Excessive politeness breeds poor quality work: What’s the point of praising people for incompetence?

Elena Shalneva
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There's no point saying "thankyou" for a mediocre job (Source: Getty)

I recently came across a taped phone call in which a Tory MP snaps “shut up” at her caseworker. At the time of its release, the call prompted widespread accusations of bullying, and the caseworker went to the media complaining about the lack of “sympathy” she had received from her boss. How mild-mannered and proper has the political world become since the right-wing commentator William Buckley threatened to “smash” the liberal writer Gore Vidal’s face in a live debate on American network ABC in 1968. Vidal did not even sue.

Growing up in the US and watching sitcoms about office life, I loved the directness and irreverence that they portrayed. When I got my first job in political campaigning in Washington, DC, I discovered that the reality was not far off. “Just get it done”, my boss would say, or “I am paying you to work, not fluff around”. The words “please” and “thank you” were used sparingly – after all, we were all paid to do a job – and mistakes were pointed out immediately and often bluntly.

Last year, I did several training sessions at a revered professional services firm: world-class consultants, third-world support. Before one such session, I watched an IT specialist struggle with the seemingly insurmountable task of connecting my laptop to a screen. “Keep trying”, I told him when he seemed ready to give up. “Please! Thank you!” added the firm’s HR professional pointedly. Why so nice? He had been at it for 20 minutes, visibly bored, indifferent, oblivious to the fact that my session would collapse if he did not make that screen work, and fast. Did anyone really expect me to be too polite to him at that point?

Incompetence breeds irritation. And contrary to what many HR manuals say, you do not always need to hide it, because sharp, pointed feedback often works as a good motivator. In the case of the IT specialist, his pace quickened after I snapped at him, he called for help, his colleagues came and miraculously produced just the right cable to make my screen work.

As another example, a small dolphin was washed on shore in my village in Spain on New Year’s Eve. A polite initial call to the council produced the response that the matter would be “looked into”. Eventual barking down the phone, however, resulted in a team of men in wetsuits being dispatched to push the dolphin back into the sea within two hours. (True story, by the way).

I recently saw a Gallup poll which found that only 13 per cent of employees are “engaged” in the office. In other words, a staggering 87 per cent stay in their chosen careers because of inertia or lack of other options. In this case, excessive politeness only breeds poor work and encourages people to stay in the wrong jobs. What’s the point of looking for a job that actually suits you if any lame, half-baked, mediocre piece of work that you produce is still greeted by a polite and meaningless “thank you”?

Respect at work has to be earned. The Tory MP’s caseworker seemed to belong to that unfortunate breed of employees who spend their time reading employment tribunal guidelines and taping conversations with their boss – as opposed to doing their job. In that phone call, she kept rambling about her legal “entitlements” at the time when her team was trying to win an election. “Shut up” was one of the nicer things to say to her under the circumstances.

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