Monday, March 16, 2009

Learned Rudeness

A little over ten years ago an investment banker was undergoing his first-year review.

In it his manager offered words of praise and constructive criticism, coupled with a generous bonus. The banker was grateful and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity that the bank had provided him.

To his shock and dismay this gesture of thanks elicited a vicious attack from his manager, in words that the New York Times considered unfit to print. He took away the lesson that he was never again to say thank-you.

At the now defunct Bear Stearns gestures of civility were considered to be beyond the pale. Link here.

Why would a manage want his staff to repress any tendency toward good behavior? Did his want them all to become like King Lear'stwo eldest daughters, monsters of ingratitude.

Did he feel that a grateful employee would lose touch with his inner predator? Did he believe that a virtuous gesture would produce virtuous character, and that this would compromise the banker's competitive spirit? Did the manager believe that his team had to do whatever it took to win, no matter the price, and no matter the effect on anyone's character?

If this is true, then the seeds of Bear Stearns' demise lay in its corporate culture.

A culture where no one ever says thank-you does not foster responsible banking based on mutually beneficial relationships with clients. It has gone over to the dark side where everyone is trying to amass a great fortune... the consequences be damned.

The strangest part of this story is the fact that the Chairman and CEO of Bear Stearns, Ace Greenberg, was reputed to be one of the most trustworthy and honorable men in the banking. If Ace gave you his word, it was said, you could take it to the bank.

Ace Greenberg insisted that his bankers treat everyone with proper respect. One of his best known mottoes was: "Return all phone calls promptly, even if they're selling malaria."

Surely, returning phone calls promptly shows respect and consideration. So does saying thank-you.

So, how could a firm run by Ace Greenberg have descended into a moral cesspool where managers felt that they had to make a special point of insisting that their subordinates repress their normal tendency to express gratitude?

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