Restoring civility: Here are 4 tips to increase courtesy in the workplace

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 8:44 a.m. MST

We work in an age of instant messaging, email, Skype, and other almost instantaneous communication. Sometimes the immediacy of the medium allows us to act just as brutish as the bullies we all despise.

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There was a boy in my elementary school that made my life miserable. He was a bully and pushed me around, along with anyone else he thought was smaller or weaker than him. He was a great athlete for a 10-year-old. He could run fast and was definitely stronger than the average kid in our class. Everyone was afraid of him. I was afraid of him.

After elementary school he kind of slipped into anonymity. He wasn’t tough enough to bully us anymore. In fact, I completely lost track of him and didn’t even notice him after I hit high school.

Although there are bullies in the workplace, I’m not afraid of getting beat up anymore. In fact, I’m really lucky and don’t currently work with any bullies—although that hasn’t always been the case. Nevertheless, I am always puzzled as to why these guys (and in some cases, gals) wind up in positions of authority when they have no real clue how to effectively communicate with people. The thing I’ve noticed about most bullies is that it doesn’t take long to identify them, summarily lose respect for them, and stop paying attention to them. However, a bully’s rude and inconsiderate behavior has a real trickle-down effect, which often goes unnoticed—and probably does more to negatively impact collaboration than the bully.

We work in an age of instant messaging, email, Skype, and other almost instantaneous communication. Sometimes the immediacy of the medium allows us to act just as brutish as the bullies we all despise. We can’t let the immediacy of the medium allow us to become callous and flippant regarding how we approach our subordinates, colleagues, and others we work with — particularly when problems arise or when mistakes are made. I’m convinced that in today’s workplace, there is still a place for common (or maybe not so common now) courtesy.

Here are four ways to be courteous to the people you work with:

1. Take time to make communication thoughtful and cordial

Everyone seems to be under the gun these days. Most people have been expected to do more and take on additional responsibilities that force them to hit the ground running — from the time they get to work until the day is done. Is it asking too much to take an extra few seconds when writing an email or other correspondence to consider that you are sending it to another person? I make it a habit to include a salutation in every email (for example) to remind me that the person on the other end is just that, a person. The extra two or three seconds it takes me to address the person I’m writing doesn’t negatively impact my productivity, but it does help me foster productive and cordial working relationships.

2. Take time to be polite

During the course of the average work day “stuff” happens and sometimes tough decisions need to be made. I don’t think that means we can throw civility out the window for the sake of expediency. Over the course of my 30-something years in small business, I’ve watched what used to be considered common courtesy among superiors, subordinates, and co-workers become “quaint” and considered “unnecessary.” There is nothing wrong with considering the feelings of someone needing correction, regardless of how stupid you think they are or how big a mistake you think they’ve made. What’s more, I may be “old school,” but I’ve been surprised more than once with the way some employees often talk to their managers — and even the boss from time to time. Whether or not you think you’re smarter than they are, they deserve a little respect if for no other reason than they are the boss. Being polite and considerate of each other is the very least we should be able to expect from our “professional” colleagues. Anything less is unproductive and immature.

3. Remove the criticism from “constructive” criticism

I was taught early in my career, by friends and colleagues much wiser than myself, that “criticism” is never “constructive.” I don’t think I have ever worked with people who agree all the time. For most of us the average workday includes a lot of problem-solving, which means things are seldom done right the first time. Fostering a creative environment where everyone is creatively solving problems and pushing for excellence requires collaboration, not criticism. Where disagreements arise or a course correction is required, “I don’t like this,” should be followed by, “here’s why, and here’s a suggestion as to how you might proceed.”

4. Never forget, it’s much easier to critique than to execute

It’s always easier to see the flaws from the outside looking in. Theodore Roosevelt said, “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause who, at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Real communication isn’t about tricks or gimmicks — it’s personal. It doesn’t really matter if it’s face-to-face, via email or the telephone, communication is all about people interacting with each other.

American author and playwright Jean Kerr said, “Man is the only animal that learns by being hypocritical. He pretends to be polite and then, eventually, he becomes polite.”

As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (www.lendio.com).

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