The practice of courtesy is an effective antidote to the stresses of organizational life

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Hamburger Management—the curse of all ultra-macho organizations—has no time for politeness or courtesy. In the faster, cheaper world of “winner takes all,” it’s fine to tell lies (called “spin”), deceive others (called PR), and bluff or cheat your way to success (called office politics). But taking the time to deal politely with others is classed as a pointless waste of effort that doesn’t add to the “bottom line.”

This is yet another foolish, short-sighted mistake of that most mistaken of management techniques.

Courtesy and good manners exist as the “oil” that helps all kinds of contacts run without unnecessary friction or wear. It was assumed once to be the distinguishing mark of a civilized society — which may explain why today it is becoming rare.

It’s a bad mistake to see good manners as nothing more than empty rituals of a more formal way of living. Informality and courtesy are perfectly happy bedfellows. What distinguishes courtesy is not formal ritual but a natural concern for the other person—a wish to interact with them in a way that preserves or enhances their dignity and sense of well-being. You can do that and still be as relaxed and informal as you wish.

Helping life run smoothly
I called courtesy and good manners the “oil” in human relationships, at home or at work. It’s a particularly apt analogy.

If you try to run a piece of machinery without lubrication, you will ruin it. Before final burnout and total seizure of all moving parts, there will be a great deal of heat, considerable wear and damage, and the spaces between surfaces will be filled with all kind of fragments and grit.

An organization without sufficient attention to simple courtesy suffers in much the same way.

A great deal of heat, hostility, aggression, and anger is generated rather quickly. As people rub up against each other, they cause irreparable damage and “wear”, twisting each other out of shape and distorting attitudes. All the minor, inevitable irritants of human life—the “grit” that would have been smoothed away by the lubrications of courtesy—build up until they scour relationships with pain and frustration.

Over time, more and more energy and effort has to be expended to keep the social machinery moving at all—an expenditure of energy that would be entirely unnecessary in a more civilized environment. Small sections probably burn out and stop working. People are permanently damaged. The atmosphere is thick with the smell of tension and friction.

There’s no excuse for such a situation—certainly not the one that goes: “business is about making money, not pandering to people’s feelings.” We all know perfectly well what to do. Organizations may resemble machines in many ways, but they aren’t only machines. They’re also complex human societies, with all the strengths and problems that brings.

Returning to civilized modes of working isn’t being weak or non-competitive. It isn’t based on ignoring financial and commercial realities in favor of “touchy-feely” idealism. It’s a hard-headed response to seeing the amount of waste and damage being inflicted by callous approaches to coping with organizational reality and doing something about it.

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