February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
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.”
Peters and Waterman talk constantly about “charged-up people,” “productivity through people,” “the rock-bottom importance of making the average Joe a hero and a consistent winner.” The anecdote from In Search of Excellence that everyone seems to remember has to do with the manager of a hundred-person sales force who rented the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey for an evening. While names flashed on the huge electronic scoreboard, the members of the sales force ran through the players’ tunnel onto the field of the stadium, where they were greeted by a wildly cheering crowd of executives from corporate headquarters, family members, and friends. The company was IBM.
Organizations that excel are “full of hoopla,” Peters and Waterman conclude. But this is not news to anyone who has spent ten minutes reading Dale Carnegie. The farm boy who conquered New York talks about the blue ribbons that his father won for his hogs and pedigreed cattle. “The hogs didn’t care about the ribbons… . But Father did. These prizes gave him a feeling of importance.”
At Hewlett-Packard, Peters and Waterman observe approvingly, top executives select managers on the basis of “their ability to engender excitement.” Carnegie devotes several pages to the career of Charles Schwab, whom Andrew Carnegie (no relation) paid a million dollars a year to run U.S. Steel at the turn of the century. Schwab said, “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among the men the greatest asset I possess.” How did he arouse enthusiasm? “I never criticize anyone…. I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault…. I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.”
If you are a busy executive who does not have time to read In Search of Excellence , then you need an executive summary. Stripped of superfluous detail, here it is—in a nutshell—courtesy of Dale Carnegie: “Last season a man with 314 employees joined one of these courses. For years, he had driven and criticized and condemned his employees without stint or discretion. Kindness, words of appreciation, and encouragement were alien to his lips. After studying the principles discussed in this book, this employer sharply altered his philosophy of life. His organization is now inspired with a new loyalty, a new enthusiasm, a new spirit of team work. Three hundred and fourteen enemies have been turned into three hundred and fourteen friends.”
Carnegie is fun to read, and so are Peters and Waterman, but much of the fun rests upon our eagerness to believe that if only we are nice to people, our problems will go away. Most managers would prefer not to be bullies, so they feel a surge of excitement when a pair of prestigious experts proclaim that nice guys may indeed finish first—or as Peters and Waterman put it, “the good news comes from treating people decently and asking them to shine.”
In recent months there have been signs that the enthusiasm initially generated by In Search of Excellence has begun to wane. In an article in the Harvard Business Review , Daniel T. Carroll charged that Peters and Waterman had underestimated the significance of factors such as proprietary technology, government policy, and national culture and character. Then, on November 5, 1984, Business Week hit the newsstands with a cover that featured, in giant black letters, the ominous headline OOPS! Only two years after Peters and Waterman cited them as “excellent,” Business Week reported (with what struck me as a hint of glee) that fourteen of their forty-three model companies have run into trouble. Several thousand words of penetrating analysis led to the inarguable but not terribly useful conclusion that “the excellent companies of today will not necessarily be the excellent companies of tomorrow.”
Over the past few years much has been said about the shortcomings of American management. The search for answers had led in many directions, including the one that gave us In Search of Excellence . It is an interesting book that deserves to be widely read. But at bottom it has little to add to the lessons that Dale Carnegie taught to a whole generation of Americans half a century ago. The most sophisticated minds in one of our most sophisticated management consulting firms have rediscovered, with prodigious effort, insights that have been available all along in a book that most modern executives feel too sophisticated even to think of reading.
In the two years that I spent in the M.B.A. program at one of our nation’s best-known business schools, not one word was said in praise of praise. So far as I know, you will not find How to Win Friends and Influence People on the list of required reading at any business school in the country. Yet it would be a reasonable choice. If they are asked to gather honey, young managers ought to be capable of some response beyond poking their calculators into beehives.