One of the biggest barriers to effective work in organisations is politeness.

We tiptoe around, trying not to offend those we work with even, or particularly when they have stuffed up or been impolite to us.

I fell into the trap recently.

I had a four-week stint filling in for a teacher on leave. I had just marked the roll for my Year 7 Science class and was beginning to give them instructions on how to complete the day’s practical exercise. I hadn’t led this particular activity before but had read up on it and thought I was prepared as I could be.

At that point, one of the regular Year 7 Science teachers* came into the room and said, “I’m just here to observe.” I actually didn’t know she was one of the Science teachers, as I hadn’t previously met her and she didn’t introduce herself.

Anyway, I started the lesson and projected the lesson plan instructions on the board. I was immediately put off as the most important instructions were not included in the plan I had in front of me. This made me anxious, and this wasn’t helped by the presence of an observer. I tried to explain the best I could and told the students to start the exercise.

Not long after they had started, the other teacher announced to the class that she had just emailed the detailed instructions to them. On reflection, this was downright rude and unprofessional on her part. Regardless we carried on, and the students completed the task. At the end of the lesson, my colleague left the room without speaking to me.

Being only a short-term replacement in the school and following my pattern of avoiding conflict, I didn’t follow up. If I were advising myself, I would have suggested speaking to my colleague and telling her how I felt about what happened and that I felt she was rude and unprofessional. But that’s not what I did. In so doing, I missed an opportunity to make the other person aware of the effect she had on me and perhaps discuss a personality trait of hers that potentially affected others. As well as that, having a discussion with her may have unearthed some more general unhealthy pockets of culture in the school.

Being polite often means we fail to deal with some fundamental issues within our organisation. A colleague of mine described this as leaving ‘bumps in the carpet’ that we continually trip over.

Being polite causes problems in many different areas.

The story above describes a colleague-to-colleague interaction.

It is also prevalent when a leader needs to manage a team member’s performance. Instead of addressing the performance issue directly, the leader either skirts around it with weasel words that obscure the message or allows the underperformance to continue. (Of course, there are many non-polite ways of addressing the issue which are often used, but that’s a subject for another day.) In either case, the opportunity to deepen the relationship and affect significant change is missed.

*I later found out this teacher sat only a few desks away from me in the staffroom. Apart from the interaction here, she did not speak with me once in the four weeks I was at the school.