7 Management Lessons from Downton Abbey

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7 Management Lessons from Downton Abbey

/ March 12, 2013

With upwards of 20 regular characters, all working together with a clear staff-management relationship, the TV show Downton Abbey has a thing or two to teach us about relations on the job and management skill.

With Downton Abbey‘s devastating finale in the rear view of our roadster and a long wait ahead until season 4’s debut in January 2014, it’s time for us have one of those eight-course meals and contemplate what we’ve learned from three seasons of this beloved show, say, around management.

That may be an odd topic for a series that takes place almost entirely a domicile. But this domicile is the center of a $1.1 billion fortune, according to Forbes, and like the modern workplace, it takes a lot of people interacting with one another—a lot of management—to make it run. Two of the top definitions for to manage are “to handle with a degree of skill” and “to treat with care.” In other words, manage is closely connected with how you treat people. Of course, Downton is seen through the lens of a different time, where class structures were more strictly enforced, women had yet to gain rights, and people saw nothing wrong with blatant social inequity.

Nevertheless, with more than 20 regular cast members and heck of a lot of drama, the television series has plenty to teach on the subject of management. Here are seven of those lessons.

Spoilers abound. If you haven’t watched the entire series, cast your eyes aside.

Kindness and compassion are sources of strength.

We first meet Lord Grantham in the episode 1 when he is told by Carson, the butler, that the news is true: The Titanic has indeed sunk. “I understand most of the ladies were taken off in time,” says Carson. “You mean the ladies in first class,” says Lord Grantham, with furrowed brow. “God help the poor devils below decks on their way to a better life.”

Contained in that short conversation is so much you need to know about Lord Grantham, a kindness that is the root of his strength. He is fiercely protective of both his servants and his family. He goes to great lengths to employ the slightly disabled Bates as his valet, pays for the cook Mrs. Patmore’s eye surgery when she is going blind from cataracts, and is moved to intervene on Thomas’s behalf when he is caught kissing the new footman Jimmy (an offense punishable by prison), despite Thomas’s history of using lies and manipulation. And although Downton and its reputation mean the world to him, when his eldest daughter Mary confesses her indiscretion and its even more shameful result, Lord Grantham is forgiving, saying she is “not the only Crawley to have made a mistake.”

Takeaway: Many managers make the mistake of assuming that kindness will be viewed as a weakness, but coercion and disregard for feelings backfires. On the contrary, kindness helps instill loyalty. In this vein, ask yourself if you’re treating your employees with respect and caring—and if not, what you can do to make an effort in that direction.

The only constant is change.

Lord Grantham is not perfect, but in many ways he’s close. He’s kind, compassionate, even-keeled, honorable, and treats the servants with respect (a mark of honor if there ever was one).

But like many of us, Lord Grantham has just a wee bit of trouble with change. A traditionalist, Robert has difficulty accepting his daughter Sybil’s political beliefs (i.e., that a woman has any) and later when his middle daughter, Edith, is asked to write for a newspaper, Robert is horrified that she would consider it. One of his most difficult challenges occurs when Sybil wants to marry Tom Branson, the chauffeur; although Robert does come around in the end, he is less than his usual civil self with his son-in-law to-be. While he does accept his daughter marrying “beneath” her, His Lordship’s first instinct is to cling tightly to the past.

Takeaway: For him and for us—not such a good idea. It could be argued that Lord Grantham’s traditionalism adds to the dignity of his character, and it’s painful to see so many changes thrust upon him, but the truth is the times they are a’ changing. Then, now, forever. Better to just accept it.

Be open to new ideas.

Closely related to the above is the idea that what worked yesterday (or last year, or when you first started at the company) may not work so well today. It’s up to each of us to guard against getting set in “the way things are supposed to be.” Certainly, that doesn’t mean chasing every new idea that comes along, but there’s much to be said for cautious openness, even though it can be difficult to let in new ideas.

Case in point: When Matthew’s money bails out Downton Abbey from Robert’s bad investment, Matthew begins to play a larger role in the estate’s oversight and its business matters. Matthew discovers that Downton has long been mismanaged financially and that if things don’t change soon the Crawley family will once again be in danger of losing the estate.

Matthew’s ideas on how to create a self-sustaining and profitable estate, not surprisingly, break with tradition. Downton, which has been what Robert considers a “third parent or a fourth child,” is the very symbol of ”the way we have always done things,” and changing the status quo is painful indeed.

Still, though it’s difficult, Lord Grantham eventually comes around, saying, “All right, let’s give it a go and see what the future brings.” When later, Robert’s friend Shrimpy confides his disastrous financial situation—a result of similar mismanagement—Robert has even greater clarity that embracing the future will save Downton.

Takeaway: It’s impossible to be an excellent (or happy) leader or front-line employee without coping with change, and a key component of this is being open to new ideas. If you find yourself resistant to new ideas as a matter of course, it may be time to look inward to determine why.

If things just don’t seem to be working out, maybe it’s time to consider leaving.

Edith Crawley, the middle sister in archetype and fact, just can’t get a break. In another series, she might be applauded for being the first to learn how to drive, for being modern enough to write for a newspaper, for being exceedingly caring with the soldiers who were recuperating.

But not on Downton Abbey. No, the writers have it out for Edith. Just a few of the many humiliations she’s forced to endure: She first tries to woo Matthew Crawley, and is made to seem silly in doing so; he is, of course, meant for the beautiful and icy Mary. Edith is drawn to an older gentleman, Sir Anthony Strallan, and instead of this being seen as a testament to her openness, she is time and again made to look the fool, first when Mary lies to Strallan that Edith was leading him on for her own amusement, then the way his not wanting to be with her because of his disability is handled, but most especially when he jilts her at the altar. Now, she’s writing for a newspaper and its editor (who looks distractingly like a younger version of Strallan) is in love with her, but of course there’s the catch. He’s already married with a wife in a loony bin.

Takeaway: Edith’s situation provides an important career lesson—sometimes a situation in which you find yourself just isn’t a match. If you’re always trying really hard but still feel like no matter what you do you’re not rewarded or appreciated, heed that feeling. It’s quite likely this job is not (or is no longer) a fit for you. Edith is a fictional character and doesn’t have the luxury of writing her own destiny. You, however, do.

Positive status changes can take as much getting used to as negative ones.

The character Tom Branson, who joins the series in season 1 as the Crawley’s chauffeur, has one of the most interesting transformations in the TV show. A feisty and passionate activist for the Irish Republican cause, Branson is uncompromising both in his political beliefs and his love for the Crawley’s youngest daughter, Sybil. That love, and subsequent marriage and daughter, ultimately forces Tom to confront his anti-aristocracy feelings, let go of his rough underclass edges, and allow for some of the advantages of his new situation.

But none of this comes easy: He must accept the reality of his new position and also learn not to be ashamed of it. And bit by bit, the viewer sees this. In defense of his mother-in-law, Cora, Tom chivalrously orders his rough-around-the edges and uncompliant brother out of the servants’ dining area and upstairs to eat with the family; he is tested by a maid who tries to makes him feel guilty for his new station; and he becomes increasingly involved in the family business. Though at one point Tom says, “I’m afraid I can’t turn into someone else,” he does transform, and at least this viewer found the new (and better dressed) Tom more heroic and admirable. Even his speech has more quiet dignity, and is less firebrand.

Takeaway: Even positive changes can be difficult—especially if they feel thrust upon you. A promotion will likely mean that others see you differently, and that you need to adjust your own conceptions of yourself in the workplace. It may require that you manage your friends. It likely requires skills you have not yet polished, or perhaps never used at all. All of these changes can be difficult. Know that you are not alone in having mixed feelings, and do your part to prepare for what you will face.

Be a character-based leader—even if it’s not fashionable.

8.2 million people watched the season 3 finale on PBS. That was a record number of viewers, but clearly millions have been turning in all along. There are plenty of reasons for the show’s success, of course. There are the soapy plot twists, the juxtaposition of privilege and servitude, and the genteel costumes and lifestyles.

But one of the main reasons people love the show is that there are just so many characters to love. Mr. Carson, the butler, has integrity to spare. He has unshakably high standards, but his gruff exterior belies a kind, compassionate heart that has shown itself throughout the series, such as his protectiveness over Lady Mary and his support of Thomas.

In fact, that Thomas-and-Jimmy incident in particular provides a touchstone to so many of the characters’ integrity, kindness, and valuing of people over “justice.” Mrs. Hughes, who oversees the female housekeeping staff, responds with her signature dignified warmth. Mr. Bates, who, despite having been the object of Thomas’s Machiavellian plotting, comes to his rescue. Even Alfred ends up coming round.

Takeaway: Integrity, trustworthiness, high standards, compassion. These don’t have the sexy modern ring that traits like confidence, personal brand, self-promotion, shortsighted wins, and so on do, but they go a long way toward making this show such a pleasure to watch. Those qualities are looking for a good home in corporate America, which, if what has transpired in recent years indicates, could use an infusion of character.

Nearly everyone has a good side.

In today’s pressure cooker, people’s flaws show up plenty and often. But if Downton has taught us anything, it’s that everyone has a good side. The trick is to find it and bring that out in others.

Lady Mary, for all her iciness and mistreatment of Edith, has always been good to her maid Anna, and is personally involved in helping Anna overcome obstacles to being with Bates. Lady Mary also showed compassion for Lavinia Swire when she learned of the secret that Sir Richard held over her.

And the Dowager Countess, though strongly adherent to class distinctions, is an ongoing source of support for the people she cares for, including insisting that William the footman be taken home to Downton when he is severely injured, and supporting the luncheon at Isobel Crawley’s despite the cloud of scandal that Isobel’s employment of the former prostitute Ethel has created.

Even your evil schemers like O’Brien (who will not be back next season) have their vulnerable, human, and moving sides. O’Brien was wonderfully protective of the shell-shocked soldier Mr. Lang, was a long-time protector of Thomas, and watched over Cora in shame at what she’d done in causing Cora’s miscarriage.

Takeaway: One important role for any manager is to find out what motivates every member of his staff. You may not like everyone who works for or with you—even when you value the technical skills they bring to the job. However, you do need to recognize what makes them tick, learn which rewards inspire them, and recognize that while the team member may not be your next beer-drinking buddy and might possibly require special handling, she is a human being who deserves to be treated with compassion and kindness. It’s amazing what might happen when you adopt that attitude.

Those are the management lessons I took away from Downton Abbey. What would you add? Tell us about them in the comments.

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