January 23, 2013
3 Management Lessons From Dear Abby

Dear Abby: Our son married a girl when he was in the service. They were married in February and she had an 8 1/2-pound baby girl in August. She said the baby was premature. Can an 8 1/2-pound baby be this premature? — Wanting to Know

Dear Wanting: The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.

With her clever, amusing, often audacious but always sympathetic solutions, America’s beloved advice columnist, Pauline Phillips—best known as Abagail VanBuren, or “Dear Abby”—warmed the hearts of millions of readers. After a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Phillips died last Wednesday at the age of 94, but not without leaving the refreshing legacy of her down-to-earth approach to life—something that could be more often applied to workplace management.

Through the Dear Abby column, Phillips mastered the art of giving good, strong advice without micromanaging her readers. And readers loved her the more for it. As Forbes points out, at its core, the Dear Abby feedback style showcases three ways business leaders can improve the way they direct employees:

1. Start Listening

Shared understanding is the foundation of good management. As an advice columnist, Phillips captured her readers’ attention early on in her career by learning to listen to what people were really saying so she could respond to what they were really concerned about.

So before you start wrestling with how to reach employees, earn their loyalty by keeping quiet every now and then. Listen to what they’re saying, and you’ll probably glean insight into the company that you never would have thought of but perhaps really needed to know.

2. Make Advice Timeless

Throughout the 40s, 60s, 70s and onward, Dear Abby’s advice remained relevant because it was mostly one thing—smart. Today is no different.

Old and new problems (and opportunities) can be met with much of the same foolproof and timeless guidance that our grandfathers used. Be honest with yourself and learn to roll with the punches instead of pulling them. Some things will go wrong, and some things will go right. So correct what you can correct and move on toward the opportunities.

3. Be Clear In Correction

You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again (timeless advice, remember?): Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Phillips had a healthy respect for tough love, as she called it.

Constructive management operates in the same way. Those on the management level must be able to tell people how things are, straight and simple. Chances are employees will appreciate this straightforward approach much more than being left in the limbo of uncertain expectations.

Find the balance between being flexible but firm, and provide an environment where employees can support themselves with structure, training and resources. Defined responsibility is a good thing—it means management and employees set out toward company goals on the same page.

Dear Abby is sure to live on (Phillips’ daughter continues the column today), and these insights into her legacy can help businesses maintain momentum through management that promotes helpful guidance rather than harmful interference. With an open ear, sound advice and a little bit of tough love, management can step up to provide the open, structured and enjoyable conditions employees need in order to thrive.