Leaders: What Ever Happened to Excuse Me?


What happened to polite people? It seems that over the years, people have continuously treated people worse. Rudeness and incivility affect people in a deeper level, and especially affect their performance in the workplace.

A recent incident of “over-the-top rudeness” made me relate rudeness and incivility to not only strangers in public, but between coworkers.

As I stepped off he train, the large man in front of me stepped passed an elderly lady and knocked her down. He not only did not say “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry;” but continued to bump into folks on his way to exiting the train station.

Unfortunately, this type of treatment is becoming more common between people in the workplace.

Rudeness on the Rise

In meetings that I was in the previous day, the rude act of “simply knocking down a person” might have been polite in comparison to what I experienced.

The meetings were contentious, but not because of the topics we were dealing with. They were obnoxious because everyone was trying to get their point out and were unwilling to listen to their counterparts suggestions.

It made me wonder this:

  • Is this normal now?
  • What does our lack of common courtesy cost us?
  • Why are people acting this way?

What I found was shocking…

Workplace Incivility

Workplace incivility is so common that we often don’t even notice it. Recent research found that 1 in 5 people in their sample claimed to be targets of incivility from a coworker at least once a week.

About 2/3 said they witnessed incivility happening among other employees at least once a month. 10% said they saw incivility among their coworkers every day.

What’s more, it’s not unique to the America.

Authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath in their book “The Cost of Bad Behavior” discovered that 50% of Canadians in their study also reported suffering from incivility directly from their coworkers at least once a week.

99% said that they witnessed incivility at work and 25% reported seeing incivility occurring between coworkers daily.

Politeness and Performance

Rudeness and incivility at work have a huge effect on performance, according to a Harvard Business Review study. In response to rudeness at work:

  • 48% of employees decreased their work effort
  • 47% decreased their time at work
  • 38% decreased their work quality
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 63% lost time avoiding the offender
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

It even affects team performance:

  • Team mates always guarded and ready to fight.
  • Employees not trusting and unwilling to do more than “exactly what we are told”

Meetings that don’t go any where – because there is not much on the way of decorum people won’t try to have real conversations and therefore most group interactions will turn into monologues

Combatting Rudeness

1. Start being more polite yourself

  • Have a filter – being polite does not mean don’t tell the truth. It means think about how to say seething so that you honor the listener’s sensibilities
  • Respond to rudeness with super politeness. I learned this from my British coworkers. They diffused anger and made aggressors feel stupid by responding to anger or aggression with being polite. It’s hard to be a jerk to someone when they are treating you with respect.
  • Live by the platinum rule. It’s one level above gold. Be better to people than they would be to you. Yes, in the near term you may not reap the benefits but in the long run it will pay dividend to you and make it safe for people around you to go above and beyond without expectations as a normal course of business.

2. Acknowledge there is a problem on the team with rudeness.

Make sure to let folks know that you play a part in it.

  • Let your team know that being rude or “passive aggressive” isn’t okay any more.
  • Create ground rules for discussions that include being civil
  • Don’t let people get away with being inappropriate in groups

When someone says something snide, snarky or just rude, call them on it. For some reason people think it makes them look cool or smart to be über cynical and make others look bad. Let them know that is not “cool”. You’ll see immediate increases in brainstorming and innovation when people don’t have to worry about being cut down in public.

3. Don’t confuse politeness with weakness

  • Being polite doesn’t mean that you must acquiesce to the will of those around you. Make sure that you express your opinions and stand your ground but in a way that encourages dialogue.
  • Remember, you can be firm and polite.

4. Carry this out to customers, colleagues, vendors and everyone

  • Treating your vendors with respect and courtesy will ensure that they will be more apt to respond to emergencies, work with you when you need to cut the budget and partner with you.
  • When you treat others with respect you get a reputation as someone who is easy to work with and..wait for it…more people want to work with you.

Even if this doesn’t earn you 100% more business, it’ll make working that much more pleasurable! After all, we spend over 80% of our adult lives at work, it should be more pleasurable. So don’t be fooled, being civil can have real benefits to the organization’s productivity and profitability.

Have you noticed growing issues with politeness/professionalism? What would/should you do about it?


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Anil Saxena
 is a President & Senior Consultant Cube 214 Consulting
He helps organizations create environments that generate repeatable superior results
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | (847) 212-0701

Image Sources:socialprimer.com

8 responses to “Leaders: What Ever Happened to Excuse Me?

  1. Excellent article. I once wrote a paper in a masters level class on being polite in the workplace – much to the point of this article. My spouse and the professor made fun of the topic at the time. I’m glad to see attention being paid to an issue that impacts productivity more than people realize. I think to some degree its part of what Daniel Goleman talks about in addressing emotional intelligence, and what Marshall Goldsmith addresses in “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”.


    • Thanks Tim! It seems like such a simple thing, but being civil allows people the freedom to speak in groups. It just makes everyone more productive


  2. Totally agree. Lately I’ve been thinking about whether there is a difference regarding this in different genders and in generations. Am I, at age 52, courteous and respectful in the workplace and elsewhere, and have I passed that onto my Gen Y children? I hope so! Especially as they enter the professional workplace.


  3. Great article. Rudeness is becoming engrained in our culture. Drivers who unsafely squeeze between cars going 70 MPH when there isn’t enough space. The corporate trend I have seen is that it permeates at the top, not just with the new generation. With Baby Boomers not retiring, many companies are extremely top heavy. Employees aren’t getting where they thought they would be. Middle and upper management are all about “survival of the fittest”. And in that tribal need to advance, we’ve lost simple manners and common courtesy as human beings and bad bevhavior breeds more bad behavior as a survival tactic. I love your 4 suggestions. I think it goes back to fundamentals. Treat others how you want to be treated. Thanks for great insights Anil!


    • Appreciate the comment Cheryl. The shocking thing is that if we don’t start to focus on treating each other civilly then we will start to really impact productivity (although I think it has already started to impact it). In the words of Rodney King – Can’t we all just get along?


  4. Ditto on the comments so far Anil, great article. As an OD practitioner I often apply tools and techniques to minimize behaviors that hinder the development of trust and teamwork. Rudeness and incivility are common and destructive.

    I find that time and time again, those who like to be rude and mock others are quick to label my efforts as being a bunch of non-sense. They belittle those who have an issue with their mockery and verbal attacks and think of them as weak. Many times these rude staff members are seen as bullies by others.

    It is amazing how difficult it is to stop work incivility. Thank you for sharing great information on the detrimental effects incivility has on performance. Very helpful indeed!



  5. Pingback: On Leadership, Skepticism and Cynicism « Linked 2 Leadership·

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