Wisdom From Retired Fed – Rule #7 – Common Sense & Common Courtesy Are Uncommon

It’s been awhile since I last posted but this is Rule #7 in my series of tips I learned in my 35 years as a federal manager and SES at IRS. Rest of the tips are at the bottom


Ressler’s Rules #7: Common Sense and Common Courtesy are uncommon attributes and therefore highly prized.

Every day it seems we are bombarded by news stories regarding “celebrities” and others who become involved in the most ridiculous situations due to a total lack of common sense. How often do millionaire actors/actresses get arrested for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol after they have already lost their license for prior violations? (Wouldn’t you think they could afford to hire a driver?) How often have you seen a pregnant women or an aged individual get on a crowded metro car and no one offers them a seat? You sometimes wonder if half the world was raised by wolfs or somehow missed the class Humanity 101. Too often this sense of entitlement and self-absorption enters the work place, which causes real emotional pain and anger.

I define common sense as the ability to recognize the logical outcome of your decisions and then picking options that have the best outcome (or least pain) to all involved. For example, you have a disagreement with your boss or a subordinate and you can tell it might become heated. Do you continue to escalate the debate in front of others or do you simply suggest deferring the discussion till later when you both are more level headed and presumably not in front of an audience. Managers often heap praise on their best employee while leaving the rest of the group bereft of encouragement. Conversely, managers dealing with performance problems often discipline or counsel employees that are more passive rather than dealing with the more aggressive and less effective. These decisions are viewed by the group as unfair and will ultimately impact group morale and performance. Being a manager is not easy but many of your decisions are relatively simple when you step back and analyze the situation.

Some of the worst common sense violations at work concern romantic relationships. A basic rule is that two people cannot have a romantic relationship when they are in the same chain-of-command and one has a higher position. There is an implied conflict of interest that cannot be avoided. Additionally, your attempted “benign flirting” even with a peer, may be interpreted as sexual harassment which is a quick route to a destroyed career. The key ingredient is to treat everyone with respect (AKA Common Courtesy). You ought to have a good idea how your words will be interpreted before you let them out of your mouth. Equally sensitive issues such as religion and politics require the same application of sensibility.

Common sense also means that you stay away from the poisonous office politics that are prevalent everywhere. Office politics tend to pit one group of individuals with an informal leader against either other groups or against management. These groups tend to waste significant amounts of time and often result in friction. Maintaining a polite distance from these groups is always the best practice.

Common sense also means biting your tongue on occasion when being right will only embarrass someone else. It means controlling your anger and recognizing that creating enemies, even among village idiots, has no reward.

Common sense impacts the manner in which you deal with your manager. Good managers don’t want subordinates that are “yes people” but they also lose patience with individuals who feel an overwhelming compulsion to discuss/debate every issue or decision. Sometimes you have a real need for clarification or to express a concern regarding a decision. You should feel comfortable expressing yourself in these situations but you should also periodically reflect on how often you are doing this and whether it truly is advancing the organization or simply your opportunity to hear yourself speak. Always remember that your boss retains 51% of the vote as he/she is ultimately accountable for the decision.

Common courtesy is the exercise of norms that were instilled by your parents that you display almost without thinking (unless of course you were raised by the aforementioned wolfs). The list is nearly endless but incorporates the opening of doors for others, offering to help cut the cake at birthdays, taking a place at the back of the line rather then crowding, apologizing for inadvertently touching someone, congratulating people when they have large or small “life moments” (e.g. birthdays, childbirth, promotion, award). These efforts may seem “quaint” and hearken back to an earlier time, a quieter and gentler small town America. But in fact they are valued today because they speak to the fact that you care about other people and recognize that the world does not rise and set on your lofty shoulders.

Common courtesy in the workplace means keeping the noise level in your cubicle low so you don’t intrude on your peers (no one wants to listen to Led Zeppelin coming out of you cheap earphones). It means truly listening to others and attempting to understand their point of view. Most of us mastered speech by the time we are 3-4 years old, many of us never master listening. It is impossible to listen effectively while simultaneously tapping away on your I-phone (do people not recognize how incredibly insensitive this is?). The same rule applies to meetings-someone called the meeting and invited you for a purpose. Your flying finger exercise on your Blackberry is unacceptable and merely extends the meeting, reduces your value (assuming you are expected to contribute something at meetings) and/or diminishes the output from the meeting. Being consistently late (“hey it’s only 5 minutes”) sends a clear message that you are far more important than anyone else so they can just wait on you. Lastly is the matter of cell phones, turn them off during meetings and keep your voice down when talking on them in your cubicle (no one really wants to hear how in love you are, how you administer discipline to your children, your dinner menu or any of the other multitude of conversations you are holding on “your employer’s time”).

Common sense and common courtesy will never be listed on your performance evaluation or be sited on your promotion/award certificate. However, management and your peers do notice and react, probably on a subliminal level. When people naturally gravitate to you, encourage your participation in discussions, or otherwise indicate “he/she is a good person”, they are grading you on these characteristics. I once had a subordinate who answered the question: “what is the key to your success?” with ‘do good, avoid evil”. That probably is the best description of common sense and common courtesy.

Rule # 6 – Most Meetings Contain a High Level of Mental Masturbation

Rule #5 – Coordinating a Subordinate’s Work Can Either Be Demeaning or Educational
Rule #4 – Little Transfer of Knowledge Occurs When the Boss Makes All the Decisions
Rule #3 – Never Ask a Subordinate to Do What You Wouldn’t Ask a Boss or Peer

Rule #2- Honesty is Measured By Telling The Boss What S/he Needs to Hear

Rule #1 – Wisdom From a Retired Fed – A Practical Guide to Management

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Candace Riddle

Very good advice. These are all common threads necessary to not only be a good employee but a good leader

You said, “you ought to have a good idea how your words will be interpreted before you let them out of your mouth”. I agree. However, we must also be aware that not only our words, but our non-verbal communication, even the tone of our voice will be interpreted differently by each individual, based on our cultural differences. In today’s multi-cultural work environment, the sender of communication must be self-aware of their own perception of reality and realize that it is unique to only them. Once they are aware of their own cultural biases they can then evaluate the differences and similarities that they have with those that they are sending the message to, or the receiver of communication. This will help to eliminate barriers to effective communication.

My point is, understanding how your message will be received by others, begins with being self-aware. This prevents ethnocentric biases which are sure to result in miscommunications.

Carol Davison

Thomas Jefferson said a man would go far with good manners and common sense. How sad they are so lacking. I am amazed about what people complain about (“It was rude of T not to greet me.” ” Did you greet T?” “No, T entered the room, its her responsibility to greet me.”) I wish my problems were as simple as this.