The charm offensive

There is nothing unethical about using charm in business, as long as you’re bringing something of value — a great service, expertise — to the other person.

I am not much of a sports fan, but recently I came across a panel discussion of sports ethics on the radio. One of the journalists mentioned that his son was a talented tennis player who often played in tournaments where there is no umpire, so the players call their own shots. The son complained that his opponents routinely claimed the ball was out, when it was clearly in bounds. He asked his father whether he should do the same thing, in order to even the field. That is the standard ethics question — is cheating OK if everyone does it?

It was the next comment I found really interesting. One of the panelists cited the example of professional tennis champ John McEnroe. He asserted that McEnroe deliberately threw tantrums on the court in order to influence the umpires to call more borderline cases in his favour. I had always assumed that McEnroe was a brat and that his behaviour was due to his inability to control his temper. But the sports journalists saw it as a tactic.

Temper tantrums are just as common in business, as anyone who has sat across the table from a New York investment banker will know. Is it unethical to scream and make unreasonable demands when negotiating a deal? Is it more unethical if you are doing it deliberately to intimidate the opponent?

Clearly, it is unethical to deliberately intimidate someone with less power, such as an employee, because he or she has few tools to fight back. In this case we call it bullying or harassment. But I would argue that there is nothing unethical about using intimidation to get what you want, however rude and unpleasant it may be, against an equal adversary. The tactic is transparent, and the opponent can choose to be intimidated — or not. And we all use emotions to influence other people — the field of marketing is based on that premise.

If you aren’t persuaded, consider the opposite use of emotions to get what we want — call it charm, friendliness or getting other people to like you. It is a truism that business is based on relationships — it’s how you get people to buy your services, hire you, work with you or accept your argument. And while genuine relationships do exist in the business world, in many cases we try to win over others by paying attention to them, making them feel important, sharing jokes with them, etc., even if we don’t particularly like them as people.  If you don’t believe you do this, think about the people you have built business relationships with and who have disappeared from your life as soon as they changed jobs or retired.

Even if you are a genuinely nice and friendly person, you have limited time and energy and so you spend your supply of charm and empathy on those most important to you — family and friends, of course, but also business contacts who are most valuable to you. It is an exchange transaction: you invest in them in order to get their business.

We notice this dynamic when it isn’t handled well — when someone makes a fuss over us because he or she needs something and then drops us again. But in the hands of a skilled practitioner, it is very difficult to determine whether the flattering attention is genuine or manipulative. I would argue that this "charm offensive" is less ethical than the rude, intimidating person who demands things from you, since the motive behind the charm is less transparent.

Charm in business only works in the longer term if it is combined with something of value to the other person — such as great service or expertise. And it is certainly more pleasant to work with charming people. It is impossible to take emotions out of the equation in any aspect of life, and we wouldn’t want to. But it is worthwhile to step back and consider whether you are making a poor business decision because someone has sweet-talked you into it.