Can a person be too polite?

June 21st, 2011

In a recent discussion with a director, he said that one of his managers is “too polite”. Now, I’m all for politeness yet I don’t think there’s any such thing as “too polite”. The issue is, rather, that the manager is just not assertive – he’s not too polite, he’s submissive or passive, for example:

  • when he says “Yes” when he should say “No”
  • when he waffles around the subject and won’t come directly to the point, for fear of upsetting a colleague
  • when he works an extra two hours, again, so he can triple check his work (yes, really)
  • when he re-does someone else’s work as they’ve gone home

Amongst the many training resources I’ve used for helping people develop their assertiveness skills, there’s a particular video. One character is asked to list his qualities and good points and he says he is “polite – there’s not enough politeness around these days”. He’s right … he’s also the submissive character who is struggling to be assertive AND polite.

You can be both though. I don’t think it’s impolite to say, No thanks, we don’t need your services. Isn’t it better than avoiding the call or the meeting or putting off the decision again and again? When you give information and direction to a colleague, you can be polite and assertive. When disagreeing with someone in a meeting or having to correct someone for poor work, there’s no reason to be rude or aggressive.

Behaving in an assertive manner IS something which people can learn and develop, whether they are currently “too polite” or aggressive. If people are used to doing things in a way which avoids conflict or just gets the job done without a fuss, they will need to think about why they do what they do as well as how to behave differently.

I’ve seen passive/submissive people take more control over the way they work and influence colleagues and managers in a positive way … and the work gets done more effectively and more efficiently. I’ve seen aggressive people simply stop some of their behaviours and listen to junior colleagues. In both cases, problems are identified, discussed and resolved before they impact on the deadlines and the costs.

I think you can be polite AND assertive. Don’t you?

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