Good manners makes for great leadership

When it comes to the question of what makes for effective leadership, good manners should be on top of the list. Sadly, good manners is an often overlooked leadership skill. You may be surprised to find that tons of research has been done on the importance of good manners.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines civility as “civilized conduct” or “a polite act or expression”. Christine Porath, author of “Mastering Civility” and an associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, defines incivility as “rude, disrespectful, or insensitive behavior.

A more common word for civility is manners. The word manners comes from the Latin word for “hand” which refers to how we handle relationships. This explains the importance of good manners. They’re the foundation of strong relationships. Let’s quickly explore what you would recognise as bad manners:

  • Not arriving for meetings on time
  • Not saying please and thank you
  • Talking down to other people
  • Not listening and interrupting others
  • On your smartphone during meetings
  • Using vulgar language
  • Belittling others and their efforts
  • Insulting others
  • Taking advantage of others
  • Not paying attention to the opinion of others
  • Ignoring invitations and meeting requests
  • Not returning phone calls and emails
  • Shouting at others
  • Gossiping, talking behind people’s backs
  • Not appreciating others
  • Not looking our for others, setting them up for failure

These are all examples of bad manners. I’m sure you’ve come across some of these in your workplace!

What’s concerning about bad manners is research published in the McKinsey article “The hidden toll of workplace incivility” which shows that bad manners in the workplace is on the increase, as illustrated below.

Why are these small infractions caused by bad manners such a big deal? The reason is that bad manners is the source of many of the serious behavioural issues in the workplace. When people feel they can get away with small lapses in behaviour. They begin to believe they can get away with more aggressive behaviours. Like bullying, harassment and racism.

What’s more concerning are the high costs of bad manners. 

The high cost of bad manners

“Civility costs nothing and buys everything.” — Mary Wortley Montague

Research by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson published in the Harvard Business Review article “The Price of Incivility” found bad manners impacts employees in the following way:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organisation declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

Good manners builds psychological safety


In a fast-paced, technologically complex and increasingly inter-dependent world, civility becomes more important. Civility is the foundation of social connections and the basis of relationship building. Strong relationships are the key to competing in complex times. Helping teams deal with conflict, make difficult decisions, whilst pursuing a shared vision.

You cannot build high-performing teams if people don’t feel safe. Maslow’s hierarchy, as an example, has safety as a basic human need. High performing teams are built on psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, defines as:

“a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

A psychologically safe environment rests on good manners

Good manners demonstrates respect for others

“Good manners reflect something from inside — an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.” — Emily Post

Civility is an important part of treating people with respect. Research by Christine Porath published in the Harvard Business Review article, “Half of Employees Don’t Feel Respected by Their Bosses” found a clear relationship between treating people with respect and engagement at work.

Leaders who treat others with respect have a positive impact on their teams performance.

“In fact, no other leader behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.” — Christine Porath, Half of Employees Don’t Feel Respected by Their Bosses

Their research found that 54% of those surveyed said they don’t regularly get respect from their leaders.

Given the compelling body of research on the importance good manner what can leaders do to improve their leadership skills in this area? Here are three steps you can take today.

1. Get clear on your expectations

The first step is to get clear as to your expectations of makes for good manners. Many leaders aren’t clear as to what behaviours make for good manners. Simply put good manners speak to the way people treat one another. Good manners can bu summed up in the principle of treating others how you’d want to be treated.

“To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations. Everything happens through conversations.” — Judith Glaser

Get clear on what behaviours make for good manners in your team. Make a list of the specific behaviours that make for good manners. Arrange a team meeting and work together to make a list of the specific behaviours that make for good manners. Here is an example of some of the behaviours you could include in your list:

  • We include others in what we do, greeting and acknowledging them and their opinions.
  • We appreciate the contribution of others, saying please, thank you and not interrupting.
  • We respect other people’s time by arriving to meetings on time and responding to meeting requests.
  • We protect people’s dignity by not talking down or shouting at them, insulting others or using vulgar language.
  • We acknowledge the impact of our behaviour on others and think before we act.
  • We respect the opinions of others by being approachable and open to feedback.
  • We rely on facts, rather than acting on gossip and assumptions.
  • We set the example of what good manners looks like for our teams by being a role model for civility.

Good manners is a set of behaviours that result in feelings of respect, trust and dignity.

Once you’ve agreed a list of behaviours for your team. Agree to hold one another accountable for living these behaviours. Make good manners as important to your organisation as execution and delivery.

Keep the conversation around good manners going throughout the year. Refer to them during rewards, recognitions and promotions. However, the most important way to ensure good manners become the norm is for leaders to set the example.

2. Leaders must set the example

As the leader people will watch what you do to determine what passes as acceptable behaviour. As social creatures we mimic the behaviour of those around us. Bad behaviour is contagious and spreads like a virus, as does good behaviour. It’s no use in defining civil behaviours if leaders aren’t setting the example.

Just to be clear we’re not suggesting you’re not tough on delivery and that you become nice and let people walk all over you. Leader’s have to manage the careful balance between being civil, whilst being tough on results.

3. Reflect on your own behaviour

“Rudeness is a weak imitation of strength.” — Eric Hoffer

Research by Christine L. Porath, Alexandra Gerbasi, and Sebastian L. Schorch, found that manners shapes how others perceive your leadership ability.

“Our research suggests that civility pays. It influences the extent to which people will seek (and exchange) information and advice, and see another person as a leader. Behaving civilly ultimately enhances performance.” — Christine L. Porath, Alexandra Gerbasi, and Sebastian L. Schorch, “ The Effects of Civility on Advice, Leadership, and Performance

All leaders can benefit from improving their manners, to become more respectful, kinder and more considerate. To improve you’ll need to reflect regularly on your actions. You’ll need to become more self-aware to adjust and improve. A great way to do this is to take Christine Porath’s civility self-assessment. The results of this assessment will help to increase your awareness and provide you a basis for making changes in your behaviour.

Remember. . .

“Good manners are just a way of showing other people that we have respect for them.” — Bill Kelly