Don’t be polite – be predictable

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 26th June 2017

As I drove to the office this morning, I was preparing to turn right into a side street from a main road. An oncoming car slowed and stopped to let me turn, even though they clearly had right of way, and had no reason to stop other than to be nice to me. ‘Ahh’, I hear you say. ‘How polite they are in the inner west of Sydney’. Even though they were just trying to be nice, the truth is this actually irritated me, and I suspect lots of other drivers too!

You see, we have rules of the road to create order, and to reduce the risk of accidents, crashes and death. And as nice and polite as those drivers were, they were breaking the agreed rules of the road, and causing confusion. I knew I did not have right of way, so was confused as to whether it was safe to turn. The cars travelling behind them did not understand what was happening, and probably did not expect the car in front to stop. Confusion reigned. I turned, but spent the next few minutes mumbling to myself about how people can’t seem to follow the agreed rules! Maybe it’s time for a holiday.

In our work, we should also have rules to avoid confusion and unproductive situations. These are often called protocols, but I prefer to call them agreements. I believe that to operate effectively as a team it is wise to create some agreements about how we work together. These agreements will be most useful when it comes to the areas that you tend to intersect most with others. Meetings, projects, delegations, conversations, emails and instant messaging are some common intersections.

A good example of how an agreement could help everyone work in a more productive way would be the classic ‘Thank You’ email. We all try to be polite and communicate our thanks when we receive certain emails, but often those emails may just cause more noise for the recipient. Often the recipient gets irritated by your polite kindness. But what if you don’t say thank you and they get offended? What to do?

Maybe have a conversation at your next team meeting and set some agreements about when a thank you is and is not needed. Could we agree that in normal circumstances we don’t need to say thanks, and then list some exceptions to that rule? Maybe a thank you would be warranted when receiving a critical document and you need to let them know it has arrived safely. Or when someone has gone above and beyond with a piece of work, and a thank you would communicate real appreciation. Sometimes teams use ‘codes’ in the subject line like ‘NRR’, which stands for ‘No response required’.  Establishing agreements like these form the ‘rules of the road’ for your team, and reduce frustration. People then know how to behave and what is expected. You become predictable, and that helps us all to work better together.

Give me predictability over politeness any day. Especially when I am driving to work!

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