You don't need to read a bunch of textbooks to figure out how to manage people.

Serendipity is a fancy word that means making a meaningful discovery by accident. The term has come into play quite a bit during recent years thanks to the Internet. As you've probably learned for yourself, search engines often take you to wondrous places that have little to do with what you're searching for. That's what happened to me when I was doing some research on the Internet and stumbled across some writings in psychology journals about a phenomenon that explains quite a bit of things.

People who pursue Ph.D.s in psychology call it "spontaneous trait transference." This salt-of-the-earth type prefers to use a metaphor referring to something all males know better than to do against the wind.

Whatever you wish to call it, the phenomenon pertains to the way people form impressions. For example, think of the low regard people hold for the news media, especially television newspeople. Sam Donaldson is constantly on the tube casting aspersions on various public figures. But lo and behold, surveys always show the viewing public give very low marks in trustworthiness to the Donaldsons of the world.

Remember back when Monica Lewinsky was in the news? The special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was investigating her relationship with President Clinton and speaking to the press about it probably too often. Next thing you know, Starr's reputation began to suffer as much as the President's.

It may also be why President Bush was so reviled by the antiwar crowd leading up to the Iraqi invasion. Antiwar activists went beyond disagreeing with his policies to sniping at his character. It may have to do with the fact that President Bush spent a lot of time before TV cameras quite correctly identifying Saddam Hussein as one of the most heinous butchers of our time. But the more he went on TV to remind people of Saddam's crimes, the more people tended to regard him as a dangerous leader in his own right.

It seems to defy common sense that people would attribute traits to a speaker that one ascribes to somebody else, but the phenomenon seems to be supported both by academic studies and, like the examples just cited, real world experience. Spontaneous trait transference holds lessons for business marketing.

Positives trump negatives

Experts say that negative advertising doesn't work as well as positive pitches. STT (or as I would label it, PATW) may have something to do with it. Keep running ads that say bad things about competitors, and the public is likely to attribute those bad things to the company that says them. Keep bad-mouthing competitors and you may just end up soiling your own reputation.

This mistake is routinely made by many plumbing service firms that do TV advertising, usually on cable. The plumbing trade is not one that enjoys a great deal of prestige in the eyes of the general public. Too often, the bad reputation is deserved. Many plumbers show up for service calls dressed slovenly and don't have a clue about social graces when it comes to dealing with homeowners.

Astute plumbing contractors make it a point to combat this negative image by training their service people in the finer points of customer care and dressing them in clean uniforms. Some plumbers even slip on hospital booties before entering a home in order not to track in dirt. I applaud these practices.

Problem is, in an attempt to contrast themselves with the riff-raff who don't give a darn, the customer-friendly plumbing firms have a tendency to lay it on thick with their TV commercials. I've seen several variations of a common theme: A beat-up old service truck shows up at a home wheezing and leaking oil. Out steps Bubba Buttcrack dressed in overalls that look like they haven't been washed in a year. The homeowner comes to answer the doorbell and recoils in horror at the cretinous figure standing in her doorway. In one commercial that I viewed, the plumber was smoking a cigar and dropping the ashes all over the floor, even flicking some on the lady of the house.

These commercials can be quite amusing. But I cringe every time I see one. The contractor who does this type of advertising achieves exactly the opposite of what he's trying to do. Instead of contrasting himself with competitors, he's making the case that his firm is the one filled with Bubbas. He is PATW.

You folks aren't in a service business and don't do much advertising. But STT researchers have found the same effects taking hold even in casual conversation. As in:

"How come Wallbanger Brothers came in with a bid 10 percent lower than yours?"

"You're doing business with the Wallbangers! My dead grandmother could nail studs better than those idiots."

Guess who comes away from that kind of exchange labeled as an idiot in the mind of the listener?

It's always intrigued me why political commercials turn this rule on its head. Every campaign season the tube is inundated with commercials saying nasty things about political opponents. It could be that the short duration these ads run don't give enough time for STT to kick in. Or it may be that when everybody is calling everyone a scumbag, negative effects are likely to cancel out. Personally, I've always felt that the only time politicians tell the truth is when they're blasting one another, but I digress.

What goes around ...

There is at least one good thing that can be said about STT. It gives comeuppance to some people who truly deserve it.

One of my pet peeves in the business world are gossips. They can do more damage to a company than a recession. They exist in almost every organization of any size, but the literature of STT holds that the gossipers and rumor-mongerers tend to splatter themselves with the same debris they aim at others.

Without ever mentioning STT, professional marketers have long known that positive messages usually are more effective than negative ones. There's also an intuitive grasp of STT in the old adage, "If you can't say something good about a person, don't say anything at all."

It always was good advice, and now STT lends an air of academic credence to the message we've usually heard from the clergy and our own dear Moms. Must be something to STT/PATW. Next time you're tempted to comment about a competitor, better first check for wind direction.