Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Discourtesy and Contention At Work: Describe it Correctly

The most pervasively negative
workplace behavior:
Discourtesy and Contention

It is trendy to call obnoxious people bullies, to to describe unpleasant supervisors as toxic. However, there are less dramatic ways to discuss behavior that should be corrected–then, correct it. 

The behavior I consider the most problematic in workplaces is behavior that is:
Impolite, unmannerly and rude
Pestering, stress producing and disruptive 
Devious, unfriendly and undermining
Obnoxious, offensive and irritating 
Argumentative, uncooperative and self-serving
Tormenting, sniping or purposefully hurtful

Any of those behaviors could be described as discourteous.  If they are unrelenting, frequent, habitual, regular or pervasive, they more likely fit the description of being contentious–part of a long-term conflict or frequent behavior that a reasonable person would consider unpleasant, disrespectful or uncivil to others. 

Those two terms–discourtesy and contention–are not so dramatic sounding as some of the other terms that might be used, but I think they are more apt because they:
• Are less emotion-laden and offensive than bully, toxic or evil
• Describe behavior instead of labeling a person. 
• More clearly describes the reality of workplace communication problems.
• Do not automatically place people in the roles of aggressors and victims. 
• Provide supervisors and coworkers with acceptable terms for documenting complaints.  

However, do not doubt that discourtesy and contention can take a terrible toll on employees and the workplace.

Be on the look-out for these examples of discourteous and contentious behavior: 
*Facial expressions and gestures that are rude, mocking or demeaning.
*Purposely not smiling or responding to attempts to be appropriately friendly. Stone face.
*Using email to escalate a conflict or make someone look badly by forwarding or copying messages unnecessarily.
*Mocking, smirking, eye-rolling, smothered laughter or looking at others when someone else talks.
*Practical jokes that disrupt the work of others or create stress for them.
*Refusing to assist or pretending to not notice that assistance is needed.
*Using a tone of voice that is snippy, irritated sounding, hostile, contemptuous or sarcastic.
*Confronting people about a conflict in an excessively aggressive manner.
*Accusations, excessive emotionalism.
*Finding fault; excessively correcting others; pointing out flaws in an unhelpful way.
*Making work more difficult than it needs to be or purposely delaying work.
*Disingenuous remarks designed to create problems for others.
*Responding to requests with heavy sighs, resentful actions, anger or excessive questioning.
*Stomping, slamming doors, drawers and phones, making unnecessary noise and clamor.
*Purposely or repeatedly doing things that are unpleasant, foul, obnoxious, distracting and disruptive.

Why supervisors and managers should take immediate and strong action about discourtesy and hostility:

  • It can demoralize and demotivate the target and those who witness it and creates stress and uneasiness for everyone.
  • It takes the focus away from work and puts it on the unpleasantness.
  • It encourages people to take sides, or to encourage discourtesy byothers as a way to stir up problems.
  • It prevents or reduces effective communication.
  • It can be the source of actions and reactions that result in lawsuits, complaints andviolence.
  • If someone is discourteousto coworkers or you, they will almost certainly be discourteous to others when you are not around.
  • It puts the focus of supervisors onquarrels and upsetsinstead of key work issues.
  • When others are aware of it–and they will be–it presents the supervisor or manageras being either unwilling or unable to intervene.
  • Discourtesy is like a weed–it spreads and chokes out everything good you try to cultivate in your workplace.

A mental survey: Look and listen in your workplace this week:

1. Which employees interact the most courteously with other employees in the office and within the organization?

2. Who are some who are not particularly courteous, even though they are not obviously rude?

3. Who says or does things that, if you weren’t so used to them, you’d immediately think of them as discourteous? What are the things they say or do? Do they limit it to only a few or are they that way to everyone? Are there some mutually discourteous relationships?

4. Who says or does things that, had those habits been known, the person would likely not have been hired?

5. Would life at work be better if relationships that are now marked by discourtesy or hostility were civil, cooperative and pleasant?

Pay attention to courtesy and discourtesy this week–and notice how you act as well! Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “there is always enough time to be courteous.” Take the time.

April 16th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | no comments

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Finding A Reasonable Perspective

Teasing, tormenting, taunting.

Since I wrote Parts One and Two  of this series about the over-use and misuse of the description bully for bad behavior in the workplace, three things have happened:

1. I have gotten many messages about the topic. Almost of all of them agreed with my overall view and had examples to share. Some of the writers shared personal stories about situations in which they felt someone tried to bully them, but they stopped it or found ways to handle it. I have appreciated all the responses.

2. I have done further research about the term and how it is used in books, articles, and internet forums, as well as reading hundreds of examples of what forum contributors consider to be bullying.  

3. I have given considerable thought to exactly how I do feel about the concept of bad behavior at work and how bullying fits into that issue.

The bottom line on my perspective about bullying behavior in the workplace: 

  • Bullying –cruel and misery producing behavior to someone who is powerless to stop it– is wrong and inexcusable.
  • I have stopped others from cruel or aggressively hostile behavior when I have known of it and I always will.
  • Working with or for someone who acts in a bullying manner is one thing–being bullied is something else. Being bullied is what we allow to happen to ourselves over time, when we fail to take any constructive action to deal with the behavior.
  • If someone–even someone who can fire me or hurt my career–behaves toward me in a way that seems to be intentionally and unbearably mean, I will find an appropriate way to stop it. If I cannot or will not do that I will either learn to manage my reactions to it or I will leave that job or position. I am not powerless.
  • I think the way the term bullying is used in some writings and research, incorrectly increases the number of accusations about it and makes it seem more prevalent than it is.
  • I believe some people use the term bully as a defensive weapon to present themselves in a better light, and an offensive weapon to hurt the reputation of others without having to present verifiable evidence.
  • Labeling someone a bully can itself become a form of bullying, because it can cruelly harm someone’s reputation based solely on a description that may not apply to the situation at all.
  • If someone is a bully their behavior should be stopped, not just labeled and complained about.

In the next two articles I will discuss productive ways to deal with discourtesy and contention at work.

April 12th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 3 comments

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Defining Terms

Defining terms: What is Bullying?

In keeping with the advice to not argue until we have defined terms, I want to clarify how I use the term bully, and my experiences with how others often use the term

Let me re-state that I acknowledge there are situations in which people suffer emotionally, mentally and sometime physically, because of the purposeful actions of coworkers and managers. I detest that kind of behavior and will take action to stop it. What I want to emphasize in this series is that using an emotional term like bully puts adult relationships at a juvenile or adolescent level and tends to reduce attempts to do anything positive about problems.

Another concern I have is that many people are amateur psychologists and lawyers at work, based on reading a few articles or watching TV. Whether they are discussing harassment, hostile work environments, stress, a toxic workplace, dinosaurs at work, or bullies, they embrace the workplace horror of the moment and swear they are dealing with it. It is similar to reading a list of symptoms and becoming certain that your cold is actually Zambalisian Swamp Fever.

Bullying behavior: A bully, by dictionary definition, is someone who is cruel to others who are powerless to stop the behavior. That is the definition I will use, rather than, as the author of an article on bullying wrote, “A bully is someone who makes you feel bullied.” Good grief!

Bullying behavior can include any number of tyrannical, mean or cruel actions:

  • Repeated taunting, ridiculing, threatening, destroying personal property, dirty tricks, creating serious work problems, malicious gossip, purposely creating stress, nervousness or tenseness, unrelenting criticism, yelling, accusing, unreasonable demands, and anything else that is cruel and done to exert power, out of spite or a sense of entitlement, or for the sheer enjoyment of it.

What is something other than bullying? On the Ask the Workplace Doctors site to which I contribute, we receive many, many letters from people who say they are being bullied. Sometimes when I read substantiating information I agree with the perspectives of the letter writer, even though I might not use that term. In many cases, follow-up information discloses a much different picture. I do not think the writers lied, but I do think they were using the phrase more as an insult than as an accurate descriptor.

  • The person being complained about is often unpleasant to deal with, but has no power over the person complaining and has never been personally intimidating.
  • The essence of the complaint about someone’s behavior is, “I don’t like it.”
  • There is a long-term feud in which both have taken part.
  • The person being complained about is a supervisor who has negatively critiqued the work of the person who is writing to us.
  • The writer has never asked the person to stop and never made a complaint to a supervisor or a manager.
  • The writer has been bullied in every job he or she has ever had and has never had a supervisor who was not a bully.
  • Frequently writers will use dramatic terms to describe something that has happened, but when I follow up with specific questions the facts are much less dramatic.

“My supervisor is a bully!” (He told me I had to get back to work instead of talking on my cell phone.)
“My coworker is a bully!” (She is snippy to me and responds rudely when I talk to her.)
“We have a group of office bullies!” (There are several gossips, but everyone listens to them and spreads what they say.)
“…screamed at me” becomes, “..talked in a louder tone than usual.”
“..berated me in front of everyone” becomes, “…corrected my mistake and people in other cubicles could hear  it.”
“Demeans everyone” means, “Tells me my work product has to improve.”
“…threatened me” becomes, “told me to mind my own business.”

Mental and emotional maturity. There is a level of mental and emotional maturity that is required to be effective at work. That maturity must extend to learning ways to deal with the wrong behavior of others. It seems to me that letting academicians or the media provide us with yet another inflammatory label will not help solve problems and will make bad situations worse. In further articles I will discuss a less dramatic way to view unpleasant behavior at work–a way that is more likely to result in positive actions.

April 8th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | no comments

Discourtesy And Contention At Work: Is It Bullying?

Bully: An Unproductive Label  

Sensational statistic: 37% of employees surveyed in a study by State University of New York, felt they had been bullied at work. Not an outrageous number, but enough that the authors were probably able to further justify their academic work that studies workplace agression. How accurately does it reflect reality?

Given the list of the behaviors that were considered bullying, I’m surprised that a full 100% did not respond that they had been bullied! Among the statements used to describe a feeling of being bullied are, “Had others fail to give you a promotion that you really needed.” And, “Not being given deserved praise.” Other behaviors certainly could be tormenting or unnerving, and some would be criminal.

Another overused label? It is easy to overuse and misuse an emotional term like bully. It dehumanizes the person being talked about. It also presents the image of a vicious thug who torments a weak, helpless victim (another label that accompanies bully) for no reason. The description might fit occasionally, but it has become a way for some employees to smear others without attempting to do anything to bring change.

Like many surveys there was no requirement to show evidence or to suggest the reasoning of the other person. We could have an equally high–or higher–percentage of affirmative answers if we did a survey that asked questions such as these:

  • Do you have a coworker who refuses to accept his or her role in problems?
  • Have you worked with someone who lied about how you or others treated them, in order to get sympathy?
  • Do you know someone at work who seems to look for reasons to be offended or hurt?
  • Do you know someone who covers up their own misdeeds by blaming others?
  • Have you heard coworkers accuse others of bullying but you could see two sides to the issue?
  • Do you know of someone who says they are being mistreated, but they have never taken strong, productive action to stop it?
  • Do you have a coworker who is disruptive in some way, but if you say something he or she denies it and say you are picking on them?
  • If you are a supervisor, have you ever been accused of bullying when you tried to correct poor performance or behavior?

I do not deny that harassing, mean-spirited, and vile behavior occurs in workplaces. I also do not want to diminish the toll such behavior can take–mentally, physically and emotionally. Whatever your organizational role, you should speak up and stop inappropriate, discourteous, demeaning behavior. (That will be covered in Part Three of this series. 

However, instead of focusing on what type of person is behaving badly–a bully, a jerk, a cruel, evil torturer, a vicious, vengeful witch, or, an inhuman, servant of Satan–we should focus on the behavior that is unacceptable and do something about it, whether is it directed at us or others. And, we must do it in a way that is direct and strong but appropriate, not in a way that only involves name-calling behind someone’s back. 

April 1st, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 7 comments