannerisms. I once coached a director whose colleagues thought she was condescending. Turns out, part of the reason people saw her that way was because of how she wore her reading glasses. She kept them down on the tip of her nose, and when she was in meetings she peered over them. It made her look skeptical and disdainful. She had no idea. And how about people who mangle paper clips when they talk? If you’re meeting with a visitor from another company and you’re dismembering paper clips, you probably don’t know you’re doing it, and you’re probably sending a message you don’t want to send.
Why can’t executives see their problem behaviors?
Executives are no different from anybody else. I’ve given 1,500 seminars to over 100,000 people, and no one in any of my classes has ever admitted to having bad behaviors. It’s always the other guy. It’s the same psychology that makes everyone think they’re better-than-average drivers. Many people are worse than average, by definition. But they’d never admit it to themselves. So the starting point is for businesspeople to acknowledge that, chances are, they’re making etiquette mistakes they’re unaware of and that they’d want to correct if only they knew about them.
How do you find out what you’re doing wrong?
Get feedback. In general, the higher up you are, the less you can count on people to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Getting honest feedback is always tough. Frankly, most high-level executives have major egos. They don’t think they need this sort of feedback, and they don’t want it. But they do need it. Of course, I think every executive should have a coach. But, lacking that, they can do two things: Create an environment that encourages feedback of all types, and get videotaped. I can tell a client her expression looks disdainful until I’m blue in the face. But when she sees it on videotape, it really hits home.
Do business etiquette rules differ for men and women?
When women really started moving into the workplace 30 years ago, the social rules came along with them and created all sorts of problems. Who picks up the check? Who pulls out the chair? Who opens the door, carries the packages? A woman who expects men to do all these things for her sends a message that she needs help. No wonder she’s not the first person who comes to mind when the boss is looking for an executive to take on a big assignment.
For women in particular, it’s important not to allow interaction etiquette to be tied to gender. It should be governed by business relationship or rank. If you’re the host, you pay the bill, regardless of gender. Opening the door is tricky because men want to do it, no matter what. But the simple rule is, whoever gets to the door first opens it and holds it for the person behind. Rank is a complicating factor. It’s a very smart junior person who subtly—and that’s important—gets to the door first and opens it for the senior person. In the same way, the host should subtly maneuver to open it for the guest.
Then there’s the handshake. This is a huge gender issue. A lot of women weren’t taught to shake hands. In my seminars, when I go around to introduce myself, about 75% of the men stand to shake my hand. Only about 30% of the women do. It’s one of the ways women remain invisible in the workplace. They don’t shake hands enough.
Everyone has horror stories of international business gaffes. Any advice?
The old adage “When in Rome…” still applies. But unless people are really attuned to and practice the etiquette of their own culture, they’re probably not going to do a good job modifying their behaviors for another culture. I heard about an American executive traveling in Japan who took a Japanese colleague’s business card and then absentmindedly picked his teeth with it. That’s a big mistake even in the United States, but you can imagine the Japanese’s reaction. It’s not enough to read a book and take a one-day course on Japanese business etiquette before you go. You’ve got to nail your own culture’s etiquette first. Then you step out of your culture, look back at it, and compare it with the other culture.
You’ve said about conducting international business: “Don’t be humorous, but have a sense of humor.” What do you mean by that?
Humor doesn’t travel well across cultures. It can bomb badly. Here’s a mistake I made. You would think I’d have known better. I was in Kuwait, and I was invited to my agent’s home for dinner. I walked in, and on the dining room table there was food laid out from one end to the other. They must have been cooking for a week. And I said, “Do you think there’s enoughfood?” Oops. My agent thought I was serious. Fortunately, we were able to talk about it later and have a good laugh. The point is, unless you know exactly what you’re doing, don’t try to make a joke. And have a sense of humor about the cultural challenges you’re facing and the mistakes you make. Because you will make them.
So, do you tell your boss his fly is down?
Or that her slip is showing? Absolutely. The cost of not telling him or her could be high if it appears that you knew and said nothing. It’s simple. Just give him the facts, quietly if possible. “Bob, your fly is down.” If you’re embarrassed because of gender, you get someone else to do it. Everybody wins: The boss is saved from embarrassment, and you’ll go up a notch in his estimation for your nerve and for limiting his exposure