Leadership lesson: What does it cost to be courteous?

  • Published: Monday, Aug. 3, 2020

Since the beginning of civilized society, it has been understood that being polite, courteous and respectful to others is required for a healthy culture. Yet, perhaps we need reminding.

Courtesy is defined as: Excellence of manners or social conduct; polite behavior. Too often, our current culture does not recognize the role these attributes play for a meaningful life and a healthy society.

Are common courtesies and good manners becoming a thing of the past? Several national surveys indicate that is the trend, with many negative impacts. In the workplace? It’s bad for business. In communities? It’s bad for relationships. In our personal life? It’s counter-productive to personal joy and satisfaction, and to healthy personal connections.

Leadership gurus and writers convey that remaining calm and courteous in the midst of pressures, anxiety, and conflict is the hallmark of a great leader. A quote by Joseph Wirthlin states it well: “The true greatness of a person is evident in the way he or she treats those with whom courtesy and kindness are not required.”

Good manners and courtesy will always be remembered by others. People may forget everything about us, including the words we said, but not how we made them feel at a certain point of time. Every leader should realize that few things produce a greater return on investment than being well mannered and treating others courteously.

A national study on characteristics needed for success in business revealed that a culture of courtesy was near the top of the list. Employees who worked in a nurturing environment were more courteous and helpful to their customers and fellow employees. In the most successful organizations, there was no tolerance whatsoever for discourteous behavior.

Another study in the Journal of Applied Psychology warned that everyday impoliteness, when left unchecked, spreads throughout the work environment. “We are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” the author stated. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.” Putting up with a lack of courtesy and bad manners was shown to lead to low performance from other-wise good performing employees, missed time, increased turnover and difficulty in recruiting new talent as an organization earns the reputation of having a negative work environment. The damage done to an organization by allowing discourteous behavior was shown to be severe and lasting.

The cost of being courteous is relatively minor. It does not take much effort to be nice, kind, and polite. Employee training tips from some of the most successful U.S. companies contain recommendations that most of us learned in Kindergarten:

  1. Show respect for others. A culture of respect in the workplace reduces harassment, favoritism, and bullying. Relationship building, mutual respect and trust become the foundation for quality work.
  2. Speak courteous and kind words to all you come in contact with. Use “please” and “thank you”, “you are welcome” and “excuse me”.  Write thank you notes, or follow up with a call, e-mail or text to show gratitude. The vocabulary of every leader should be filled with affirmations and encouraging words. Use them often. Be sincere. A kind word can make all the difference in someone’s day and life.
  3. When handling conflict, never raise your voice. Uncivil behavior does not generate greater influence no matter how loud you are. Remain calm and respectful in every situation. Watch your tone. Do not interrupt. Apologize when you mess up. Never embarrass another person by your words. Avoid gossip.
  4. Respond in a timely way to e-mails, calls, and those who speak to you. Nothing screams “you don’t matter” any louder than the silence of being ignored.
  5. Learn when not to speak. There is a time to hold our tongue and remain silent. Silence, at times, is the most courteous thing you can do. It will also allow opportunity to genuinely listen to others’ opinions.
  6. Show empathy for others. Think about the other person. Try to put yourself in their place.
  7. Stop being easily offended. Let things go. Extending courtesies when one feels hurt can be challenging, but one of the wisest things you can do is to learn how to forgive and move on. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.
  8. Bottom line: Treat others as we would like to be treated.

What if courtesy does not come naturally to us? How does one learn to be courteous? There is no manual that addresses every possible situation we will face in life. But, it’s not about rules. It’s about relationships. In each situation, we do have the opportunity to make a choice. Will we place the needs of another above our own, or will we ask “What’s in it for me?” Whichever action we chose will define our character and influence others to behave likewise.

Community development specialists with MU Extension help people create communities of the future by tapping into local strengths and university resources. The Community Development Program works collaboratively with communities to foster economic development, leadership development, community decision making, community emergency preparedness and inclusive communities. For more information, contact any of these MU Extension community development specialists working in southwest Missouri: Pam Duitsman in Christian County, (417) 581-3558; David Burton in Greene County, (417) 881-8909 or Maria E. Rodriguez-Alcalá in Jasper County at (417) 358-2158.

University of Missouri Extension programs focus on the high-priority needs of Missourians to improve lives, communities and economies by providing relevant, responsive and reliable educational solutions. MU Extension programs are open to all. More information is available online at https://extension.missouri.edu.

Writer: Pamela Duitsman

Related Program


Pamela Duitsman

Use Tab key to loop through the section below. Press Enter or Space to enter content for each tab button. Press Esc key to exit and to go to the next section at any time.

Extension resources