Why Manners Matter at Work

Peter Drucker would applaud a recent initiative in Anaheim, Calif., aimed at training tourism industry workers to mind their manners around out-of-towners

For those of you who never bothered to pay attention to your mother, perhaps you'll listen to Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, instead.

This cheeky thought has crept into my head a couple of times in the last few weeks as I've noticed a run of stories about etiquette (or lack thereof) in the workplace. Most recently, there was the case study posted on this Web site (BusinessWeek.com, 8/12/08) about a worker who had to deal with a boorish boss.

And just a couple of weeks ago, I saw that officials in Anaheim, Calif.—home to Disneyland (DIS)—were set to hold classes for cabbies, hotel employees, and other service workers in town to ensure they act as knowledgeable and enthusiastic hosts for tourists, while also minding their p's and q's. The hope is that the lessons they learn—to be professional and gracious—will be noticed not only by visitors but by their colleagues, too. "We teach them that they're part of a team, and that what they do rubs off on the team," says Mickey Schaefer, president of Mickey Schaefer & Associates, the Tucson, Ariz., firm overseeing the training. "We've become such an informal society that we all tend to slip. We want to get back to the basics.… Your attitude, your cleanliness, your friendliness all matter."

Drucker, who recalled watching his grandmother confront a young thug on a Vienna streetcar in the early 1930s and lecture him about the virtue of good manners, would certainly agree. "Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization," Drucker wrote. "It is a law of nature that two moving bodies in contact with each other create friction. This is as true for human beings as it is for inanimate objects. Manners—simple things like saying 'please' and 'thank you' and knowing a person's name or asking after her family—enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not."

Day In and Day Out

As the last part of his comment makes clear, Drucker was never particularly sentimental about all this. He wasn't interested in fostering friendships; he was, as usual, trying to enhance performance.

"Warm feelings and pleasant words are meaningless, are indeed a false front for wretched attitudes, if there is no achievement in what is, after all, a work-focused and task-focused relationship," Drucker cautioned in The Effective Executive, his 1967 classic. "On the other hand, an occasional rough word will not disturb a relationship that produces results and accomplishments for all concerned."

Yet Drucker knew that, day in and day out, maintaining a sense of decorum is an important ingredient in any well-managed enterprise. "Bad manners," he said, "rub people raw; they do leave permanent scars."

Maybe even literally. Last month, the Joint Commission, an accreditation body for the U.S. health-care industry, ordered 15,000 hospitals, nursing homes, laboratories, and other facilities to implement standards that spell out what is considered "acceptable and unacceptable" personal conduct and to establish "a formal process" to manage things when the rules get broken.

"Health-care leaders and caregivers have known for years that intimidating and disruptive behaviors are a serious problem," the commission said. "Verbal outbursts, condescending attitudes, refusing to take part in assigned duties, and physical threats all create breakdowns in the teamwork, communication, and collaboration necessary to deliver patient care."

Civility is Crucial

It isn't just medical personnel that could stand a reminder of this. A study released last year, based on a survey of more than 54,000 employees from 179 organizations across Australia and New Zealand, found that one in five employees experiences an incident of bad manners at work once a month.

People who exclude co-workers from situations, interrupt them when they're speaking, make derogatory remarks, withhold information, and disparage others' ideas, can have "a large impact on employee engagement," Barbara Griffin, an organizational psychologist from the University of Western Sydney and the co-author of the study, said at the time it was released. In fact, she noted, this kind of atmosphere may well determine "whether you stay in an organization, speak positively about your job, or go that extra mile. It can also cause psychological distress and poor physical health."

As commonsensical as this may seem, many managers fail to grasp just how crucial civility is. "Bright people, especially young bright people, often do not understand this," Drucker wrote. "If analysis shows that someone's brilliant work fails again and again as soon as cooperation from others is required, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy—that is, a lack of manners."

People Skills Trump Talent

This, of course, undermines not only the organization but the individual. In his acclaimed book What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, executive coach (and fellow BusinessWeek.com columnist) Marshall Goldsmith points out that "people skills," more than smarts or technical talents, frequently "make the difference in how high you go" in your career.

Among the challenges in interpersonal behavior (BusinessWeek.com, 5/6/08) Goldsmith says many of us must strive to overcome: speaking when angry, being overly negative, making excuses, claiming undeserved credit, not listening well, and "failing to express gratitude—the most basic form of bad manners."

And with that, there is but one thing left to say: Thank you for reading.

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