Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Common Courtesy (or the Lack Thereof)


You’ve just gotten involved in a new and important project, and you’re grateful to be involved, as it promises, if successful, to be a major driver of new business for the company, and can provide positive visibility for you. You go into the initial project meetings with a positive outlook and a ‘can do’ attitude. However, when the meeting gets started you notice there appears to be discontent between some of the representatives of the various organizations involved. Even more disconcerting, the discussions quickly veer off a path of respectful discourse to displays of snarkiness, animosity and even outright disrespect. This makes no sense to you, as it is clearly counterproductive and unnecessary. You expect common courtesy to be the norm, and can’t understand what you’re seeing or why. Unfortunately, bad behavior and a lack of common courtesy is becoming all too common in the workplace and out of it.


Where has common courtesy gone? It used to be that people, within and outside of the workplace, treated each other with courtesy regardless of the circumstances, even during very trying times. But manners, courtesy and civility seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Why, and what can be done about it?


There are many potential causes for the decline in common courtesy and civility.

Maybe it’s office politics. Politics within the workplace can degrade civility and common courtesy, leading to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that can too quickly develop where one organization puts down another organization and the other organization retaliates. The political ‘palace intrigues’ between people or organizations in the workplace can subvert team efforts to cooperate, collaborate, and together excel. Blame shifting as a result of such ‘political’ differences leads to a coarsening of discourse and undermines courtesy and cooperation.


Maybe it’s the increasing pressure to do well and perform well, particularly in trying times. This includes the pressure of having and keeping a job, of meeting or exceeding expectations, of meeting unrealistic deadlines, etc. Pressure to perform has always been with us, but it seems the pressure today is higher than in the past. It’s how you respond to the pressure that can differentiate you from others, if you respond with courtesy and civility.


Maybe it’s the pressure to succeed and excel at any cost, and the response is sometimes tearing someone else down to build yourself or others up. In the past, even in tearing someone down, there used to be more class and style. Seemingly kind and gentle words were carefully crafted and constructed to cleverly put a person or people in their place, but with a style that could be appreciated and not despised. Today, people more often go directly for the throat with angry and coarse language that often tells far more about the person spewing the disrespectful language than about the person they’re spewing the language at. This is just wrong!


Respect used to be owed before it was earned, and lost only after solid evidence was presented to demonstrate that it was no longer owed. Today it is often the case that respect given only after a show of force that demands it, rather than earns it. We need to return to the roots of offering respect until evidence proves otherwise. Dignity used to be something afforded to anyone. Compassion used to be something offered freely based on the circumstances (see Dignity, Respect, Compassion – What a Concept!). Dignity, respect, and compassion need to be restored to their rightful place in the workplace and outside the workplace!


In the workplace, a lack of common courtesy is dangerous. People need to work closely together for the company to succeed. If they are more concerned with what is being said about them, and by whom, then they’re taking their eyes off of the goal (see Keep Your Eyes On THE GOAL!). 


Examples of bad behavior and lack of courtesy unfortunately abound. I’ve previously described personality types that can contribute problems of a lack of common courtesy (see the Herding Cats and Mis-Manager series of articles). Such personality types may ignite or contribute to the problem, but often good and valuable people can be caught up in a bad situation and react emotionally and badly.


So what can be done about this? What can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Follow the golden rule that states you should ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ (and not the golden rule that says ‘he who has the gold makes the rules’). 
  • Seek to tone down the drama (see Too Much Drama!). 
  • Take the time to think before your speak (see Take the Time to Think!).
  • Speak with logic, not emotion (see Pound the Facts, not the Table). Emotion can have its place, but not in anger. Words said in anger often cannot be taken back. People remember when they have been verbally savaged by others, and often seek payback. This can result in an escalation of bad behavior. Payback is seldom beneficial for either party involved, and serves to diminish both.
  • Do your part to return to expectations of courtesy and respect, especially in the workplace. Encourage others to do the same. 
  • Don’t tolerate a lack of courtesy. Stand up to rudeness, disrespect, and callous behavior. Stand up for others who are being subjected to outrageous slander. How can someone speak disrespectfully of a coworker one day and work collaboratively with that person the next day? They can’t and still be honest.



Do everything you can do to encourage and foster good behavior in your workplace. Courtesy and civility should be the norm, and not the exception! 


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