Why Gordon should get nice

February 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 8 Comments

Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward:

Are you nice to shop assistants?

You see, the shop assistant’s working life is fairy dreary & dispiriting: you’re not paid very much, you’re restricted to repeating the same actions for 8 hours a day, and you frequently come into contact with customers who treat you with as much warmth & kindness as a cash machine. It’s also true that the rare occasions when someone does treat you as a human being are the occasions when your job seems less miserable. So if you can’t be friendly, smile or even say ‘thank you’ during your purchase, I don’t wish to know you.

If the allegations about Gordon Brown’s blustering, bullying & temper tantrums are true, they reflect as badly on the Prime Minister as a person as his Premiership has reflected on him as a politician. It’s one thing to start grabbing and yelling at your Deputy Chief of Staff, but for the victims to also include the more ‘lowly’ duty clerks, typists and telephone operators – the folks who keep Downing Street working – is particularly distasteful.

But quite apart from the instability these stories suggests, or the way it makes Gordon look like he regards his staff merely as incompetent servants, it’s also an lousy approach to governing. First, ponder this from Lerner & Tiedens’ review of the effect of anger on decision-making:

Angry decision makers also typically process information in heuristic ways, not stopping to ponder alternative options before acting. They are eager to make decisions and are unlikely to stop and ponder or carefully analyze. This too derives primarily from the sense of certainty associated with anger, but may also be caused by the optimism they have about the future. Thus, angry decision makers may then, as Aristotle suggested long ago, have a difficult time being angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.

In a political context, this makes it more likely that your decisions will be rash and ill thought-through – not something you really want in leaders who are often required to make decisions of great importance.

But perhaps more importantly in these economically threadbare times, we also know that happiness is a great way of boosting workers’ productivity:

In one experiment, subjects were split into two groups, with one being shown a short comedy film and the other not. Subjects shown the film were 10% more productive than those who weren’t. This productivity boost was confined to those who actually enjoyed the film.

What’s more, subjects did not realize that this effect was happening; only 31% felt that watching the clip had improved their skill on the test.

In another experiment, subjects were asked before the test  whether they had suffered a family bereavement or parental divorce in the last two years. Those who said they had were about 10% less productive than those who said they hadn’t.

So if Gordon could find it within himself to be a bit nicer to the people who work for him – maybe by bringing some fancy biscuits to the office, arranging a ‘dress down Friday’ or the occasional curry night, he might well find that Downing Street becomes a better functioning, more well-oiled governing machine.

Make ’em smile, Gordon. It might not do much for your poll ratings, but at least you’ll see less of your staff running to Andrew Rawnsley.



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  1. All true, but wouldn’t you agree that Labour’s poll rating for shoot through the roof if Gordon was filmed walking up some steps to a front door, knocking, waiting for him to open, and then just punching David Cameron in the face?

    • Heh, I couldn’t possibly comment! ;)

  2. I’m sorry, but I have to go Godwin on this one: was Hitler’s problem that he wasn’t nice to shop assistants?

    • Nah, but you can bet he wasn’t. I bet he wouldn’t wave to a fellow motorist if they gave way for him, either. Or say ‘thanks’ if someone held a door for him. And I dread to think how he’d react if a Jew/gay/communist got served before him in a bar.

    • Hitler is the case that blows this argument out of the water. I’ve seen interviews with a couple of his servants who said that he always treated them with kindness and respect.

  3. I try to be nice to shop assistants and do you know what I get in return? Yawns or gum chewed in my face and sometimes both, my groceries either shoved at me or not pushed far enough so I have to lie on the conveyor belt to reach it, my bread gets squeezed in the middle and my change dumped in my hand and if it misses my hand I have to grope on the floor for it, all accompanied by “right” or “there you go” instead of thank you, so if any of the people Gordon Brown is alleged to have been rude to are as dim witted as SOME shop assistants are, well I can’t blame him for losing his rag! P.S I’ve been a shop assistant too, in the days when the customer was always right.

  4. Writing as as someone who works in a supermarket in the Midlands my observations is generally how glum people seem to be. Last weekend I met some people rom the Liverpool based Philosophy in Pubs movement. I thought that I could be on to a suggestion here by introducing Philosophy in queues idea where you got people to engage in phiolosphical speculation whilst waiting to go through the tills. Developing the idea you could have people queing on the basis of what particular school they followed. Cynics in queue 4, Stoics in the longest queue and the followers of Descartes by wines and spirits – I drink therefore I am

  5. I think there is a great deal of evidence which suggests that Gordon Brown is a bully, at least in the sense that most of us would consider a management style to be oppressive or draconian. The problem is, an organisation often takes its entire culture from the top, which means that an oppressive leadership will lead to a similar style further down the line.

    I have worked for several organisations that have what I would call a “bullying culture” and others have described as “management by fear”…I have also worked within organisations that adopt a less combative approach. I can say without any doubt that it is possible to achieve results without a bullying or oppressive management stlye, because all that happens is people tell you what you want to hear, rather than the truth.

    At each level, the information being submitted is varied to suit the user so, by the time it reaches the top, it bears no relation to the ‘real world’. Does this sound familiar to anyone? How often have we heard people describe MP’s, Ministers and the PM as out of touch?

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