Written byTy Kiisel
In May of 1940, Neville Chamberlain was removed as Great Britain’s Prime Minister for failure to respond to the threat of war from Germany. As the newly appointed Prime Minister, his first address before Parliament is where Winston Churchill famously said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
However, the reason I mention Churchill is not to discuss his ability to rally England to repel a potential German invasion, but to acknowledge his graciousness and generosity of spirit to a formal rival at his passing. I believe it would have been very easy for Churchill to bash and otherwise castigate Chamberlain for his inaction, however he realized that doing so would do nothing to advance the cause of freedom and would only tarnish the name of the former Prime Minister and cheapen his own.
Instead, I’d like to share some of what he said at Chamberlain’s funeral: “It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? … They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace … Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to the lights that strove to the utmost capacity and authority … to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.”
A colleague and I were talking about professionalism in the workplace a few days ago. He expressed to me some of what he identified as the “rules” of professionalism and how they can increase office moral and productivity. Most of them are common sense and were taught to me by my mother:
- Don’t take what isn’t yours
- Always speak the truth
- Don’t take advantage of the generosity of others
- Be prompt
- Be polite
- Don’t dress like a slob
- Remember that you always represent our family
I’m sure it doesn’t take too much to see how these few basic “rules” could make a difference in the workplace. I have always tried to remember them when interacting with my colleagues (sometimes more successfully than others). I have often wondered, over the course of the last thirty or so years of my career why it is that crude confrontation and a lack of common courtesy seems to often trump being courteous within organizations. I agree with Emerson when he wrote, “There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be only to boil an egg. Manners are the happy way of doing things.”
We work in an age of instant messaging, email, social media and other almost instantaneous communication. The tone of our communications with each other is even more important than the method we use as we try to create a productive environment where people freely collaborate with each other to innovate and create. We should not let the immediacy of the medium allow us to become callous and casual in how we approach our co-workers and colleagues, even when problems arise and mistakes are made.
Even in today’s workplace, there is a place for common courtesy.
My career started before the advent of many of the communication technologies that we take for granted today. Let me share a few of the things I learned early in my career at a typewriter and in conversation with my associates:
1. Take time to make communication thoughtful and cordial: When timelines are truncated and people are asked to do more and more with less and less, take an extra few seconds when writing an email or other communique to consider that your communication is going to a person. I like to begin every email with a salutation, which reminds me that I am writing to someone. The extra two or three seconds it takes me to address the person I’m writing to doesn’t negatively impact my productivity, but it does help me foster a productive and cordial working relationship.
2. Take time to be polite: Things don’t always go smoothly when we’re trying to get things done. Sometimes difficult decisions must be made—but that doesn’t mean that we can throw civility out the window. In the thirty plus years of my professional career I have 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 correcting, regardless of how stupid you think they are or how big a mistake you think they made. 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” was never “constructive”. I don’t think I have ever worked with a project team that agreed all the time. Leading people and organizations involves a lot of creative problem solving, which means that it is seldom done right the first time. Fostering a creative environment where people are creatively solving problems and pushing for excellence requires collaboration, not criticism. Where disagreements arise or a course change 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.”
Effective communication and collaboration doesn’t rely on tricks or gimmicks. In my opinion, it’s important to remember that effective communication is personal. It doesn’t really matter if it’s face to face, via email or even social media—it’s one person interacting with another.
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.”