Is Politeness Killing Your Profits?
By Don Schmincke and Darryl McCormick
missed deadlines and mistakes-revealed-too-late have sucked profits
out of your company? Does dysfunctional behavior, infighting, and
politics sap your organization’s vitality daily? Sure, you’ve hired
the best consultants and trainers to address the problems, but for
some strange reason they seem to resurrect themselves only months
later; their chronic nature mystifying. If this sounds like your
organization, you may be experiencing the common, yet unspeakable,
threat that secretly sacrifices performance and profits in thousands
of companies worldwide.
threat resides in your organization’s culture, and seduces managers
to treat symptoms while avoiding the real problems, to confuse
activity with results, and to burn cash faster than you can handle.
It’s an unspeakable threat because it wouldn’t be polite to mention
it. And in that fact it reveals itself – a culture of politeness.
cultures do everything but tell the truth, unless it’s very
comfortable to do so. But being polite is a good thing, isn’t it?
After studying its effect in hundreds of companies one thing becomes
clear: Politeness eats truth; lack of truth eats profits.
you know if this threatens your company? Easy. Is being “nice” more
important than performing? Rather than reveal the truth about a
situation do people often seek to be polite, thus avoiding the
possible discomfort, anger, retribution, and other unpleasantries?
Do employees hide and deny uncomfortable issues, burying them within
closed groups hoping they will go away?
you’re not in denial, there is a way out. Performance accelerates
tremendously when people move past deceptions and verbalize real
concerns, which can finally be addressed and moved out of the way.
Yes, initially telling the truth will upset people and cause
discomfort, but good employees love it and it drives accountability
to new levels.
collateral damage from keeping the truth at unspeakable levels can
Weight: Dead weight in management prevents great people from
assuming leadership, and keeps mediocre performers on staff. But
politeness ensures policies are in place that actually prevent
marginal performers from being let go. For example, a company may
require five written warnings before someone can even be terminated.
Or when a manager wants to fire someone and HR checks the employee’s
file they find that the manager gave the employee stellar reviews.
When asked why, the manager often replies, “I didn’t want to hurt
the employee’s feelings.”
course hurting feelings isn’t polite, but neither is avoiding
accountability. So, look at your policies and work to create fair
systems, which enable you to effectively deal with the dead weight
that stalls performance. Then train your managers on how to use the
new policies and be authentic with their staff. Once you start
removing dead weight, employees will be happier. Great people want
to work with great people, and to know that management notices what
Phantom Leadership: Who are the real leaders your people follow?
Many programs get stalled because the managers on the organizational
chart aren’t who the employees are following. That’s right…people
are following phantom leaders! The formal leadership declares an
initiative but the phantom leadership is who the people really
What if you cultivated the right talent by identifying the real
champions in your company—those people who can really lead? These
champions don’t have to be technically competent but should be able
to inspire others to follow them towards where the organization
wants to go. Does your company know how to select those leaders, and
do they invest the time and money to train them with the appropriate
leadership skills? Companies who ignore phantom leadership get
Doomed Projects: One study found that over half of employees
surveyed felt they were involved with a doomed project. Sounds like
a Dilbert comic, but unfortunately it’s true. Of course, there are
some projects which may appear doomed, but from a bigger picture
they make sense. The problem is, with a culture of politeness you’ll
never find out. Are you capable of uncovering the really doomed
Dissatisfied Customers: I left a hotel once and informed the
desk clerk that there was a problem with the kitchen staff regarding
room service. She looked shocked, not about the poor service but
that I would be so impolite as to mention it. I suggested that she
may want to mention it to management as I left. I knew she wouldn’t.
It wouldn’t be polite. Does politeness stop invaluable
reconnaissance of customer satisfaction data in your company? Are
your employees empowered to surface customer issues without fear of
retaliation, or appearing rude? Do you have a system in place for
dealing with customer complaints?
Management Teams: How much are your executives getting sucked
into operations? If too much, they you can be sure they have a weak
management team under them. Is anyone brave enough to mention this
or to hear it about themselves? Sure, getting into operations is
acceptable in small companies, turn-arounds, acquisitions, and
emergencies but, unfortunately, executives get sucked into
operations far too long; but at least everyone is polite in not
leaders find the weak links in their team and address the issue.
Perhaps the employee is in the wrong job, or the wrong company. Like
the saying goes, you either change people or you change people.
Started: Performance trumps politeness every time. This doesn’t
mean that people have to be rude. But it does mean that respectful,
authentic admission of the truth should not be sacrificed because of
a culture of politeness.
companies have a habit of getting used to doing things differently,
even if the changes are discomforting. To drive profits higher, seek
to speak the unspeakable. Strive to encourage authentic and honest
communication in your staff. Unless, of course, it might be too
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