Checking out the bottom line

Is Horatio Alger turning into a Frankenstein monster? Well, that's putting the question a shade melodramatically, of course. But these seems to be a feeling, in the conservative heart of the business community as well as elsewhere, that the gospel of Making It has gone a touch too far.

Time Magazine, hardly a critic from the left, fretted about the excesses of ambition in a recent cover story titled "The Money Game: What Business Schools Are Doing to Us."

All those young men and women who were outside, in jeans and sandals, throwing bricks at the Bank of America back in the '60s are now on the inside, it seems, wearing three-piece pinstripes and hurling brickbats at one another in knockdown struggles for the next vice-presidency.

It may be premature to declare Machiavelli the guru of the '80s. But if one sees the scene in cartoon terms, the New Entrepreneurs are marching down the corridors with manuals under their arms like "Power!" and "Playing the Game: A Psychopolitical Strategy for Your Career" while the Old Entrepreneurs barricade themselves in their executive suites against all this overmotivation, looking as if they had just seen J. R. Ewing in the anteroom.

At any rate, things have gotten suffiently rude in the marketplace so that the Harvard Business School has compiled a book called "Harvard Business Review on Human Relations," featuring a cautionary chapter on "The Abrasive Personality."

The Author, Harry Levinson, alerts all us lambs that the Abrasive Personality can be cleverly camouflaged. "Pay attention to the charming personality," he warns -- not to mention "precision in speech," another danger signal.

But what exactly do you do when your crisp-talking charmer comes out of ambush and you "get singed as he goes by"? Mr. Levinson is not too helpful. "Tell him in no uncertain termsm that his behavior is abrasive" -- this hardly seems the stuff to stop Michael "Power!" Korda in his tracks.

Another manual of counterattack, "Coping With Difficult People" by Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D. -- to give his full byline -- attempts to provide more specific strategems. But the Abrasive Personalities -- known to Dr. Bramson as the "Hostile-Aggressives" -- look even more formidable here. These supercompetitors throw paperweights when aroused, prompting Dr. Bramson to advise: "Get them to sit down." And: "Maintain eye contact."

But, like Mr. Levinson, Dr. Bramson relies heavily on delaying tactics ("Give them time to run down . . ."), and the net impression is that the Abrasive Hostile-Aggressives are everywhere, taking over the world. In fact, Mr. Levinson wonders if you, dear reader, may not be one of them. He challenges you to answer the question, "To your amazement, do people speak of you as cold and distant?"

Hmmm.

But the point finally is more than one of manner and style. The complaint against hot and headlong personalities leads to a fundamental complaint against a hot and headlong philosophy -- a philosophy that puts marketing before production, and short-term profit before both, and leaves the non-abrasive personalities of the business community asking: What does Japanese management know that a part of American management has forgotten?

The philosophy justifying the belligerence of the Abrasive Personality can be simplistically described as the philosophy of the bottom line. How the term gets buzzed! Indeed the hardest of the hard-noses pride themselves on starting with the bottom line as well as ending there.

But nothing is quite so naive as this sort of pure pragmatism. "Quality" and "service" are not just advertising cliches. From the buyer's point of view "quality" and "service" are the bottom line. It is a paradox that business must be conducted by a code at least partly beyond dollars and cents in order to make dollars and cents, in order to be "good business."

A "good businessman" or a "good businesswoman" -- like a good anybody -- must also be at least a little "good" in the moral sense if we do not choose to abandon the field to the Mafia, whose profit margin, presumably, is beyond compare.

Why do the Abrasive Hostile-Aggressive Bottom Liners delude themselves that they are doing it all for money? Every economist from Adam Smith to "Adam Smith" has known better, to say nothing at all the psychologists. In fact, avarice is one of the dullest of vices. "There is no wealth but life," John Ruskin wrote. And that is the real bottom line.

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