Monday, 5 September 2011

ON POLITENESS IN THE WORKPLACE


“I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I find it repellent to have a lot, and to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word - politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit.” - Fran Lebowitz

I was rather incensed at work today with one of the contract staff that occasionally comes in and teaches for us. She is very experienced, knowledgeable and a teacher that usually gets quite good feedback from her students. However, other staff members have sometimes raised concerns about her approach and manner. Apparently she can be opinionated and overbearing and is very forthright with her views. Today I had the opportunity to see her in action and I was able to find out for myself that her manner was quite abrupt and dismissive, and what really annoyed me were her constant interruptions and interjections to the discussion and the very impolite way in which she talked over other people who were speaking. In the end I was unable to control myself any further and laid down the law. I warned her that if she continued acting in this way she would be ejected from the meeting (to which she was only an invited guest) and if she wanted to contribute to the discussion she was welcome to, but would have to do so only via the chair’s permission (i.e. mine).

Her surprised reaction was amusing as it was quite physical. She started back and her chair dragged back on the floor, while her arms were thrown back momentarily. She went to say something, but her mouth gaped and finally closed without uttering a word. The looks of exasperation on everyone’s face were replaced with relief and a little smile here and there. The disruptive teacher shut up and from then on glared at everyone with an extremely sour look on her face, while occasionally I could feel the daggers emanating from her eyes and heading in my direction. Needless to say the meeting progressed without a hitch after that, however, I had another surprise up my sleeve. At one point in the discussion a matter came up which was squarely within her expertise. After I invited some general comments and everyone except her had their say (she was still sulking), I invited her specifically to comment by asking her a leading question in my sweetest voice and with my broadest smile, intimating she was the best qualified person to answer. Another shocked look at me was soon replaced by a smile and she started to talk passionately about the matter at hand, knowledgeably, with a well-considered argument and offering useful advice. Everyone around the meeting table was attentive and appreciative, listening quietly without interruptions. When I invited questions, a couple were asked, which she answered well. I thanked her for her input and proceeded with the next item on the agenda. As the matter was being discussed, she piped up and in her inimitable style proceeded to talk over someone else. I raised my hand and looked at her with a steely eye. She wilted back into her chair and I said “thank you”. The meeting progressed without incident after that.

The meetings that I attend, whether as an ordinary member or chair, have fellow members that are mostly reticent, thoughtful, polite and measured in their approaches. Very few are more vociferous, taking charge and moving things forward quickly and more energetically. These are all legitimate approaches to running a meeting, and any one of them can work well for the benefit of the whole. As my example indicates, however, when one committee member’s personality or approach to the job is such that can throw a wrench into the whole system, then trouble begins. These are the people who try to dominate a meeting, try to push their own agendas no matter what the cost, and try to bully the other meeting members into seeing things their way.

A lack of practical experience and knowledge can cause disruption on the committee as people lobby back and forth on different issues. One person might think they know better than another, but if there is no basis in fact for that belief, troubles can arise.  It’s equally disruptive when a member starts to focus on his or her personal agenda versus the committee’s official agenda. In this particular instance that I have related, I was told afterwards that this teacher’s secret agenda was to impress me so that I would consider her for a permanent appointment in the near future. I was not impressed and her outbursts had decidedly the opposite effect. I dislike rude people and go out of my way to stamp out aggressive and impolite behaviour in the workplace. A team helps each of its members and graciously accepts the help they offer when the need arises. We should be civilised in our interactions and politeness with consideration of others is a non-negotiable desideratum. The workplace is somewhere we spend an enormous proportion of our lives and things there should be as pleasant as possible for everyone.

Controlling disruptive members of committees can be done by an effective chair who needs to to regain and then ensure strict, by-the-book conduct of all meetings. Meetings should be run very precisely – if possible Robert’s Rules of Order should be followed, and the meeting should stay with the heart of compliance and procedure. It’s in the absence of structure that those exasperating and aggressive voices try to fill the vacuum. Robert’s Rules were created for a reason. They allow the weaker members of a group to have a voice along with every other member. And that’s important in an organisation that relies upon the intellectual contribution of each and every person on its committees.

3 comments:

  1. I really dislike people who are impolite and hijack meetings like that... Good that you brought her to order Nic!!!

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  2. Hear, hear! I wish more meeting chairpersons would act like you describe!

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