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Shortly after joining Google in 2004, Kim Scott gave a presentation in which founder Eric Sunderman almost fell off his chair in surprise and delight over her team’s success. Fresh off the success of the meeting, Scott went on a walk with her boss, Sheryl Sandberg, likely expecting to be congratulated. And while Sandberg indeed provided positive feedback on the presentation, there was a “but.” Scott had no idea what it could be.  

“You said um a lot,” Sandberg said.

The comment caught Scott off guard. Was that really the issue? But Sandberg was serious. She asked Scott if the ums were a product of nervousness. Scott said they weren’t. Sandberg then suggested Google hire a speaking coach. Scott, still on a high from what she thought was a successful presentation, said that seemed unnecessary.

“You know, Kim,” Sandberg continued, “I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”

That got Scott’s attention.

It was good, albeit startling, advice. And it provided a lesson. We live in a culture that tells us if you can’t say something nice, then say nothing at all. But being too nice can stifle growth and productivity. Conversely, being too rude bubbles beneath the surface of nearly every work environment. It can be contagious, impedes productivity, and also leads to burnout. 

Both of these problems prove especially prevalent in meetings, a primary form of communication within companies. So if being too polite and too rude can each hurt a company’s productivity, culture and, ultimately, its business, what’s the solution? 

The meeting paradox: necessary, but often counterproductive

It’s no secret that meetings dominate the working world. People sit through approximately 55 million meetings every day in the U.S. and a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that this can cause an organization to spend as much as 15 percent of its budget on meetings. When conducted properly, they can be a highly effective form of teamwork to problem-solve and make big decisions.

But those best-case-scenario meetings have gotten fewer and further between. Malfunctioning meetings cost the U.S. economy somewhere between $73 and $283 billion a year, according to Lucid Meetings. They are often perceived as a waste of time, zap productivity, and show little benefit to the group or company. How can such an effective and essential aspect of society go so awry? Partly because people are too nice, and partly because people are too rude — welcome to another unfortunate aspect of the meeting paradox.

The problem with politeness

“Just grin and bear it” is an adage so common we have absorbed it into our collective conscious. Don’t let your boss know you’re struggling; that’s a sign of weakness. Don’t let your employees know they are doing a bad job; that might hurt their feelings. Mask your feelings and move on. Psychologists call this phenomenon “surface acting,” and it’s a meeting-productivity buster. 

Meeting attendees who feel compelled to mask their emotional reactions get less from the meeting itself and are more likely to suffer from long-term negative outcomes like burnout, a study published in Group & Organization Management reveals. Researchers predicted that the self-control necessary for surface-acting limits the attention we can put toward the actual goals of the meeting. This distraction leads to less-satisfying outcomes. They also measured long-term effects three months later. People who demonstrated higher levels of surface-acting suffered from higher emotional exhaustion, or burnout. 

Scott often tells the story of an instance where surface-acting played an instrumental role in what she calls the worst moment of her career. One of the employees she managed was a charming, quirky analyst named Bob. His affability made him popular around the office, but, Scott says, he was “absolutely terrible” at his job. Sometimes he would express concerns about his performance, and Scott would reassure him that everything was fine. But soon the situation became untenable and she fired Bob without once bringing up her concerns or criticism. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all liked me.”

Scott calls her false reassurances “ruinous empathy.” She failed to address her concerns, and fried herself by spending months being polite. Most importantly, she failed to create a culture of candor in which she and her coworkers could feel comfortable tell Bob he was veering off the tracks.

The ruinousness of rudeness 

If being polite insidiously kills meetings like poison, being rude smashes meetings into the ground. Rudeness disarms coworkers, and generates a downward spiral of emotional toxicity. 

Rudeness encompasses everything from petty behavior like excluding someone from information or cooperation, to “forgetting” to invite someone to a communal event. It also entails taking credit for others’ work, spreading rumors, sending nasty emails, and not providing credit or due praise to subordinates. These types of pernicious behaviors are not covered by legislation, but can escalate into bullying if left unchecked. 

Being rude or impolite prompts both a startle reaction, and engages neuro-cognitive processes that evoke negative emotions, including hurt, embarrassment, and anger,” says neuro-cognitive scientist Dr. James Giordano, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C.

According to a 2015 study conducted by scientists at the University of Sweden, workplace rudeness can infect an entire office. The study of 6,000 people found that rude behavior spreads around the workplace like the flu, that 75 percent felt subjected to serious rudeness in the workplace during the past year. Unlike bullying or harassment, rudeness has no legal ramifications So despite its overt nature, rudeness resembles surface acting by flying under the radar. 

The solution: radical transparency

Creating a positive emotional culture grounded in transparency may improve your business model. Positive emotions consistently correlate with better performance, quality, and customer service. These findings remain across industries and organizational levels. Conversely, negative emotions like anger, sadness, and fear generate negative outcomes, such as poor performance and high turnover. Emotional cultures generally model the emotions you want to cultivate. Like rudeness, emotions are contagious and copying others catalyzes changes in the brain, according to research published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Harness the emotions people already feel when possible. And smile; it combats rudeness.

As society has increasingly digitized and globalized, today’s world of work includes far more employees working remotely. A survey by Global Workplace Analytics and Flexjobs found that remote work has increased 159 percent over the past 12 years. In fact, entire companies operate from virtual offices. Demand for more flexible work environments dominates: 80 to 90 percent of employees say they would like to work remotely at least part time, and more than half of employees have at least one virtual meeting each week, according to our research.

But if in-person meetings are already problematic, how can virtual meetings — which connect people in different rooms all over the world, many of whom have never met in real life — improve on the original?

By allowing participants to see and be seen, video conferencing platforms have begun to transform the very nature of meetings and can help cultivate open, emotionally positive cultures. Making virtual eye-contact helps groups build stronger relationships and keeps participants engaged for longer. Video improves comprehension by enabling participants to pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues. And unlike email, team messaging, or voice — other keys to a functioning virtual workplace — video supports a holistic conversation that delivers greater clarity and, ultimately, understanding. 

As the nature of our digital, globalized world continues to evolve, virtual meetings will continue to spread. As Jeff Skipper, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies like IBM, BP, and Goldman Sachs told RingCentral, “To perform at our best, we must collaborate, coordinate, and leverage the diversity of team members. Meetings aren’t going away. However, the growth of remote work and technical capability will see the rapid increase of virtual meetings.” 

Looking to master the modern workplace by building a stronger transparent, emotional culture? RingCentral Video can help.

Originally published Apr 03, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022

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