how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-in-a-digital-ageDale Carnegie is one of the uncontested leaders of the human performance movement. Growing up, his name was frequently invoked in my house as my mom once took one of his courses. Years later, I came to discover that many of Carnegie’s principles were regurgitated and rediscovered over and over in the works of many others.

In 1936, Carnegie made a compelling statement to his readers: “Dealing with people is probably the biggest problem you face.” This was the foundation of his seminal work How to Win Friends and Influence People, but is it still true today? In the age where someone just emailed me tonight to ask me if I had a Twitter account (I do, actually, I have two), and when I will soon hit “Publish”  in this blog and it will be posted to the Internet for all 9 of my readers to see, plus Facebook and LinkedIn, can Carnegie’s principles of winning friends and influencing people translate to the digital world? The Dale Carnegie group believes that not only does his advice still matter it is even more important in this era of instant communication.

Just think about the power we now have in our hands. We can post a picture of ourselves being stupid, on the Internet, and lose our job. We can send a tweet or post something that can be read on the other side of the world and have impact immediately. We can send a carelessly worded email, that could cost ourselves or our company millions of dollars in sales. And all of this power is available to anybody with an Internet connection. There are no gatekeepers. Even times when I have said something stupid on camera during a media interview sometimes the reporter will say “are you sure you want to say that?” Not so on the Internet. We say what we want and hit Send and the world reads it.

I would argue the Carnegie’s principles are more important today than they were in 1936.

In How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age, by Brent Cole, an adaptation of Carnegie’s original text, Cole points out that there is no such thing as a neutral exchange. You leave someone a little better or a little worse (Cole x). But the key to winning friends and influencing people is not by getting them interested in you, it is about being interested in them (Cole x). This is one area where our society seems to be moving in the opposite direction. It seems through all of the social noise the only way to be heard is to make a louder bang than the next person. But Carnegie says that’s backwards.

While we are all taking great pleasure in beating up Miley Cyrus in the media, and you may even think she is only trying to make as much noise as possible, but consider the fact that many people report that she is incredibly caring when it comes to her fans. She is truly interested in them, which may be adding to her popularity. I’m not condoning or criticizing her VMA performance (which my wife and I also saw — mouths dropped open like most everyone else because we have a daughter that only knew her as Hannah Montana). I am trying to look at it objectively and reminding myself that she is 20 and grew up in a very different world than most of us. I am thankful every day that when I was 20 someone did not put me on the world stage and the things I said (on a daily basis) we’re not carried to every human with functional ears. The headline the next day would have read: Galactic Douche Bag says Dumbest Stuff Possible: will now undergo rare procedure to have head removed from ass.

Carnegie’s foundational principles are: don’t criticize, condemn or complain.

Here are a few interesting things to consider:

  • In Tim Irwin’s book, Derailed he details the downfall of six high-profile CEOs over the last 10 years and everyone was triggered by the executives’ inability to connect with employees on a tangible and meaningful level (Cole xiv).
  • Do we typically keep friends whose actions regularly demonstrate the relationship is all about them? (Cole xv)
  • Do we remain loyal to brands that regularly demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to embrace our needs and desires? (Cole xv)
  • Today we have to consider both the meaning and the media of our messages (Cole xvii)

When last I checked I have over 1600 connections on LinkedIn. But, how many of them would actually help me if I asked? Want to find out sometime? Tell everyone that you know that you need help moving. As the old saying goes friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies. There is a significant difference between a LinkedIn connection or a Friend on Facebook, and someone who is truly your friend.

Carnegie said that back in his day if you did not foster a friendship influencing a person was nearly impossible. Back then there were only three ways to connect, face-to-face, snail mail or telephone (the kind that used to hang on the wall or sit on our desks). You earned friends with a firm handshake, a warm smile and altruistic body of activity – yes, character mattered (Cole xviii). What is also lost in translation is a most critical aspect of human communication, nonverbal cues (Cole xx).

I remember at the aviation security summit three months after 9/11 an individual speculating that if another attack occurred there could be a “mode shift,” in communication throughout the globe. People would quit flying and switch to video conferencing. It didn’t happen — neither a second immediate attack, nor a mode shift. That speculation was brought forth again in 2008 when the recession hit. We have seen changes throughout our industry with more use of videoconferencing and online training, but most people still prefer to cut deals in person, where they can shake an actual hand and spend some face-to-face time connecting.

The details still matter. As Carnegie said:

The person who has technical knowledge plus the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership and to arouse enthusiasm among people – that person is headed for higher earning power (Cole xxii)

The first step in engagement – bury your boomerangs (Cole 3). Here we see a recurring theme, what comes around goes around. We can communicate in a way that tears others down or builds others up. Carnegie was succinct: don’t criticize, condemn or complain (Cole 3). Technology now makes it possible to destroy your reputation faster and easier than ever before (Cole 4). Take that from somebody (me) who has mistakenly said some pretty stupid stuff in the media from time to time or worded things in a way that they were taken out of context. In a study  of US companies by Proofpoint, 8% reported removing someone (firing them) for their comments on Facebook or LinkedIn (Cole 4).

It may seem that our “leaders” today, which are predominantly politicians and celebrities, can only communicate by complaining, criticizing and condemning. Rare but refreshing is the political leader or celebrity influencer who can appreciate a point of view that they do not agree with, without demonizing the person who holds that view.

And it stands to reason that the moment you use a public forum to criticize someone, the subject of that criticism is compelled to defend (Cole 9). We are self-preserving creatures who are wired to defend, deflect and deny threats to our well-being, including threats to our pride (Cole 8). I say this knowing full well that one of my required tasks as a college professor and author of an aviation security textbook, is to sometimes criticize procedures, regulations or policies, and often under withering fire from the media. I always attempt to criticize the process but appreciate the people who are trying to do the job.

Bragging and whining can push away even your supporters (Cole 11). One thing I try to remind my students when they are in a circle and someone is criticizing someone who is not around, is to consider what that person will say about them when they are not around. Stephen Covey called this concept: loyalty to the absent. And in business you never know when your greatest competitor will become your greatest collaborator (Cole 11).

“If I am the problem with the world, and you are too, then we can stop worrying about who is right and get on with the work of making our world better,” Cole/Carnegie. (hmm, maybe someone or everyone should send that last sentence as a Tweet to Congress – all members and the President too).

Over 50 years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote a book on how to engage with other humans in a way that leaves them feeling better than they did before, and better connecting yourself to them. With the ability today to send your thoughts and comments (and your beer bong photos) around the world instantaneously, Carnegie’s advice is now more important than ever. And step one is to not put anything out there you don’t want coming back to hit you in the head.

Cole, Brent. How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012. Print.

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