If You Want To Gather Honey

PrintPrintEmailEmail

What does Dale Carnegie, the author of an enormously successful book that few people read any more, have to do with In Search of Excellence , the management book that everyone is reading these days? A great deal, as I discovered recently when, purely by accident, I read both books in a single weekend.

As millions of people know by now, In Search of Excellence is a study of American companies that do things right. Its authors, Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., led a task force on organizational effectiveness sponsored by the renowned management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

In Search of Excellence has made the best-seller lists for more than a year, but it still has a way to go to match the record of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People . Published in 1936, Carnegie’s book has run through more than two hundred hardback and paperback printings, sold more than fifteen million hardback copies, and ranks close to the Bible among all-time nonfiction best sellers. It spent ten years on the best-seller list of The New York Times and has been translated into more than thirty languages and dialects, including Afrikaans, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Burmese.

Carnegie himself did not have fancy academic credentials and was never affiliated with a prestigious consulting firm. He was born in 1888 on a farm in Maryville, Missouri, picked strawberries for five cents an hour as a boy, and earned a reputation as a debater at the State Teachers’ College in Warrensburg, Missouri. In 1912, when he began to teach public speaking at the 125th Street YMCA in New York, his primary business experience had been a job selling bacon, soap, and lard for Armour & Company in the Bad Lands of South Dakota.

The Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking became probably the most successful venture in the history of American adult education. Carnegie’s share of the gate soon exceeded the two dollars per night that the YMCA had refused to guarantee him, and before long he took his act on the road—first to cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, and eventually to London and Paris. He seems to have been one of the most patient men who ever lived. By 1936, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not , he had listened to 150,000 student speeches. As of 1985—thirty years after Carnegie’s death—three million people have graduated from courses offered by the Dale Carnegie Institutes, and approximately two thousand new students enroll weekly.

Peters and Waterman begin In Search of Excellence by reminding us of some basic psychological truths. “All of us are self-centered, suckers for a bit of praise, and generally like to think of ourselves as winners…. None of us is really as good as he or she would like to think, but rubbing our noses daily in that reality doesn’t do us a bit of good.”

The notion that we want to think well of ourselves leads to some especially icy comments about organizations that “take great pride in setting really high targets for people.” For instance, Peters and Waterman claim that many of IBM’s competitors set sales quotas so high that two-thirds of their salespeople fall short, whereas IBM sets quotas so low that three-quarters of their people meet or exceed them. The result, predictably, is that IBM’s people feel and act like winners, whereas the people at the other companies feel and act like losers.

This line of argument seems to have hit many contemporary managers with the force of a thunderbolt. But in a chapter memorably entitled “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive,” Dale Carnegie hurled the same bolt, over and over, nearly half a century ago: “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.” “Criticism is futile because it puts a man on the defensive, and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism… wounds a man’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses his resentment.” “If you and I want to stir up a resentment tomorrow that may rankle across the decades and endure until death, just let us indulge in a little stinging criticism—no matter how certain we are that it is justified.”

Peters and Waterman rail against the notion that people see themselves in rational ways. “We all think we’re tops,” they say. “We’re exuberantly, wildly irrational about ourselves.” They point to the results of a recent psychological study. Sixty percent of a randomly selected group rated themselves in the top quartile in athletic ability, 70 percent rated themselves in the top quartile in leadership, and a full 100 percent—every person!—rated themselves above average in ability to get along with other people. The trouble with rational analysis in business, Peters and Waterman conclude, is that “it’s missing all of that messy human stuff.”

Dale Carnegie makes essentially the same point by quoting gangsters. After showing that some of the nation’s “most notorious rats” manage to view themselves as victims, Carnegie pounds home his message: “So when you and I are tempted to criticize someone tomorrow, let’s remember Al Capone [and] ‘Two Gun’ Crowley. …When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”