In the crush of news reports ahead of President Trump’s first state dinner on Tuesday night, one detail loomed large. According to the New York Times, during the frenzied finishing touches to the guest list and finalizing of the menu, First Lady Melania Trump gave her staff the advice: “Do not worry.”
Do not worry!? the Times practically scoffed. It’s the president’s first state dinner! The Iranian nuclear deal and sensitive trade negotiations are hanging in the balance here, the article seemed to scream. Why isn’t Melania tearing her hair out, berating her staff, and generally having a meltdown? Wasn’t her tone just a tad too… casual? Unharried? Out-to-lunch?
As it turns out, though, if her goal was to motivate her team, her approach may actually have science on its side. A growing body of research points to the idea that happy, well-rested, and even casually-dressed employees often make the most productive teams. And many of today’s most successful business people agree. Just ask the reigning entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, who flaunt free meals and company nap pods to attract top engineering talent. Or think about your own career. Are the jobs where you’ve felt most engaged with the company mission the pressure-cooker stressful roles, or those where you had the autonomy and support to execute on your goals in a calm, if demanding, environment?
Granted, that’s reading a lot into three little words. Maybe the First Lady really is detached from the day-to-day realities of her office. Or, maybe there’s something else going on behind the press coverage of the state dinner preparations. Over the past fifteen years, the familiar image of a male workplace leader has changed drastically. The cliché of a hard-charging executive, wearing a business suit and terrorizing his underlings, has given way to a new breed of much more relatable guys.
But the idea of successful female leaders hasn’t evolved much, if at all. Think of the domineering she-bosses Hollywood spits out, like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and Demi Moore in Margin Call. Or all the ink spilled over Marissa Mayer’s notorious curtailing of Yahoo’s remote work policy. We know what to do with these well-established archetypes of female power: We fear them, and admire their ability to get results. But when Melania Trump bucks the narrative about women in charge, by reassuring her staff not to worry ahead of a stressful deadline on a major project, our collective instinct isn’t to applaud her management style, or to give her credit for not being a diva and running her staff into the ground. Instead we mock her and imply that she’s clueless. (The sniping was even bi-partisan, some of it coming from a conservative commentator who dismissed the First Lady’s menu choices as “unpronounceable froo-froo garbage.”)
A manager who can put events in perspective—and help others do the same—is valuable. After all, it’s a state dinner, not the Yalta Conference. Sure, “do not worry” isn’t substantive enough on its own to judge the First Lady’s management style. And it begs the question of what else she said to her staff in that pep talk. But dialing back the drama, rather than ratcheting it up, is a key skill at work. Maybe our chaos-loving president will even take a page out of his wife’s management handbook.