(For a companion piece to this, please go visit Rochelle. She and I spent some time earlier today talking about the plague of politeness in library work environments. The discussion really starts with her post, so go read that first.)
Last month, I went to a fun class on leading teams. It reminded me of my management class in library school...lots of talk about the forming-storming-norming-performing model of team development. Politeness is definitely one of the stages of forming a team, but it's an EARLY stage and you need to move beyond it to get things done. Teams may return to that stage periodically, but generally the goal is to move beyond it. And moving away from politeness doesn't necessarily mean moving towards conflict. It can also mean moving towards trust. (That's an important bit, in my opinion, so i'll say it again.) It means moving towards trust, where you feel comfortable enough to tell people what you really think, and to know that in doing so your team will give genuine consideration to your remarks.
I recall reading this article on teamwork in liberry school. The class was on social collaboration and technology...very cool class, but unfortunately it wasn't in the liberry school. It was electrical and computer engineering. This one really stuck with me...I underlined stuff and I didn't recycle it when I graduated. The article mentioned that teams that always agree with one another produce mediocre work, lowest common denominator stuff. (from one case study: "...desire for harmony in the team had interfered with scrutiny of business ideas...The whole team was never in conflict. Everyone was very polite." p362) If nobody offers criticism, if nobody says "hey, what if we changed this or did that," then nothing improves. Or worse, you get a wishy washy environment where your ability to choose between different options is limited, because once somebody's offered up an option for consideration, everyone just agrees instead of offering alternatives. When people disagree, you get qualitative debate about which idea might be better. And if you're lucky, you just might end up choosing the better idea. Of course this will lead to situations where people don't get their first choice, but hopefully the choice that is implemented is the strongest of all available options. And because you've engaged in debate, everybody understands why a particular decision was made.
So, are we all in agreement on this?