Politeness is the key to positive workplaces

My daughter uses virtual assistants to help her with homework. Several times a week she can be heard shouting trivia questions into her device: “Hey Siri, spell onomatopoeia!” or “Hey Siri, what was the War of the Roses?”. I guess virtual assistants are pretty handy where homework is concerned.

But it is in our youth when many of our key norms in life are learned, and although these questions seem quite normal when speaking to a device, what would they sound like if asked of a human being? What’s the difference between “Spell onomatopoeia!” and “Please could you help me spell onomatopoeia?”. Will politeness continue to be important in our future, and is politeness in decline among humans?

Statista’s US survey determined that 74% of people think Americans are more rude today than 10 years ago. Similar results have been forthcoming from surveys in the UK, mostly conducted by newspapers and other media outlets. If it is emerging AI that is driving this — and that’s a big ‘if’ — then it will only get worse. By 2021, 1.8 billion people are expected to use virtual assistants, and the variety of tasks for which they will be used is expanding and becoming more varied.

Does this mean that the workplace will get progressively less polite? And should we be worried about this?

The dynamics of politeness

Although its norms and forms have changed a lot over the centuries, politeness has always been a part of how we interact as humans and an important part of how we teach our children about behavior norms. Students of linguistics may be familiar with Brown and Levinson’s Politeness Theory, which argues that politeness depends on three factors:

  • The relative power of the requestee over the requestor
  • The degree of imposition of the request
  • The ‘social distance’ between the requestor and requestee

When laid out in this way, you can see why politeness it getting a major shake up as technology is breaking down traditional concepts of power and social distance. Humans have 100% power and zero social distance when dealing with AI in one direction. However, as AI technology develops and looks to be more accepted as a replacement for human effort, there is a high level of incentive to design AI to be polite to humans (for example Google’s latest experiments with telephone reservations made by Duplex).

Might we be seeing a future where machines are more polite than their human designers?

Politeness in the workplace

Research indicates that politeness is declining substantially in the workplace. One report estimates that 96% of employees have experienced rudeness or incivility in the workplace, and 50% experience it at least once a week.

The effect is a damaging one. In particular, some great research done for a HBR article in 2013 concluded, among other things:

  • 78% of those who experienced a lack of civility in the workplace were less committed to their organization as a result
  • 66% said that their performance declined
  • 80% lost work time worrying about it

And for those that need to see a dollar figure, Cisco concluded in an internal study that lack of politeness in the workplace cost them about $12 million per year.

Politeness is a culture

A memorable exchange from one of my favourite TV shows, Mad Men, between creative director Don and loyal copywriter Peggy goes like this:

Don: It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.

Peggy: And you never say thank you.

Don: That’s what the money is for!

Pay packets are no replacement for politeness. Being polite is how we show genuine appreciation and respect for colleagues, their contributions and their opinions. It’s how we give thanks and praise. People remember genuine and sincere expressions much more than they remember a line on a payslip, and if those expressions are lacking over time, motivation will decline and people will wonder why they are working so hard.

Politeness is a culture we can influence in both a human and technological way. Technologically, AI can encourage people to be polite if it is designed in the right way. Currently, its all about efficiency, but it doesn’t have to be. Alexa can be programmed to require a ‘please’ before a command is executed. It could even be programmed to take longer to respond if prior commands are missing too many expressions of politeness.

But it’s also down to humans to model polite behavior. As a leader, it’s important to me to establish a polite culture by being polite myself. I find it easy because I do genuinely feel appreciation and thanks for the contributions of others, and so the only thing I need to make sure I do is verbalize this frequently. I hope it’s the same for you.

If politeness is under threat, then dealing with that threat is a matter of the choices we make in our work, our invention, and our behavior. The future of politeness is entirely under our control.

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