The Fear of Offending Others

The Fear of Offending OthersLeadership, Accountability, Accountability Cop, Matthew Brandt, Lead, Keynote, Training, Fear In Leading,

Matthew G. Brandt

The fear of offending someone is a stronger personality trait than the need to lead a successful team or organization. What I mean is; as leaders or supervisors of any kind in any profession across the board we know and learn and understand that we must motivate and reward good behavior. We see this where employees are given awards for good work. Be it a performance bonus or an informal recognition of some kind. Even untrained supervisors know (usually) to praise good behavior. I say normally, but it certainly is not always true.

So what happens when an employee is not a star performer? Why are the in fear of offending others? For many reasons; maybe personal issues going on in their life. If it’s purely performance they may not have the requisite training or experience. You may not be able to give that to them….either way, they are failing at your organizations mission.

Now What?

So what do we do with those people? Most supervisors and most leaders have never learned how to address issues of poor performance and when to call it quits and move on. We promote great technicians (meaning employees that are top performers) at whatever it is they do. A great salesmen, a great mechanic, a great lawyer, a great budget analyst; you name the profession and there is a hierarchy of employees from the bottom to the top. How do you get to the top? You be the best at the bottom and middle of the organization.

Being a great salesmen or budget analyst or police officer or fireman is a skill set that is learned through academics, experience and time. Then one day we promote him or her to a supervisory position to reward them for their efforts in being a great technician. We have a ceremony, we up their salary, we give them greater authority, certainly greater responsibility but we give them little help or training on how to be a leader. So performance starts to drop, we wonder what happened to this great field technician, this awesome line level employee, maybe salesmen of the year! Now the whole team is failing.

Let’s talk about one aspect of why I believe most people, without some specific help, will most often fail as a new supervisor or leader of an organization.

A Polite Society

The reason we are in fear of offending others. People in a polite society are taught through years of experience watching parents, family members, teachers you name it; interact with each other in a specific way. We see what being nice looks like, we watch and observe politeness and compassion time and time again. As we get older, we are taught to say please and thank you, to observe the personal spaces of people, to be respectful of the privacy of others, and over time, this trait is engrained in who we are in society today.

It’s not an American thing, it’s not a European thing, it’s not even an Asian thing…..every culture has it and every cultural has various levels of what Nice and Polite is to them in their respective societies. Some of those cultures are much like ours here in the U.S. while others are very different, although there is always some form of societal norms when it comes to interacting with each other.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Like anything, if it’s practiced over and over, if it’s observed from a very young age, it becomes who you are in life and how you act and interact in society. Think about how you first learned your native language. You didn’t know you were learning the language, but you were exposed to it over and over from people around you. You were corrected, taught, and every single person around you was doing it. After a few short years, you were too. You can also practice getting over your fear of offending others.

So let’s talk about being nice, polite or even how having compassion are very different things and how you become what you live and experience and why that may hurt you in being a successful leader if you don’t learn to manage it or even change that trait.

Many of our most valued society norms are things like empathy, modesty, patience, trustworthiness, kindness, integrity. They are instilled in us at a very early age and over years of practice, they become part of our human nature. But then you think about that person in your childhood; a friend who is just the opposite of that and has little respect for others, their property or they are just known to be mean, with very little remorse, or have any sense of societal manners in them. They are obnoxious, loud, and simply the “weird” kid. Of course we also know many of these same folks end up involved with our criminal justice system as they have little sense of empathy, politeness, caring, or especially integrity.

It’s About Science

How did they end up different than you? Well science may be to blame. The fear of offending others is about politeness or being polite. It refers to the tendency to be respectful for others versus having a more aggressive tendency in your actions towards others. It’s about good manners and adhering to societal rules and norms. It’s more than the laws of the land, but the expectations of our society, from wherever in the world you are…every society has its set of norms. It’s what we expect to see in upstanding, decent folks or “good people”.

In contrast, compassion refers to our tendency to be emotionally concerned about others versus being cold-hearted and uncaring of others. Much like we’d see in the proverbial “good Samaritan.” They really worry about the well-being of others. So you can be polite, yet uncaring or uncompassionate. You can also be compassionate, yet not polite. They are very different things and revolve around different parts of the brain.

Some can see that politeness and compassion are two characteristics that go hand in hand, but they also are separate from one another in very interesting ways. From a political or modern view; one study shows that politeness is associated with a conservative outlook and more traditional moral value, while compassion is associated with being more liberal minded and progressive values.

Politeness And Compassion

Both politeness and compassion are linked to different brain systems. Politeness with those governing aggression, and compassion with those regulating social bonding and affiliation. In other words; politeness is a trait that helps our brain to subdue the tendency of being aggressive towards each other, or any situation, it simply helps us maintain ourselves by calming and lowering our aggression levels.

If you have a strong politeness trait, you will be less likely to be comfortable with confrontation or aggression. Often times even when you need it. If you are a compassionate person you are far more likely to be a social butterfly type. Someone that likes being around people, talking, bonding and creating relationships. The fight or flight mechanism we are born with is in our DNA and is there to help the species survive. It’s meant to be used in our most extreme life threatening events. Much like Nice and Compassion or politeness and compassion, there is a time and a place for both, however the survivability of the species does not depend on how well you regulate those two traits, or when and to whom you show them to. That is very important to this discussion.

The Ultimate Game

So your brain is structured from an early age to be both polite and compassionate, based on input from your parents, siblings, teachers, our society as a whole. We often have one trait stronger than the other, although most of us have at least a little of both of them. The fear of offending others may be one.  To illustrate it a bit better, one study conducted what is called the “Ultimatum game”, a study in which a person is asked to split a fixed sum of money between themselves an anonymous stranger. Most would expect players to maximize their own payoff; however the results showed that traditional economic predictions were wrong on both accounts. Not only did people NOT behave selfishly, they provided complete strangers at least some amount of the divisible money.

Notably, polite people were more likely to split the money fairly than their rude or non-polite counterparts. Surprisingly, we did not see this for compassion, which may indicate that sharing money with a stranger doesn’t necessarily arouse emotional concern in compassionate driven people. Here compassionate people gave away more money than their cold-hearted counterparts.


Again, the fear of offending others drives what we do. Polite by-standers were not selfish per se, we know this because they were willing to part with their money just a bit quicker in this experiment. But they were also more likely than anyone else to intervene when bearing witness to the mistreatment of others.

This experiment highlights crucial differences between being good citizens and good Samaritans. Polite people don’t necessarily help those in need, but they are fair-minded and peaceable. Meanwhile, compassionate people aren’t necessarily even-handed and rule-abiding, but they are responsive to the misfortunes of others.


How does this translate into different kinds of behaviors and why is it important to know this as a leader or supervisor? Supervisors and or leaders have to be able to deal with poor performance, disruptive behavior, and negative work product and so on. We’ve all heard that supervisors spend 80% of their time dealing with 20% of their workforce.

This can easily be reversed to spending 80% of your time providing positive leadership to 80% of your workforce and relegate just 20% of time to the issues at hand with 20% of the people. In time, organizations will see the 20% level of poor performers drop as they leave the organization and replaced by more positive performers.

If I can show you how to do that; if I can help you become a positive, proactive, respected and lead from the front type of new supervisor, new manager or even seasoned organizational leader, would it be worth your time? It’s really fairly simple, but it takes real effort on your part. Here are some highlights to how simple objectives can allow polite and compassionate people (supervisors/leaders) can learn to break the cycle of our inherent, embedded human traits that works in society but hurts us when nice and compassionate people have to go face to face with problem people.

1) Provide specific expectations:

Early in ever employees career you have outline what it is exactly you expect from the employee in every aspect of his/her work. Work schedule, tasks, output, behavior, dress, communication. If you are a new supervisor to the group or a new leader in an organization it’s all scalable…. And it can be detailed at any point in the relationship and understand this is a relationship you are building.

How you go about informing your employees of this may take some varying methods depending on the make-up of your workforce. For instance how and when you identify these to the millennial aged employee is far different than how you might roll it out to the senior manager that is much older. Suggest you do this upon your arrival to the team and then at least yearly there after to remind and re-instill your expectations.

Studies have shown that employees want and expect to be given these so they know what the supervisor or leader expects them to do. It simply makes it easy on many levels as you engage and improve the workforce and when the time comes to remove someone from the workforce. This also outlines the basics for #4 (AAA).

2) Get to know your team:

One of the greatest mistakes new supervisors or organizational leaders make is not first getting to know your team. Even if you were a line employee and promoted into the supervisory position, you must take the time to know your entire team. Sit with them, have coffee, know their kids names, their hobbies, what makes them tick, what problems are they facing. How do they see themselves being most productive in this organization.

Building relationships is so important as it begins to model the bond of family, connection, interaction, familiarity and accountability. Just like most of that struggle in our family units over time, we also will be the first ones to protect, promote, care for and never let fail….the family. Not always and nothing is absolute, but by far the majority of family units will be there when someone is struggling…always. Get that attitude and functionality in your work unit and you have built a very strong unit.

3) Provide regular and consistent feedback:

This is true for first line supervisor to line employees as much as it is for senior leaders pushing information to the organization on a regular and consistent basis. Employees want to know what is working, what is not, what they are doing matters and this the first opportunity for you to know when some one person, one team or parts of the organization are going off the rails in some way. As soon as you learn of an issue, provide that corrective action immediately. Document this feedback.

Document any conversation, formal or informal. Again this is part of #4 (AAA) in how we set ourselves up for our own actions and accountability opportunities. If we do the work early in a relationship, if and when the day comes to have to turn off the compassion gene in our system and confront a hostile, malicious, problem employee then we have set the stage before hand and they won’t even realize what happened when that day comes. It will also make it easier on you; the Nice or Compassionate person that now must take corrective and often definitive action. When we fear offending others, we struggle with this.

4) Authority=Action=Accountability:

This item is probably the most important of all the steps in my opinion. The three A’s are a simple yet extremely effective tool to teach new supervisors as well as all employees and even senior leaders about empowerment and accountability. These three are separated by an equal sign because they are all equally as important to each piece as they are to the whole process. Every person is given some degree of authority in the job tasks they are asked to do for the organization.

What many fail at is knowing exactly really how much authority that really is. More authority in some employees minds means more work, so they want to diminish really all that they can and should be doing….that’s a problem. Action…is the work that you do, the widget you build, the sales you need to close, the accounts you need to grow…we can either take action or no action depending on the circumstances, but it must happen…action of some kind must take place to successful. That’s the work we do every day at the office, the factory, the sales floor… the tangible thing you are tasked to carry out.


Finally-accountability. Accountability is not about punishment for bad behavior. It’s about correcting or improving a behavior that is below expectations (#1). However; failure to hold an employee, a team and organization accountable is the certain death of an organization. The time it takes to destroy the entire organization depends on at what level the failure to hold someone, some group accountable for their actions/in-actions. It’s easier if you have overcome your fear of offending others.

It will rot it from the inside out. It will grow like a cancer amongst everyone who is a part of the team. Holding an employee accountable or more appropriately not holding an employee accountable is normally a top reason for employee dissatisfaction with a supervisor or leader. People want accountability in the workplace. Leaders normally have difficulty carrying this out because of that Nice and Compassionate trait that is engrained in our souls.

5) Politeness vs. Compassion:

AKA Nice and Compassion….How that impacts you as a leader, a supervisor, an employee makes the previous four tasks null in void if you are unable or unwilling to learn how properly approach hard topics with people you know and work with, the ones you have tried to cultivate into a family like unit. As a polite society we are engrained from infancy to learn to be both polite and have compassion.

That’s what makes us a reasonable society to live in. Think about that; if we didn’t teach our children that, think what our society would be. It’s easy to know the answer to that…it’s what we see every time a crime is committed in our society. These are people that did not learn, were never given the opportunity to learn, chose to ignore or because of mental issues are unable to learn those traits. Unfortunately those same traits often keep us from being good leaders too. It is these traits that we have learned from our infancy that plague us when things are really bad. This however, adds to our fear of offending others.

Beg To Live

Another example is why we see people who are suddenly confronted with life and death situations will say “please” to a man holding a gun at them…. “please take my wallet” “please don’t kill me, I have children at home” Active shooter scenarios that today are rampant in our society; we have witnessed time and time again as the assailant will line up 7 or 8 people and one by one walk down the line talking to and then executing them…. Simply because he said line up against the wall, shut up, listen and tell me whatever…. Everyone politely lines up, politely remains silent, politely watches as he systematically goes from one person to the next, assassinating them one by one…. They politely stood there and did what they were asked to do….and died for it.

Humans Are Very Powerful

The human mind is very powerful and when stressed, we go to what we know, what we practice for and what we have been taught over and over in our lives. Sometimes tragically. This same “polite” and “compassion” trait keeps us from addressing uncomfortable situations; like confronting a poor performing employee or the office problem.

In my “Stop Being Offended” program I go deep into how and why we are predisposed to these behaviors. I will give you some easy to use tools to take on troubled employees and disruptive behavior in your work place. This will help you get over the fear of offending others.

We have to get past letting a small number of problematic, unresponsive, and often uncorrectable employees guide and direct the work products and morale of the entire team or organization. The great thing about being a 30 year police officer, having worked the street for many of those years; I’ve learned by exposure to pure evil; how to ignore and overcome bad people face to face.

This Trait

I didn’t ask for nor want to learn this trait, I started out just like all of you as an infant in a loving, positive family. I learned respect, dignity, ethics and proper behavior. But this line of work will teach you how the other side lives. I’ve learned to turn those traits into positive leadership tools for employees that didn’t learn the same things or the same way I did. Get over your fear of offending others!

If you or any of your subordinate leaders are struggling at addressing employee behavior or performance, wait no longer. Learning to how to overcome your Nice and Compassion traits that you were taught as an infant can be done. You need to be shown how to do that when it is needed. All while not losing the ability to continue fitting into society as a nice, polite and compassionate person.

Like what you are reading, please join my professional network on Linkdin!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *