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Restore Civility To The Office Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

What Ever Happened To Respect?

Rudeness. Disrespect. A lack of basic manners.

Increasingly these are hallmarks of today's aggressive workplaces. Does this signal the decline of civility as we know it?

According to Pamela Bedour, founder and director of the Protocol School of Ontario, 'the general decay of society's manners is being reflected in business: our own pleasure, convenience and primacy are superceding anything else,' she says.

Bedour relates the shift in politeness over the last half century. As recently as the1950's, etiquette was still being taught in schools. Back then the social graces ruled: proper dining skills, how to comport oneself with dignity mainly superficial behaviour that made charm schools and finishing academies so popular.

When the 60's came along the ethos shifted radically. Yippies were fed up with artificial protocols--the crie de coeur became 'let it all hang out, baby!' Yet there was still a sense that we were all connected somehow, hence mutual respect was esteemed.

The 70's, 80's and 90's devolved into the 'me generation,' with a focus on personal success. 'Quite simply, greed ruled,' says Bedour, whose school offers courses on business etiquette and international protocol. The crucibles of achievement were money and power, regardless of who you crushed on your way up.

Now the pendulum is starting to swing in favor of tact again, this time with an underpinning of genuine decency. 'We're tired of being treated shabbily and we are seeking a return to niceness,' says Bedour.

Fortunately for those who've retained their faith in the golden rule, doing nicely unto others has demonstrable payoffs beyond intrinsic satisfaction. At work, 'good manners are the expression of genuine respect for others and for the task we share. They are critical to the success of the organization of the future,' says Frances Hesselbein, founding president and CEO of the Drucker Foundation (now Leader to Leader), based on management guru Peter Drucker's enduring principles.

Hesselbein states her case in terms of productivity, not just good intentions. 'I challenge us to measure the performance of a team whose work is underscored by trust, civility and good manners against a team where mistrust, disrespect, and lack of consideration are the rule of the day,' she adds.
Her views are gaining credence in a world increasingly measured by results. Consider your own circumstances: what happens when a colleague or supervisor treats you dismissively, or tears down your ideas in a public forum, or doesn't take the time to fully consider the input you've worked so hard to deliver?

'Many people shut down and stew about the slights they've incurred instead of working on their assignments,' says Bedour. This leads to decreased output and erodes the essence of trust. As Drucker himself has said, 'Good manners are the lubricating oil of organizations.'

Does this mean we have to dust off our copies of Letitia Baldridge's 'The Complete Guide To New Manners?'

Not necessarily. 'Good manners flow not from patterned niceness, but from genuine appreciation of colleagues individually and the dignity of the work their colleagues do,' says Hesselbein. In other words, do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.

What it boils down to, basically, is taking the time to practice decency in everyday situations. Call it 'demonstrating desirable people skills' if you must. According to Bedour, a study by Harvard University, The Carnegie Foundation and the Stanford Research Institute shows that technical skills account for only 15% of the reason you get, keep, and advance in a job. A whopping 85% is related to your people skills!

So how can you ensure that your people skills contribute to a civilized workplace?

For one thing, try putting your ego in check on occasion. When someone treats you discourteously, take the discussion off-line (out of the public eye). Resist the urge to seek revenge. Give the offender a chance to see what they've done, then offer to work with them to correct it. The key is to set boundaries while encouraging positive change -- not to aggravate the antagonism.

Bedour stresses that 'self-control and not losing your temper are key. You come across more authoritatively when you don't give in to your anger than if you resort to ranting.'

A few more helpful hints:
  • Don't send an e-mail or use the phone when a face toface visit is possible.
  • Preface your criticism with an observation about what someone has done well.
  • Speak to people as equals.
  • Don't hesitate to say please, thank you or I'm sorry.

In the final analysis, 'real etiquette is not about mindless or archaic ritual; it is about the quality and character of who we are,' says Hesselbein, author of Hesselbein on Leadership. How great it would be if we could each do our bit to follow Bedour's mission statement: to promote, support, and encourage civility, with a commitment to quality, integrity, and mutual respect.

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