Office Etiquette

I recently came across a business discussion forum where a woman was seeking advice about proper etiquette for a new job in corporate office after she had spent over ten years working in healthcare. She received almost no feedback from other commentators, and after doing some research of my own I discovered that information directly related to the topic of office etiquette is surprisingly sparse. Good etiquette is certainly a vital skill to have in any career, but most writing on the subject is typically random lists of debatable pointers like remembering to keep the volume of your cell phone down.

Part of the reason office etiquette as a concept is over looked is that most things that will get you through a typical day are somewhat intuitive such as adhering to a dress code and remembering to be on time for meetings. Another is that there can be so many different possible tips and suggestions remember that it is possible to suffer from “paralysis by analysis” or worrying about your behavior to the point that you struggle to connect with your coworkers. But the most significant reason that etiquette itself goes unaddressed is that it has been subsumed into the larger genre of management theory. In 2009, statisticians at Google attempted to measure what made successful managers successful. The conclusion of their study revealed the following results ranked according to importance:

  1. Be a good coach who provides specific, constructive criticism, balancing negative and positive, and holds regular one-on-one meetings with staffers.
  2. Don’t micromanage.
  3. Express interest in staffers, including their lives outside of work.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented, using seniority to remove roadblocks.
  5. Be a good communicator, both listening and sharing information.
  6. Help your staffers develop their careers.
  7. Have a clear vision for your team.
  8. Have good technical skills and understand the challenges of the work.

What is striking about this information is not only are that technical skill ranked last in terms of importance, but also the most important aspects of effectively managing a team involve how you communicate with them.

Technically everything you do in an office setting is a form of communication with those around you, but improving your capacity to interact with others is not easy to cultivate. You can read lots of books that explain how to do this but there is no substitute for practice, and an invaluable resource for cultivating your communication skills in a business setting is Toastmasters International. Toastmasters is a widely recognized non-profit dedicated to “self-improvement in public speaking and organizational leadership”, and no matter where you live there is likely a local chapter for you to join. Through Toastmasters you can practice public presentations and team building exercises that can improve your confidence in a corporate environment. One on one interactions are much more comfortable for anyone who can effectively deliver a public presentation to a large audience.

Because feeling comfortable in any office is essential to present yourself to others, you are unlikely to find much relevant information in a traditional etiquette book. But there are numerous management resources that will typically have ideas about improving aspects of your behavior. Excellent online resources include the Harvard Business Review’s online blogs and Knowledge @Wharton which cover subjects such as how to focus on your strengths, how to handle failure, and even cover topics such as why reading literature can strengthen empathy towards your colleagues. Other places to look for regular advice include articles through Linkedin’s newsfeed and also the McKinsey Quarterly online that allows you to customize email alerts for research related to any business subject according to your interests. By improving your public speaking skills and studying tips on how to comfortably work in teams you will naturally improve your office etiquette by building better connections with your colleagues.