Saturday, October 4, 2008

Evolving Beyond Niceness

Evolving beyond niceness means that we develop organizational cultures and teams that value productive work and results in addition to civil and fulfilling relationships with work mates. The first step in doing this, in my opinion, is understanding what we are trying to accomplish when we are nice and polite.

The origin of politeness theory can be found in the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and his 1963 article, "On Face Work." Goffman observed that in verbal social interactions, speakers try to protect their identities and social standing by "saving face." Face is broken down by Goffman into two different categories. Positive face is the desire of being seen as a good human being, maintaining a positive self image. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous or powerful. Acting to save face, therefore, is the desire to be appreciated and protected. Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson furthered Gottman's observations and developed a full politeness theory.

Understanding that protection and safety is an essential human need, how do we evolve the communication within our teams to move beyond politeness? I think the answer lies in building committment to a common goal and creating the dynamics that allow each member to become vulnerable. It is in the process of strategizing and problem-solving toward the common goal, that members should be able to shift their focus from self-protection to vulnerability, tapping into whatever methods of problem-solving they offer. It is also of critical importance that each member show great acceptance and respect for the process of developing ideas and decisions so that a team member is not encouraged back into a self-protecting posture by virtue of his or her ideas and opinions being ridiculed. So, niceness and politeness, is replaced by critical thinking, respect, and process.

With time, each team member should feel full satisfaction from the collective work of the team and the individual problem-solving contributions that he or she has made. This sense of accomplishment accompanied by the process of reaching full decisions is infinitely more fulfilling that self-protecting politeness. It is the productive work of selflessness.

Individual members who lack the awareness or perception of inter-personal dynamics, the shared sense of mission, or the patience for the process of thinking as a team will have difficulty in shifting their interactions toward intimate teamwork.

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