Professional courtesy – a dying art?

12/04/2017
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It never ceases to amaze me the lack of courtesy people display in the workplace. Recently there were two pieces of disappointing news I was entitled to hear but in both cases the other party, for reasons best known to themselves, chose to remain silent, with the result that I eventually found out in a far from satisfactory way. Firstly, this is poor business practice. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news for fear of the recipient choosing to shoot the messenger. However, communication is essential, even when the subject matter is negative.

You may have hear the saying ‘Good news is no news; no news is bad news; and bad news is good news’. Good news is no news because it means you’re meeting expectations, no news is bad news because it means being kept in the dark. But bad news can be good news because it means a problem is coming to light and you have the chance to fix it. The sooner this news is revealed the better. In general, people diagnosed with cancer at an early stage have much a better chance of beating it than those who discover the illness when it has developed and spread. In the corporate world, burying a problem or refusing to face facts can only have detrimental effects in the long term.

Secondly, it led me to think about the implications of politeness, manners and courtesy in the workplace on wider scale. With that in mind, I don’t intend to whinge and moan but to celebrate the application of courtesy and demonstrate how a little politeness can bring great benefits to your reputation, relationships and business.

Many seem to think we have developed beyond the need for courtesy. Archaic rituals and codes of behaviour seem increasingly pointless to us. Ancient proskynesis towards your host developed into kneeling, which was largely replaced by offering an open hand to be shaken. All of which were designed to impede one’s ability to draw a weapon or demonstrate an empty hand and thus no harmful intent towards the other party. This seems irrelevant today in an age when we no longer wear swords, but as a society we still sit up, take notice and comment when football managers refuse to shake hands after a game.

We can move on from certain social and cultural traditions, even to the point of making a deliberate statement by not conforming. But we shouldn’t abandon good manners. Companies wishing to project a specific image can relax their dress code or enforce a casual dress code, but it is definitely not common practice to maintain a deliberate policy of discourtesy (except perhaps for cold sales callers and spam emailers). Whatever the origins of our notions of politeness, the behaviors and attitudes that resulted still resonate with us. On an individual level, when you use manners and common courtesy, it shows consideration and professionalism. If you don’t then people make judgments about you regardless of your abilities. Applied to a business, courtesy demonstrates integrity, trustworthiness and inspires confidence.

In a culture of rudeness and disregard for courtesy it is easy to want to go with the flow. If nobody else bothers to switch off their mobile or set it to silent during a meeting, why should you? You can’t be singled out for criticism if it rings because everyone else there has had their phone go off in previous meetings. True, but you can be singled out as the person who always remembers and makes the effort to turn off their phone and concentrates fully on the matter at hand. You and your business can be singled out as being polite, respectful and pleasant to work with.

Every generation believes that we are in a state of moral and social decline. Modern commentators, medieval authors and ancient Roman poets have all written that standards of behavior and courtesy are not what they once were. It is possible that we are part of an ongoing decline. It is more likely that the ‘golden age’ every writer harks back to, when everyone behaved impeccably, never really existed and that we have always lived in a world where manners were there, were understood, but were not universally applied. Either way this is good news for those of us who do believe in courtesy – all the more reason to stand out from the crowd and not give in to impoliteness. In this world, an honest, polite, courteous individual or business draws attention. The darker the sky around them gets, the brighter the stars seem to shine.

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