Archive for the ‘dalecarnegie’ Category

Martin Michlmayr, the former Debian project leader and recent Cambridge graduate, wrote to say that my dismissal of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as “simplistic hypocrisy” in a recent blog entry was an interesting contrast to the “glowing review” he had read on another site.

I answered privately, but Carnegie’s book has been viewed uncritically for so long — almost seven decades — that I think a public debunking is in order. So let me say here and now that Carnegie’s book presents a limited view of complex problems, and trying to follow his advice usually leads to psychologically dangerous behavior — two points that are often lost in his readers’ relief at being given concrete solutions to problems that concern almost everyone at one time or another. His advice is especially unsound in the IT department, whose members mostly interact in situations for which Carnegie’s advice is simply not designed.

You should never forget that Carnegie is a salesman first and last. And, like many people, he sees all situations in terms of the one that’s most familiar and important to him: being face to face with a potential customer, trying to close the deal. However, if you think for even a moment, there are many situations where this view is both inappropriate and misleading. Should you really see closing a deal as having anything to do with working on a group project? To the relationship between teacher and student? To a marriage? While you may find aspects of sales in some of these relationships, none of these examples are defined nor dominated by closing a deal — or, if they are, they are profoundly toxic.

The same is true of people. In the true capitalist tradition, Carnegie assumes that you can appeal to people’s competitive spirit in your effort to persuade. Yet, when you stop to think, even those who are competitive in certain situations hardly want to be so all the time. Often, other values like truth or reciprocity have a higher priority, even in the business world. Encourage computer programmers to compete, and they’re likely to roll their eyes. Ditto for graphic artists or researchers.

And just ask yourself who you’d rather work with on a project: someone who wasn’t outgoing but came up with original insights, or someone whose first priority was to be liked? Yet Carnegie urges that, in your efforts to be liked, you should hide your own passions in favor of echoing other peoples’, thereby cutting off the exchange of ideas that often leads to the greatest creativity.

The truth is that many situations require some give and take, even some temporary disagreement. But a person trying to follow Carnegie’s advice will shy away from conflict, even if it is ultimately useful. In many situations, trying to live by Carnegie’s stripped down sense of the world means that you won’t be able to function effectively. Outside the world of sales, being liked just isn’t the most important concern. Much of the time, assuming that it is becomes a dangerous and unproductive simplification.

Consider, too, the effect that following Carnegie’s advice can have. In his book, Carnegie stresses the importance of having a genuine interest in people, and genuinely listening to people. And, granted, diplomacy is a social grace. Yet if you have a shred of honesty,you have to admit that you will not have a genuine interest in some people. At times, you won’t even have a genuine interest in listening to the most important people in your life, because you are tired or distracted.

In such situations, what are Carnegie’s followers to do? Unless they abandon their credo, they can only lie, both to themselves or to those around them in everything they say and do, pretending an interest when they have none. In other words, they can only transform themselves into hypocrites. They are not just being polite; when you are polite you may not tell a boor that you want run screaming from him, but at least you know that’s what you would like to do. But when you are being a hypocrite, you add a level of manipulation to a relationship that is not only avoidable, but destructive to both you and the relationship.

Carnegie’s advice contains a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, you are supposed to genuinely like people and encourage them to warm to you people, but, on the other hand, you do so only in order to manipulate them. Making a point of remembering their name, leading people along with a chain of questions that leads them to buying, letting people blow off steam so that they are calmer when you start addressing their complaints, offering upbeat praise, introducing them with a compliment that they will feel they have to live up to — all these are ultimately ways to control people, according to Carnegie, not things to do to develop a relationship for its own sake. So, once again, hypocrisy taints the relationship if you follow Carnegie’s advice.

Not that all relationships are between equals, or should be. But when you are constantly concerned with manipulating the other party, how can respect or any other mutual feeling enter the relationship? You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t despise a person you can always manipulate. You may even come to despise yourself for being the manipulator.

For these reasons, dealing with one of Carnegie’s followers can be a deeply frustrating experience. When you want a new perspective, often they won’t give one. If you want honesty or team work, you’ll be lucky to get it. If you’re used to not hearing a compliment unless it’s sincere, a Carnegie follower can momentarily lead you to think that you’re been extraordinarily successful — at least, until you realize that he or she says much the same of everyone, and the compliment is empty. In fact, once you become aware of Carnegie’s relatively limited bag of tricks, they become so obvious that you quickly stop trusting the person who uses them and start wondering what their hidden agenda might be. In the end, conversation, let alone working together, can become almost impossible.

Carnegie’s advice is not always so unhealthy. Some of what he says, such as trying to imagine yourself in the other person’s position, or allowing them to save face when you admonish them are solid people skills. Other pieces of advice, such as readily admitting you are wrong are also good advice — good enough to have come down over the millennia from Aristotle. But the trouble is, these nuggets are embedded in such an unstable strata of simplistic and hypocritical advice that they are hardly worth the effort of separating them out.

Unfortunately for Carnegie, all relationships are not a sales deal — and trying to pretend that they are is not only risky, but mentally unhealthy as well.

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