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Being civil at work

Being civil at work

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I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~ Maya Angelou

Across the globe, rudeness seems to be on the rise – be it in politics, on social media, or even on news panels. At such a time, is it possible to build an organisational culture around civility? Moreover, is it worth the effort?

Christine Porath, Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and author of the book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, has for over 20 years focused on studying organisational incivility. Along with her colleagues, she has surveyed thousands of employees working at companies across the globe. Her research shows that workplace rudeness is, in fact, increasing by the day: in 2016, 62 percent of respondents said they were disrespected at work at least once a month, compared with 49 percent in 1998.

At Godrej, “Show Respect” is a core value for us and so, this trend should concern us deeply. Drawing from this, my message this week focuses on the impact of rudeness at work, and how to create a culture infused with civility.

From an ethical point of view, it’s obvious why rudeness is a problem – especially at an organisation like Godrej, where people and relationships are the core. We aspire to be a great place to work – one where people feel respected and included, and find meaning and joy in their roles. Incivility flies in the face of this vision, as it brings people down (instead of lifting them up) and destroys relationships (instead of nurturing them). Where disrespect flourishes, employee engagement and productivity suffer. Creativity is lost, performance declines, and team spirit is weakened. It can even cause physical and mental health problems, ranging from general anxiety to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. What’s more, simply witnessing rudeness can have a negative impact: it makes you three times less likely to help others, and your willingness to share dips by more than half.

In a study cited by the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Andrew Woolum, a professor at the University of North Carolina and his co-authors found that simply witnessing an act of rudeness can hurt a person’s performance entire day, causing him or her to view the world through what the study refers to as “rude-color glasses.” Previous research by Dr. Woolum showed that rudeness is very contagious. Thus, even a small number of rude people can infect the entire organisation with toxicity.

Walk the talk

As a leader, the most impactful thing you can do to create a more respectful work environment is model the behaviour you expect from others. We can all do better. As Porath explains, it’s possible to be rude without even realising it:

One of my biggest takeaways over the past couple of decades: Incivility usually arises not from malice but from ignorance. I started my research thinking that jerks out there were intentionally ruining workplaces; I now see that most bad behaviour reflects a lack of self-awareness. We don’t want to hurt others, but we do.

Disrespect comes in many forms: from obvious examples like publicly belittling people and “teasing” them in ways that humiliate, to more subtle things like not listening, checking your messages in meetings, not responding to emails and taking credit for victories (while blaming others for failures). 

Self-awareness is the first step to improvement. To get a sense of where you stand, take this quiz created by Professor Porath. Then, ask a few trusted colleagues for their help: explain what you are trying to do, and request feedback about your negative and positive behaviours. Remember, people around us can pick up on traits that we ourselves can’t see clearly.

If you share an open, comfortable relationship with your team (as you hopefully do), ask for their input. You may be surprised at which of your habits they perceive as disrespectful. For example, perhaps you always show up late for meetings – which could be seen as a sign that you don’t respect people’s time.

Along with reducing negativity, we also need to consciously increase positivity. As Porath reminds us in her book, civility isn’t simply the absence of rudeness; it is the presence of warmth, appreciation, and kindness. Here are some helpful recommendations:

1. Say please, and thank you 

This isn’t rocket science – every child is taught these basic courtesies. Yet, you’d be amazed at how many people forget to practice them in the corporate world. If you want someone to do something, ask them nicely instead of ordering them. Also thank them for their contribution – appreciation is a core component of feeling respected and valued. I suggest placing a stack of thank-you notes on your desk so you remember to use them (a handwritten note makes a bigger impact than an email). At the end of the week, see how many notes you managed to send. Could you have said thank-you to someone else? Why not do it now?

2. Follow the 10/5 Way 

A healthcare organisation developed this rule for increasing friendliness and connection – and got spectacular results. When you’re within ten feet of someone, smile; if you’re within five feet, say hello. This small step goes a long way towards creating a psychologically safe, welcoming work environment.

3. Listen attentively 

This is one of my most frequent recommendations for leaders – and with good reason. Too many of us tune out while other people talk: we’re either scrolling through our phones, planning what we’re going to say, or simply thinking about something else. This is perceived as a very fundamental sign of disrespect; the other person feels that you can’t even be bothered to listen to them. So, put away your devices, clear your mind of distractions, and give the speaker your full attention.

4. Think twice about emails 

While technology can bring us closer in certain ways, it also has the potential to cause misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Firstly, never ever send an email when you’re angry. Count to ten, save a draft, and come back to it later. Secondly, in sensitive situations, always aim for face-to-face communication (in person or via video call) rather than email. Finally, if you’re sending an email that could be perceived as critical, make sure you’re only sending it to the relevant person – sending it to a large number of people (often, because of the dreaded “reply all” function) can cause the person to feel humiliated.

5. Hire in line with values 

During the hiring process, make respect a top requirement. Don’t just ask candidates how they would theoretically live up to this value; request specific examples from their career. Be explicit about the expectations at Godrej, and gauge the reaction of the candidate: do they seem excited and positive? Or hesitant and defensive? Finally, for a reality check, follow up on how the candidate treated people along the way – the person who set up the interview, the guard at the door, the reception staff, and so on.

6. Recognise and reward civility 

Go beyond simply talking about respecting one another – validate its importance. Identify and celebrate team members who go the extra mile for co-workers, are ever-ready to lend a helping hand, and lift up the people around them. Make civility a talking point during meetings and performance reviews. Figure out ways to measure and track it, and keep it in mind when deciding on promotions and awards.

7. Coach for relevant skills 

Often, people want to be more respectful – but don’t know how to go about it. Here, training can be helpful. Look out for programmes that could help your team members learn civility-related skills; for example, being a better listener and giving feedback.

8. Expand the circle

Porath explains that as leaders work to become more respectful, they can and should involve their team members on the journey:

Have an open discussion with your team about what you and your teammates do or say that conveys respect. How or when are you and your teammates less than civil to each other? What could you do or say better? Discuss what the team will gain by being more respectful of one another. As the entire team develops new norms, hold one another accountable for them.

While Show Respect is already a core value at Godrej, how can we reinforce it in our day-to-day workings? This question is worth thinking about. As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

Image credit: freepik.com

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Vivek • June 18, 2018


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