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Has Technology Killed Courtesy at Work?

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Look no further than today's announcement of the iPhone 5 to witness the intense excitement that surrounds the devices that connect us. Everywhere we look--on the subway, in restaurants and walking down the street (look out for bears!)--we're incessantly poking at our screens, engaging and connecting. But for all this "connecting," we've never been more out of touch.

So argues Ron Ashkenas at the Harvard Business Review Blog, who says that our lack of face-to-face, real time communication has prompted a shift to impersonal connections, removing the burden of social niceties. If you've spent any time at all in the workplace, you've seen it: Demanding, coldly worded emails that demand instant turnarounds, irrespective of what it will take--or what will be dropped--to get it done. Conference calls where nobody is listening--or worse, talking smack with the phone on mute. Video conferences that, while a step in the right direction, are like looking through a grainy porthole into another world.

All of these communication tools, Ashkenas writes, have led to managers "reporting breakdowns in courtesy and respect, many of which are amplified by the stresses of the workplace." For federal managers, those stresses include constrained budgets, looming transitions and the expectation that office's do more with less. In the long-term, Ashkenas warns, "these behaviors will eventually create a toxic environment that will reduce employee engagement and management motivation." 

So what can be done to prevent us from all turning into robotic automatons, devoid of feeling and empathy? Ashkenas offers two solutions--neither of which can happen without the intentional efforts of management:

First, convene a meeting with your team, including virtual members, and talk openly about the kind of workplace behaviors you expect from each other. What does it mean to act courteously and respectfully? Have there been incidences where that didn't happen? Assuming that people aren't intentionally trying to be difficult, what provokes these kinds of unproductive behaviors, and what are their consequences? Having an open dialogue on this subject can powerfully re-orient your team, making them more aware of workplace courtesy and when it's lacking.

Second, encourage your team and your colleagues to (courteously) push back on bad behaviors when they occur. The reality is that most people don't plan to be mean or insensitive; it just happens in the heat of the moment without them realizing the impact on others. So if you can find the right ways of calling out these behaviors, it may be possible to reduce their impact and prevent them in the future.

 As we continue to get more immersed in digital communication, encouraging real time interaction seems more important than ever. What have you tried in your agency to encourage more face-to-face interaction? 

(Image via Imageegami/

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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