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Reflection – Rebecca M. Allen

by on November 25, 2007

While researching Jack Welch for the final paper, I learned that one of Jack’s goals for General Electric’s culture was an essence of “boundarylessness,” a word he created to capture his dream of interactions marked by candor and informality. Jack’s methods for achieving boundaryless communications were definitely successful. I read descriptions of GE meetings that were so fascinating, they made me wish I could have been a fly on the wall as they played out. I also read descriptions that were less appealing: Jack’s raucous meetings were compared to everything from frat parties, to Miller Light commercials, to no-holds-barred food fights. It was a style that worked for GE at the time, but I began wondering if there is a conflicting perspective to the value of open communication and informality. I found it, and from none other than Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin.[1]

Judith Martin, who has written “about etiquette for more than 25 years,” disagrees with Jack’s methods (p. 42). She doesn’t feel that reckless honestly is necessarily the best policy, nor does following a social code of etiquette negatively impact the workplace. “Indeed,” she says, “the whole point of etiquette is precisely its artificiality, which helps us deal with the extremes of human emotion by expressing them in a way that others can tolerate” (p. 42). She suggests that we have been forced to fall back on the law to control workplace behaviors, such as sexual harassment, because as a whole, there is little respect for implicit rules of etiquette. Removing basic inhibitions through reinforcing informality, she advocates, creates more problems than it solves.

According to Martin, blurring the lines between your personal and professional lives is not only foolhardy, but impossible: “On the one hand, the boss was firing people; on the other hand, he was saying, ‘Oh, we’re just like family.’ And employees thought, ‘Oh no we’re not!’” (p. 43). Further reinforcing the danger of blurred boundaries, Martin cautions against socializing only with workmates:

“I get these pathetic letters from 70-year-old retired executives who say, ‘I worked for 40 years in this office, and everybody loved me. They gave me this huge party when I left. And now nobody calls me. What happened?’ What happened, I say, is that your colleagues aren’t your friends—and they never were” (p. 44).

These at first seem like drastic statements. Some of my oldest and dearest friends I met while working at the same job with them. But truth be told, if I had to work with them today, it would drive me nuts (and if I were to ask them, I’m sure they would say the same!). We’ve basically gone past the point of no return, and while we have a deep respect for each another, it just wouldn’t translate properly in the workplace (think less of a Miller Light commercial and more of a Sex and the City episode. Or The Golden Girls). One would think that being emotionally close with another person would guarantee well-mannered behavior, but the opposite may be true. I am much more likely to show my negative side to people I am intimate with, because I know I can “get away with it.” According to Miss Manners, “Etiquette is supposed to inhibit the instinct to act on our offensive impulses” (p. 45). We enjoy spending time with friends and family because we don’t necessarily have to inhibit ourselves; we can relax and put our guard down. This is great for personal relationships, but can be positively disastrous for professional relationships.

What does all this say for change management? A lot, but nothing too decisive, in my opinion. When Jack was first pegged as the next CEO of GE in 1980, he was interviewed by the New York Times.[2] The article described his notoriety for being aggressive, rebellious, and a “trouble-making maverick.” When asked if his personality might disrupt his leadership, he replied, “I don’t view it as an issue. We have in our organization a very homogenous group of people dedicated to a broad strategic plan.” Jack surrounded himself with people exactly like him, blurred the boundaries between work and family, and found that method to be very successful in pulling off large-scale change at GE. Yet, I can also see how workplace practices such as these would be utterly detrimental to achieving change. As has been concluded before, the correct application of methods truly depends on contextual factors.

1. In praise of boundaries: A conversation with Miss Manners. (2003, December). Harvard Business Review, 41-45.

2. Hayes, T.C. (1980, December 28). Changing the guard at G.E. The New York Times.

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