Poor People Skills and the Wealthy

| September 7, 2010 |

In the best of all possible worlds, people would be rational and compassionate. As this is Planet Earth, a few people walk amongst us who live slightly south of this ideal. Anyone working in private service or the luxury hotel market can probably tell a tale or two about the wealthy they have served, either about how incredibly kind they were, or how challenging. As much as we might wish to enjoy the pleasures and privileges of the wealthy, the status does come with some pitfalls that can catch the wealthy off guard. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but it takes more than admonitions about difficulties negotiating the eyes of needles to point the wealthy, who may be struggling with their power, in the right direction.

By way of illustration, take the case of a certain lady whose manicured, Italianate gardens stretched seemingly to the horizon, just one of the landscapes available to her at the two-dozen estates in her possession. One of the butlers knocked on the door leading to the balcony where we were enjoying tea, the view, and what could have been an equally pleasant conversation. Judging by the poorly disguised franticness of the butler, his halting moves and hunted look, he appeared to be in terror of making a wrong move, one it seemed he knew he would be guilty of no matter which move he made. From the inevitable criticism that followed his clumsy departure, it was plain this lady, in turn, did not trust and certainly did not like her staff. She was frantic about imagined threats to the safety of her children and made their life, and certainly that of the long series of nannies, miserable. As for her husband, he found it expedient to keep himself busy running his businesses most of the time, and this so-privileged couple has since, with predictable acrimony and not so parsimonious alimony, split the estates and staffs and gone their separate ways. When one has everything, it seems so silly not actually to have or enjoy it.

“Domestic service, its defenders have always claimed, is an honorable estate. To be sure, some who took it up were cared for all their lives, honored and even cosseted, and finally laid to rest in the family plot—possibly with a carved attribute, ‘Rare character in these degenerate days.’ Others, the sad and often damp-souled majority, were exploited, snubbed, hectored, and humiliated; and so, whenever a choice of occupation [elsewhere] presented itself, they took it.”

E.S. Turner, What The Butler Saw, 1962

These same employers with revolving doors in their servant quarters can also be found draped over luxury hotels around the world, dispensing their brand of people skills to the consternation of hospitality employees who find themselves caught in crosshairs that need not be.

As the people skills of an employer or a hotel guest have a significant impact on those servicing them, it might be helpful to understand the foibles and frailties of wealthy employers that might make servicing them a tribulation for the brave and tremulous alike. As Emily Post advised in 1922, “Perhaps a servant problem is more often an employer problem. I’m sure it is.”

In considering wealthy people, we can identify two key groups: those who tend to amass great wealth (Wealth Accumulators); and those who ride on their coat tails, including those who inherit great estates and capital (Wealth Dissipaters).

In each category, there exist a) those who are no more capable of recognizing their condition than they are capable either of giving away their wealth or of accumulating it; b) those who recognize their condition but who lack the tools to enter into a better frame of mind; and c) those whose people skills earn them selfless and unquestioning support from those servicing them.

Trouble Makers

Let’s explore Wealth Dissipaters first, focusing on one of their more common shortfalls when new to wealth. When their training, background, and contributions to the familial relationship have been the same essentially as that of the household manager or housekeeper, they find themselves bereft suddenly of a game and raison d’être.

Games are not just played in stadiums, but could be viewed as the basic activity and description of life itself: they give us goals to achieve despite opposition/opponents, they give us problems to focus our attention on solving. If a person lacks problems, if he or she lacks a game, he will invent them just as fast and tenaciously as you please. In the case of an employer newly out of a job, the trick is to find a new game to play, so they do not end up playing painfully tired and tawdry ones.

When a family member swung down the drive to pick up a butler from his employer’s estate one Saturday, a maid in a pinny (apron), carrying her cleaning cloth, rushed out to greet him. Except it was not the maid. It was the lady of the house. The relative had merely arrived in the middle of her chores, which consisted of cleaning the house from top to bottom, paying close attention to those places that had already been thoroughly cleaned by the actual maid: picture the maid and employer chasing each other around the mansion, cleaning in each other’s wake: which, in reality, meant the maid taking care of the employer’s exuberant smears of dried cleaning powder on multiple surfaces that had already been thoroughly cleaned. Wonderful fodder for a cartoon, but not overly efficient or morale-building: The maid at that time lasted six weeks.

Any employer having trouble adjusting to his or her (new) status as lord or lady of the manor could, as a first step, realize they indeed were the lord or lady, and not the cook, the major domo, or whatever. The strength of the employer is in being able to recognize the old game has ended, to have the courage to let go, allow another to take over, and to find a new game to throw themselves into. Weak individuals will hang onto their old game like a threadbare pair of slippers. Yet there are literally more games to invent and play than there are stars in the Milky Way. Sane games involve happiness for self and others. Insane ones involve harm for more and more people. That’s a simple but workable rule of thumb.

Closely aligned for Wealth Dissipaters, in that the lack of a game is the problem in part, is the happy fact that they are wealthy and do not have to lift a finger. Privileged women in the 19th Century could go to their grave without ever having made a cup of tea or put on their own clothing. The concept of morale is relevant here: the enthusiasm and confidence that comes from demonstrating competence while producing a product or service or achieving a goal.

Wealth Dissipaters who lack a game and goal are not driven or required to produce anything and so are listless, bored—troublemakers, in short, for themselves and others. Being denied work, one soon enough finds oneself incapable of working at all. “But Mummy, I am boooooooored,” is a refrain commonly heard anywhere a young child’s often clumsy contributions have been brushed aside too many times by busy adults. Where he or she subsequently and persistently has been denied a productive role in society or roles in games that interest, we find the petrie dish of juvenile delinquency. This ennui pushed into adulthood results in the abandonment of all efforts and sense of belonging in the idle rich.

There is no greater trap than trying to avoid work. This is what defines a criminal: unable to work, so he has to steal, whether by simple bludgeoning or complex schemes, whether of a single dollar or a trillion here or there. The irony of it all is that it is far harder and less satisfying to avoid work than it is to roll up one’s sleeves and dig in to something with gusto.

Anyone who has tried to interest a child who is thoroughly bored, no doubt knows it will not happen with exhortations alone. One has to dig in and find where interest took a dive and rehabilitate that interest, or find new things that the person actually could be interested in. Couching the project in terms of helping someone else, give them a purpose exterior to themselves might galvanize them into motion under their own volition.

What games, otherwise, do such people find themselves playing? They tend towards negating whatever they see (and cannot contribute to); and social intercourse characterized by strained façades that thinly mask backstabbing intent, where a real liking for others and life is sadly just out of reach. At the higher-end of this scale “How do you do?” is expressed, leaving unexpressed, “I don’t care how you are doing; you are such a bore, how can I get away (or whatever)?” At the bottom of the scale we find no interest expressed at all for other people…much like an object expresses no interest: when was the last time your car enquired how you were doing?

The likes of Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves stories, Arthur in Arthur, and the Prince of Wales in Blackadder characterize just such idle rich, with nothing worthwhile to do, but they are the harmless types. Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy provides a mild example of the type of employer for whom time sits heavily and staffs suffer as a result.

What drives Wealth Dissipaters to such murky depths of human understanding and caring? They are bored, they have a low opinion of themselves, their activity and contribution levels to society are in the basement, and they famously suffer from a high incidence of neurosis. But why is this still the case, despite centuries, even millennia of remonstrated failures and demonstrable grief, and proverbs to guide such as “The devil finds work for idle hands.” There are at least five forces at work that conspire to drive the wealthy up a cul-de-sac/deadend:

  • Few people are telling such individuals to roll up their sleeves; few people are in a position where they can tell them to buck up; and few people can impinge much upon them while the basic issues of food and shelter are resolved and apparently all is well in the best of all possible worlds.
  • There is the continual beat of the advertising drums and the echoing social chatter that “possessions measure success and effortless play is the chimerical goal,” work being for the trolls and prols.
  • The tendency not to work is re-enforced by those who, in seeking work, pop the pimples and powder the wigs of their betters, doing all but spoon feed them. This is not to say that providing service is not beneficial: but only where it frees up the employer for more meaningful or exciting games. It is not meant to rob the employer of all games and make them into a high-class vegetable or Jabba the Hutt (Star Wars).
  • Parents assume that children want to have everything that can possibly be given to them, without realizing that the child can be overwhelmed by everything coming in towards them without being able to exchange or give something back. In a similar vein is the approach to education: the assumption is often made that a child will appreciate the opportunity for extensive education that others often do not have. In doing so, adults fail to recognize the child as a responsible party capable of, and needing to make, his or her own decisions. In other words, someone whose willingness needs to be consulted and brought about. In essence, anyone wanting a child to learn something, might find it efficacious to ask the child, “What do you really want to know?” and then feeding and building on that. Not doing so results in resentment, not belonging, rebellion, no purpose, no game, and inability to work. This lack of involvement of the child is obviously not an issue that impacts just the wealthy. Why do rich families tend to maintain their wealth about three generations? With survival guaranteed, the only game left seems to be working hard at failing. Unable to work, force-fed possessions like geese destined for pâté de foie, they end up as capable of doing anything as the objects they are surrounded by. What happened? Their power of choice was not consulted over the wealth they inherited and did nothing to earn, which results in them being disenfranchised from it, unable to feel it is theirs, and so squandering it.
  • Lastly, without something to keep their attention anchored on life in the present, they tend to be sucked back into past emotional upsets, physical injuries, and failures, and so relive those incidents without realizing it. This is the source of the unpleasantness that they visit on their employees. It’s a hidden influence, which explains why such people find it difficult to recognize what is wrong, or to correct it if they suspect or are told the error of their ways. In other words, failing to generate energy for actual activity and work in the real world, they draw upon and fall into these old mental energies that were generated during these past impacts and upsets. Having drained these old mental reservoirs, they feel exhausted and seek energy from exterior sources: from gluttony, drugs, and an overindulgence in sex to a surfeit of possessions and even kleptomania. This may all seem hard to grasp, so let’s restate the sequence as: a person generates his own energy in playing games in life; when this possibility is denied, he raids reserves of stored mental energy (like a battery); when these deplete, he looks to exterior sources for his energy. Unrecognized, this dwindling spiral makes it very hard for the idle rich to change their condition or outlook. Being close by and tasked with servicing the employer, household (or hospitality) staffs tend to bear the brunt of such an employer’s general malaise, and unfortunately, tend to take it personally.

Only Robots Need Apply

Let’s focus now on the key issues with Wealth Accumulators when it comes to poor people skills. Where they have trouble with employees is the point they lose touch with their own spiritual nature and think of life, including mankind, as an agglomeration of atoms and random, unthinking forces. It might surprise to know that this opinion has only been in vogue wherever psychology has spread its influence over the last 130 years, based on some severely faulty logic: a professor of psychology (“the study of the soul”), announced somewhat ironically that because nerve channels went to the brain, the brain must be the mind, and that man was therefore nothing more than a collection of atoms like any other animal. The spirit mankind had conceived to overlay the managing of these atoms over the millennia was thereby scientifically proven not to exist. If the logic sounds slightly off kilter, maybe transposing it into computer parlance may highlight why the professor’s initial observation does not justify the conclusion. Imagine a computer (the body) sitting on a desk without any operating system or programs loaded (mind), and no end user (spirit) to use it. The concept works no more in the computer world than it does in real life, and if a hypothesis does not work in practice, then it has little validity. Unfortunately, however, the idea has become widespread and when used as a model, is bad news for human relationships, especially for staff who generally have to keep their own counsel while an employer or guest throws a tantrum or carries out a strategy based on the idea that staff are as disposable as diapers or last year’s models.

How does this materialistic point of view manifest? Being driven in a serious way by the misconception that happiness results from collecting possessions and employing an army of hot and cold running maids and butlers, one falls foul of a natural law that is well understood by savvy ladies looking for partners: That pushing too hard and seriously in one direction has the opposite effect. “Playing hard to get” is an intelligent response borne, no doubt, of trial and error, that will generally result in the men giving chase. Alternatively, if a lady is not playing hard to get and a man chases her, he will drive her away. Wanting possessions, one chases too hard after them and so fails to find the happiness that they cannot deliver, because it is the magic of one’s own creativity and lightness of spirit that brings happiness. This is certainly true when one’s “people possessions” do not sit and bark on cue, but turn out to have unwanted opinions and feelings that spoil things unnecessarily.

Which brings up the other goal of such employers and guests: to control others based on a lack of trust that they will perform or behave well. Whenever this philosophy is instituted nationally, police states and all they represent for the finer parts of mankind result.

For a rare glimpse at the mindset of such a person, consider the words of Zbignew Brzezinski, founder of the Trilateral Commission, when he addressed Chatham House (the British counterpart of the American Council on Foreign Relations) on November 17, 2008: “In early times, it was easier to control a million people than physically to kill a million people. Today, it is infinitely easier to kill a million people than to control a million people.” He was lamenting the difficulty of controlling populations who can vote and access the Internet. That the strategy of controlling others is self-defeating and has never worked (for some reason, individuals rebel overtly or covertly as much against being controlled as being killed) does not seem to put off such wealthy individuals from trying.

For the less one trusts others and the more one tries to control them, the more they are pushed into criminality: the pivotal point where a criminal becomes hardened, is where he commits one crime too many and realizes he cannot trust himself to police himself and so quits trying. The criminal rehabilitation group, Criminon, uses this understanding to return self respect and trust to the criminal. As a result, Criminon enjoy the same success rate (70-80% never return to prison) as other programs experience a failure rate (70-80% returning to prison).

A Better Strategy for the Wealthy

It might help such wealthy individuals to realize that other people do exist, they are real, and they are not the programmable robots many employers have sought (because they failed to make the servants and their operating climate sufficiently intelligent to function sensibly). A Lady H. kept a mind-numbing list of actions to do at a precise time each day, such as when to draw which curtain. She had obviously compiled the list in an effort to counteract the omissions she had experienced with former and current employees. A tour of her estate revealed examples of obvious negligence, such as her own bed unmade at 5.30 p.m. Only two bedrooms and beds needed to be serviced in the various buildings on the property, yet she had several maids scurrying around the house looking worried and busy. She at the same time bemoaned the lack of quality staff and their inability to do the simple actions they were paid to execute. The Lord and Lady in question were so convinced all servants were robots that they were unable to see their own attitude and approach to handling their staff had created that very robot culture.

If staff members were instructed in the requirements of the house, given principles and rules that they could think with, as well as checklists of actions to undertake (perfectly valid), they would undoubtedly fulfill their duties. They would be able to observe and evaluate different situations as they cropped up, and resolve them intelligently. If employers expected the staff to take pride in their work and left them free to do so without continual interruption and recriminations, validated them for their good works, then the staff would grow gradually into a happy, caring and efficient workforce. They would show initiative within the boundaries set by the employer, and provide the employer with real assistance. It is true that in some cultures, individuals have been so beaten down as to become like robots, but even they, with much extra care, if one really has no choice but to employ them, can be nurtured back to self-determined action.

It comes down to the difference between owning a slave, controlling a servant, employing a staff member, or nurturing a self-determined and responsible artist: for art is not just on a canvas—it can be defined as the quality of the communication and product produced in any sphere of life. And when we talk wealth, we surely imply quality in all things as a desirable standard.

One other turbulence some Wealth Accumulators leave in their wake from the good ship “all is matter and man is an animal,” is a certain tightness of wallet that is not justified by the means of the individual. Their problem is that they have fallen for their own line of scarcity: Capitalism in its current form is based on creating scarcities (most easily out of necessities, otherwise out of what people can be made to believe are necessities), and even using fear of scarcity to increase demand for one’s now “scarce” product or service—as opposed to good sense in governance leading to abundances for the benefit of all.

Some wealthy individuals actually believe there can be scarcity, based not on their lack of accumulated wealth, but their realization that they cannot create anything, and so come into a frame of mind where they must horde what they have. One employer with a beachside mansion insisted on importing his own Filipino maid at wages lower than the local going rate, giving her an on-property room literally the size of a one-car garage, and charging rent for it that consumed a good part of her wages. It takes no real strength or skill to wrest concessions from the weak, but such cheap victories seem to make some people happy even though the payback is service begrudgingly given. The deeper liability for the employers being that, lacking real creativity, they focus on protecting their possessions and maintaining the status quo, which includes stopping initiatives of even their own staff to improve things. Additionally, they want, they possess, but they can’t appreciate or experience real joy any more than their Bentley can experience joy. The real joy in life comes from creating, sharing, and achieving goals with other people, not in becoming the objects one desires.

One of the happier (and richest) men in the world works in a small office off the kitchen and knows that he depends on his employees as much as they depend on him: he and his wife are deeply immersed in causes and work incessantly to create things and improve conditions. Their staff is busy running the estate for the employers, well looked after, and loyal. The only capital one has really with staff is their willingness to serve. Demolish that with inconsiderate exchanges and one has employees who will not go the distance, let alone the extra mile.

Conversely, the power enjoyed by the wealthy can be used in the understanding that real richness in life comes from friendship and positive accomplishment. The relationship of service is like any other alliance—two adults agreeing to bond in a certain way because they have the freedom of choice and the dignity and skills needed to play the roles in the game: One chooses to serve, the other to be served, both understanding the relationship to be reciprocal and professional.

In summary, where there is friction and staff turnover in an estate, where hotel employees are rebuffed and discouraged from providing good service, the real target is the fundamental weakness that is making the fortunate wealthy frustratingly unhappy: the lack of a game and purpose in life for those who are idle; or the idea that other people do not exist or matter for those who are succeeding in the game of acquiring more and more. The truth is that current cultures point the wealthy up a cul-de-sac/dead-end; so this little article placed discreetly in the hands of those who are capable of changing, can go a long way to enlightening minds and improving conditions. A simple acknowledgement or thank-you gift, a smile rather than a Cheneyesque snarl, a request rather than an imperious order, these all add up both for the staff as well as the employer, into a whole new relationship, making each party a keeper.

This article also appeared in the September 2009 issues of HospitalityTrend.com, HotelNewsResource.com, Hotel-Online.com, 4Hoteliers,com, Hospitalitynet.com,  MoneySpeaks.co.uk and Airline News Resource.

Tags: idle rich, irrational employers, Poor People Skills, smart employers, spoiled, successful employers, The Butler Professional, The Wealthy, trouble makers, unhappy employers, unhappy staff, Wealth Dissipaters, wealthy

Category: Domestic Service Positions, English Butler, Published Articles, The Butler Professional, The Butler Way, Treating staff well

About the Author (Author Profile)

Steven Ferry is chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers and the author of bestsellers "Butlers & Household Managers 21st Century Professionals" and "Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators." He also trains and consults for the profession around the world.

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  1. Sabine says:

    …just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this blog post. It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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