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Success in a recession: Don’t forget your manners

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Over the next few months, we will be featuring a series by Blaire Palmer, who examines HR’s role in managing the human factor during a recession. In the first instalment, she looks at how good manners deteriorate under pressure, why they are so important, and what HR can do to maintain high standards of behaviour.


It probably comes as no surprise to you that good manners in the workplace are as scarce as working flip chart pens. A recent survey by Canon found that 68% of people had been spoken down to at work, often leading to what the survey called ‘office rage’.

Technology may be partly to blame for the increase in rudeness at work. It is easier to be tough or terse in an email than face-to-face and we tend to forget our Ps and Qs because we assume email is a less formal means of communication.

When you add emotional pressure (due to something stressful like an M&A, an organisational restructure, or economic uncertainty) it is even more difficult to keep a cool head. We feel we do not have the energy to say ‘please’, compose a hand-written thank you note, or even smile.

“Good manners build bonds, open doors, boost egos and command respect”

However, in researching my new book on success I discovered that good manners were considered to be the most important quality in differentiating those who succeed from those who languish in middle management, or never make it off the starting block. Good manners build bonds, open doors, boost egos and command respect.

Good manners will also help you keep your job. Work by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo published in the Harvard Business Review shows that, while everyone prefers working with a personable superstar to an incompetent jerk, when people need help getting a job done, they will choose a congenial colleague over one who is more capable but less lovable.

Good manners also affect the business bottom line. A survey in Australia found that organisations with a high incidence of incivility had a high percentage of poor and inconsistent performers and this, of course, has an impact on results. At this time, no company can afford to have their most valuable asset being less than effective because of rudeness in the workplace. So, what responsibility do HR professionals have when it comes to good manners?

What are the obstacles to good manners?

One role HR can perform is identifying the processes and structures which make it hard for people to behave well with one another. I remember shadowing a team who seemed to have all the makings of a high-performing outfit but were not reaching their full potential. As I observed, I saw two colleagues becoming increasingly angry as they sent emails to one another, trying to resolve a conflict between them. Only a glass partition stood between them but the emailing went on for a good 10 minutes. Eventually one stormed in to the other’s cubicle, only to discover after a short conversation that there had been a misunderstanding and, in fact, both women agreed about the issue.

Rearranging desks so team members can spend time face-to-face rather than back-to-back, ensuring leaders are accessible to their direct reports, and fixing slow or faulty technology, can all reduce stress and improve energy levels which in turn enables individuals to be more considerate of each other.

Who sets the tone?

The leaders in your organisation create the climate. Around 50-70% of variance in organisational climate can be explained by the leadership style of the people at the top of your business (and this also explains up to 28% variance in financial results). The pressure on leaders now is huge. Many have not experienced a recession like this before and the style they have relied on for their career success up to now may not equip them to handle this extra pressure and the added needs of their people.

Your insights, feedback and support at this time are crucial. Leaders are likely to resort to a directive or pacesetting style rather than encouraging participation or coaching their team. Directive and pacesetting leadership can come across as blunt, mistrusting, impatient, thoughtless and dismissive, when what is really needed is consideration, engagement, a sense of working together towards a common goal and appreciation.

Are you living by the corporate values?

Your company probably has, tucked away, a set of values to guide behaviour. Bad manners almost certainly contravene these. Now is the time to dust off those value statements and re-enthuse staff around them. Going the extra mile to live and breathe these values is an important success ingredient.

Corporate citizenship can mean getting leaders to walk the floor more often, encouraging attendance at company outings, rolling up your sleeves and mucking in.

“Look for ways to encourage corporate citizenship and get passionate about holding yourselves to higher standards of behaviour. This pays off in staff loyalty, motivation and focus”

Look for ways to encourage corporate citizenship and get passionate about holding yourselves to higher standards of behaviour. This pays off in staff loyalty, motivation and focus. It also translates in to better customer service and relationships with suppliers, all of which are crucial right now.

Do your people know what good manners mean?

In my research, I discovered that something important may have been lost by our spiral into a casual work culture. It is now acceptable to wear jeans in many workplaces and, of course, we refer to most people by their first name – colleagues, clients, suppliers alike. It occurs to me that rather than a ‘dress down’ day, we really should be encouraging ‘dress up’ days during which we take pleasure in reviving some of the ‘old-fashioned’ mannerisms that used to be the norm.

Good etiquette requires us to introduce the more senior person to the more junior person, using their surnames of course. It also demands hand-written thank you notes and remembering significant facts about those we work with.

In the race to become pals we may have actually forgotten how it feels to receive a personal note from a boss, to be introduced properly, to dress exquisitely.

This may seem over the top and your business may not be ready for some kind of etiquette training. But if you consider the cost to your business of poor performance due to office rage, and the lost opportunity to build strong, committed working relationships, you may consider reviving the lost art of good manners a challenge worth embracing.


Blaire Palmer is an author and executive coach for senior leaders in some of the UK’s best known companies. Her book, ‘The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too’, is published in May 2009 by A&C Black. Her blog is at: www.letsbesuccessfulagain.com

3 Responses

  1. We Do What We Say We Will
    Would you arrange to meet friends at a restaurant and then not bother to show up?
    Would you book a hotel room and then not bother to check in?
    Would you agree to help a friend and then do nothing?

    Absolutely not! I can hear the indignation in your reply. Me? Behave like that? No way, it’s just not cricket/acceptable/the right thing to do (choose your favourite outburst ending). Quite apart from anything else, if we were to behave like this then a) we’d soon have no friends and b) we’d be out of pocket to boot. Unless it was a real emergency, (in which case we would make every effort to at least inform our friends), we just wouldn’t do it.

    That’s settled then. Oh, but hang on, wait a minute…

    Would you accept an invite to a meeting or call and then not bother to show up?
    Would you book a meeting room and then not bother to use it?
    Would you take an action in a meeting and then not bother to follow it up?

    Errrmm. Well….you see I had every intention of doing the right thing but….something more important came up.

    Can you imagine what we could achieve if we kept our hearts and minds with us at work instead of checking them in at security as we enter the workplace?

    Read more about this here:

    http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.wordpress.com/2009/02/04/we-do-what-we-say-we-will/

  2. Role models
    I supect the problem is that people treat people as they are treated, so the top of the organisation and its environment are what influence style and people forget how they would like to be treated

  3. Recognise the culture in change
    I was chatting with a lady who is now part of a recently merged ( from a takeover) organisation. She expressed her anger at the way the new manager ( from the company that took them over) was with her team saying that everybody realised that it would take time to get used to each other but in her view this manager was just plain rude. It sounds like the people she worked with before had a strong sense of what Blaire talks about as good manners and how the new manager behaves is at odds with that. It is clear though that she is hostile to the merger( which is probably not surprising). It hopefully is also clear to the manager that some sensitivity would be helpful at this time – but they are likely to be challenged to get the job done in trying times. I expect that some sort of new corporate culture will evolve over time and this is a time for leaders to show the way.

    But, for me, the bottom line – in the workplace, as in life – is always to be with others as you would like treated yourself.

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