Polite drivers are dangerous.
Let me rephrase that: Drivers who bend traffic rules to demonstrate their politeness are dangerous.
In my town of Atlanta, GA, I see this all the time. Just yesterday I approached an intersection a few seconds after another car had arrived. It was just the two of us. The other car had clearly arrived at the intersection first, and was fully stopped. I was still braking and slowing down when the driver cheerily waved me on.
Instant confusion! They, not me, had the right of way. This situation always creates a conundrum. Do I respond to the other driver’s gracious gesture of allowing me to “butt in line” ahead of their turn? With this comes the risk that I misunderstood or perhaps if I hesitate a moment, they assume I didn’t see their wave – and so we are now both confused which escalates the possibility of a crash. Or do I stand my ground – stubbornly planted in my knowledge that it is indeed their right-of-way, not mine and, by golly, I will sit here until next Tuesday just to prove my point! So now, we are both in a state of hesitation. You go. No, you go. We each wonder who will make the first move, until finally, one of us becomes impatient and proceeds. It becomes a game of adult, polite “chicken.”
My friend’s teenage son – with a shiny new driver’s license in his wallet – was in an accident over this very thing. Thankfully there were no injuries, but my friend’s car was quite banged up. The young driver (fresh on the rules of the road, having just recently been tested on them) was turning left across two lanes of traffic. One of the oncoming cars decided to make a gesture of politeness and stopped to let him cross. The boy’s societal instincts kicked in – you always accept a polite gesture, right? Isn’t that the polite thing to do? In that momentary conflict between doing the right thing, societally, and doing the right thing according to traffic rules, the kid accepted the polite gesture and made the turn. Unfortunately, a driver in the other oncoming lane did not stop and… kaboom. All because of undue politeness.
My job here is not to give a driving lesson (although – as inconvenient as it would be, I do have a secret wish that all seasoned drivers were retested in our “advanced” age, to ensure that we are all up to snuff on the rules!).
No, what I notice is that this relinquishing of right of way happens in business all the time. Business owners as well as leaders of every rank can fall into that zone of hesitation… holding back on an idea, or stifling a challenge to the status quo, or delaying a decision that will move the project crisply forward, or wavering on stopping harmful employee gossip. All in the name of being polite, trying to look good, wanting to get along. There are numerous situations where I see entrepreneurs and other business leaders stop themselves from taking charge.
“Taking charge” doesn’t mean being a bull in a china closet. It simply means: Seeing the right path and decisively taking it – not always stopping to get permission or consensus, which generally just slows down the pace and confuses everyone else involved. Not only that, some forms of politeness can actually come off as condescending, which is most certainly a back-fire.
Think about this the next time you pull up to one of those frightful four-way stops. Do you see the confusion that happens when just one driver defers to the others, in an attempt to be polite. Can you see the parallel to what happens in your business?
Ultimately, it’s much easier – and safer and more effective – to politely take your right of way.