The End of Saying ‘Please’?

A recent UK court found direct, efficient communication isn’t rude and can be necessary, especially in frenetic workplaces. Do leaders agree? 

In the post-pandemic world, firms have been putting a strong emphasis on polite, empathic leadership. But in an unusual worker dispute, a tribunal court has decided that bluntness by the boss in a hectic environment is just fine. 

The ruling, from the London central employment tribunal, found that bosses don’t need to say “please” or “thank you”. The case stemmed from a restaurant worker who was fired for refusing to handle requests unless her bosses and colleagues asked nicely. The tribunal ruled that “direct and efficient” demands can be “a matter of practicality,” and that the lack of niceties wasn’t rude.

Experts say that in a host of fields, a method of communication known as “coercive and directive” is common. It is used in trading rooms in the financial district, in the army, the police force, live television, medicine, and crisis management, plus many others. “In some industries, executives have to give people feedback in a real-time environment,” says Ben Frost, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Products business. That in itself can be useful: it means employees don’t have to wait in limbo for months to get feedback from their bosses.

Still, the ruling contrasts with many firms’ efforts to boost sensitivity toward workers post pandemic. Companies are increasingly assuming the need to take care of their employees holistically, even outside the workplace. In 2022, 51% of UK companies had “a stand-alone well-being strategy” for their whole company, up from 40% in 2018, according to data from CPID (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), a professional body for human-resources workers. “Boundaries between work and private life have blurred now,” says Alina Costache, a Korn Ferry senior principal for culture, change and communications. “Workers expect increased sensitivity and to be treated with care.”

While some find blunt discourse jarring, setting employee expectations about how things get done can reduce any potential cultural shock or surprise. “Gifted leaders make sure that all employees understand how staff interact and why it gets done that way,” says Claire Field,  a Korn Ferry senior principal. That way, employees aren’t surprised.

Experts say that while it can be necessary to use short, blunt orders for efficiency's sake, savvy executives generally switch leadership styles depending on the circumstances. For instance, after the frenetic work is done, leaders often create team rituals where employees can let off steam, participate in coaching, and acknowledge contributions. “The art for the executive is when to use this directive style, and when it’s too much,” Costache says. 

Not mixing up the leadership styles has a downside: it can backfire on people. “The direct method is effective in the short term,” Frost says. “But if executives are like that when it’s not appropriate, then it’s likely people will leave.”


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