I am reconstructing here a fictitious reply from a middle-senior manager to his CEO, in the way he expressed to me. He never wrote the memo, but this is what he would have said:
Actually no, Mr Johnson. I will not call you Peter. I appreciate the permission to break the social distance, but I quite like that distance, so I am not confused when I ask you for things.
I know that you have been given out permissions like this since you came in, and this is appreciated. However, you hold a position of power and responsibility that is quite distant from me. If I call you Peter, I might just imagine that we have been mates since school, or shop in the same supermarket on a Saturday, both so far from the truth.
I saw on that American TV series that when somebody was elected as President of the United States, his main friend and campaign helper, stopped calling him by his name, even in private and called him Mr President. I though first that he was nuts, but then I understood. As soon as Frank became POTUS, there was no business as usual anymore.
You see, Mr Johnson, I want to relate to you as our leader. I won’t have more or less respect for you by calling you Peter or Mr Johnson, but I want you to be where you are, in the Board, accessible of course, but not ‘one of us’ by forced design. Keep it like this and let’s have lots of conversations, you form your high office, me from my low one. I truly believe that we will get much more understanding and things done by nor pretending that by calling you as your kids do, we are already half a way of our ‘constructive dialogue’.
I hope you are not offended
I have shared this with many clients, as a test, and I’ve got more or less 50/50 in terms of who things this is good, and who thinks it’s just rubbish, and if Peter wanted to be called Peter, what was that fuss about. Yes, most of the latter are Americans.
Power distance is well known cultural measure. As such, it is not good or bad, it simply is. The high distance and the low distance people and cultures are very different. As for the stereotype that says that ‘Call me Peter’ is American management, I can tell you that I have worked with white and blue-collar African American managers, and Mr Johnson and Mrs James is the norm.
‘Call me Peter’ leadership is neither good nor bad until you have a context. A universal desire for closeness and forced installing of a ‘low distance’ culture may be simply disastrous.
Leadership-power distance is something that cannot be constructed, most of the time it finds its own measures and doses, spontaneously, or by simple social copying within the tribes. In the UK, for example, medical doctors are ‘doctors’ (even if they don’t have a doctorate) and surgeons are ‘misters’, which does not mean an inferior status at all, often the contrary. There are not Peter. This social code is strong and pervasive, used constantly even within the tribe itself.
In the UK parliament, when in session, members don’t talk to each other as John or Mary, but as ‘The Right Honourable Member for Basildon and Billericay’. In fact, they don’t even talk at each other but to the Speaker. For example, ‘Mr Speaker, The Right Honourable Member for Basildon and Billericay has just missed the point’. As opposed to ‘For goodness sake, John, this is nuts’. All the distances are in place in this arcane system that produces every Wednesday in Prime Minister Question time the most unedifying and grotesque shouting that supposes to exemplify democracy.
I’ve seen equal number of people embarrassed and delighted with a ‘call me Peter’ policy. Social proximity is a funny thing . I suspect we all have our own preferences. All is possible, all good or bad, but forcing it and imposing it as a pseudo-democratic shot, and social equalizer, is never, ever, a good idea.
As a rule of thumb, don’t start with a ‘call me Peter’, until they call you Peter, at which point you don’t need to say anything. Unless of course you prefer a ‘Bond, my name is Bond’.
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