Have we forgotten our manners at work?

I was recently sat next to someone in an office and I inadvertently observed a conference call they were hosting.  It made me cringe – clearly some people were late, or didn’t even arrive on the call, others seemed to be talking over their colleagues, and from my line of sight, it was clear that even though some had their screens on, they were doing other things whilst being on that call.  It wasn’t my call, but I felt aggrieved for the person who was running it.  How utterly rude these people were – and then I reflected on my own business behaviour and meeting etiquette and realised, maybe it’s time for us to remember that old adage, “manners maketh man”!

So what are the signs that someone is not displaying good business etiquette?  I’m as guilty as anyone else of procrastinating when it comes to replying to an unwelcome email or trying to get out of yet another conference call.

“Can we discuss this urgently?”

“Are you free for a call first thing?”

“Are you able to pull together a report before end of day?”

All day, every day, our boss, our colleagues and our teams make demands of us and our time.  More often than not, the amount expected exceeds the amount of capacity we have, so we develop “selective hearing.”  We decide what to prioritise, what to postpone and what to ignore.  It’s not the ideal way to handle situations, but it’s a learned (and universally accepted) coping mechanism.

Rather than face the hassle of going back and pointing out that you don’t have time today to complete that report, or that you really need to pick the kids up from school so don’t want to be in a meeting that will invariably make you late, you give a sense that every request will be actioned, every meeting attended and every wish granted.  You’ve turned into a miracle worker!

But this is unrealistic  – no-one can please everyone all the time.  So in reality, the miracle worker quickly turns into charlatan.  Not replying to an email chain, not attending a conference call, tapping away on your laptop to respond to someone else whilst in a meeting – it’s all horrid and rude behaviours.  It’s not the way you want to be, but it feels easier than trying to manage push-back on all the things people are asking of you!

Despite amazing advances in technology, decision making, discussion and dialoguer happen between people.  We need each other, we value each others’ skills and knowledge and we reach out to seek help.  For some, the clamour of voice seeking help is in itself a validation of their value (although it’s not the case.)  It’s impossible for anyone to deliver the perfect job without relying on others. When we commit to deadlines, agree to tasks or scope out strategies, we make assumptions about the availability, depth of knowledge and breadth of skills of those around us.  This is where things generally start to unravel.

Isn’t it better to take time earlier on in planning to engage with and consult colleague on their capacity and availability, on who else is expecting and demanding their time and what beyond the world of work is taking priority, especially on critical and complex tasks.  It’s shows good manners and respectfulness to talk to colleagues about their commitments before expecting them to make a commitment to you on the fly.  And by gaining their commitment, you’re much more likely to have them attend that important meeting or complete the report in time for the deadline.

OK, so that works going forward, but what should I do about the stuff I expect from people or people expect from me?  My advice is be honest – transparency may be uncomfortable up front, but it builds trust in the longer term.  By discussing why you don’t want to attend a meeting or why you cant hit a deadline is more likely to result in a mutually acceptable compromise.  Most people are throughly decent deep down.  Showing your colleagues some respect and having good manners will also get you out of the sticky situation when you are expecting something of them (but neglected to make them aware in advance.)

It’s all part of the behavioural shift that everyone needs to be involved in – it may not save the world tomorrow, but it will make your working environment that little bit more enjoyable!

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