You've seen it happen before. Everyone seems to be getting along fine in the office.  Weeks and months go by and the tension starts to build.  All of the sudden cracks in the team start to appear. Snarkiness ensues. Soon there is resentment, backbiting, and eventually utter chaos and hatred.  What happened?  How did this small dysfunction escalate into complete chaos?

There is one insipid answer: Quiet Politeness.

Quiet Politeness is often at the root of team and interpersonal communication destruction. I define Quiet Politeness as when you have something important to say to someone else and to be polite you simply hold back. Being quietly polite once or twice may not cause much damage. But when it goes on for a long period of time, no one benefits from the dishonesty. The niceness turns destructive.  It allows under-performers to keep underperforming. It allows the self centered to continue their selfish behavior. Left unchecked, resentment builds and civility ultimately explodes, destroying teams, productivity and office happiness.

It doesn't have to be this way.  Whether you are the leader or a member of the team, you can root out Quiet Politeness from your office with these easy tips.

1. Seek out the source. Would you know it if you heard it? Of course you would, because the place you can hear it is in your own head. You may not always know when someone is being disingenuous but you know when you are holding back what you really think. Start defeating this evil trend by sharing your observations instead of biting your tongue. Stand up for yourself and your team by saying what you think in positive and constructive ways, even when the news is hard to hear for others.

2. Establish permission to say what you think. Many people don't speak up because they think they will offend and don't want to impose their opinions on others. Build a healthy environment where people are open and honest in a productive way. Teach safe ways to provide constructive criticism and to debate without negative repercussions. Help your team understand that there is great value in healthy conflict. Start by getting everyone to agree that they are willing to receive honest feedback.

3. Create a requirement to be honest. Culture in a company either develops by design or default. If you truly want to create an honest and open environment, permission alone is not enough. Requirement is easy enough to establish. State clearly in your core values and policies that sequestering information will not be tolerated. In my own organization we have a core value of Bring it up. We state it clearly and often.  It is used in hiring, firing, praise and reprimand. Any team member who withholds information in our organization to the detriment of our team or goals will not stay on our team. No exceptions.

4. Encourage kindness over politeness. Can you hear your mother in your head saying it? If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. It's an adage that might work to get you through middle school on the playground or even through dinner with uncle Harry's bad comb over, but that saying will not serve you well in a high-performing team. But what is being nice? Is it lying to someone when you know they are wrong and headed for their own destruction and that of the team?  I think not. Worry less about being nice and focus on being kind. Kindly inform your teammates when they are going astray or creating issues. Better to surface the issues so they can be resolved than to let them fester and destroy.

5. Prioritize the bigger picture. Quiet Politeness almost always occurs when a person puts his or her own needs ahead of the group objectives. In my 20 years of experience in peer groups like EO Forum, it was usually a member protecting their own insecurities or fear of being disliked that would hold them back...only to disrupt the group within a few months. It's only when I see a team member diligently head forward with tact and awareness into a highly uncomfortable situation that I know for sure they are dedicated to the bigger picture.  And that is the person I will always choose to be on my team.

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Published on: Jan 21, 2014
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