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Georgetown Prof Asks: Are You An Uncivil Leader?

Georgetown University MSB in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leslie E. Kossoff/Georgetown University)
Pictured are: Prof. Turan Bali, Prof. Stephen Weymouth, Prof. Preeti Choudary

P&Q: At the beginning of the book, you write after the two decades of meeting with different organizations around the world, the most important question for a person to ask his or herself is “Who do I want to be?” How did you arrive on that specific question after all of these meetings and interviews?

CP: It really struck me when I was working on the book — so now about four years ago or so — I had just gotten tenure and one of the things I wrote down when I got tenure was, who do you want to be? I felt like supposedly tenure is granted so you have academic freedom and that kind of thing. So, it really forced me to ask myself, who do I want to be? What’s the kind of work I want to do? Those kinds of things. I literally wrote it on a notepad in big bold letters and put it next to my computer. I would just look at it often and reflect on that. And then I realized it was something I kept asking myself in daily moments to help me make better decisions.

For example, when I was talking about the idea that civility pays and the idea of you don’t want to be the person that actually sent that email. There are these moments we have in our everyday interactions with people where we really should think about biting our lip, or not hitting the send button, or really thinking about who do we want to be in that moment. For me personally, that helps me a lot. And I just felt like whether it was our small daily interactions or bigger picture questions like, what kind of leader do you want to be? Or, what kind of person do you want to be? That question was a really helpful question for me that served multiple purposes.

P&Q: As you were doing your research and writing this book, what were some of the most pervasive examples of incivility in the workplace that kept popping up?

CP: One of the ones I hear most when I stepped into organizations over the last few years is the idea that leaders are not paying attention. They are multitasking. They are on their iPhone or on their laptop during meetings and during one-on-ones. And so people feel disrespected. It struck me that that example, in particular, is one that is not about intention, but is rather a lack of self-awareness. So, what we were following up with people on was what could they be doing differently to help people feel respected and do their jobs better. And that was one that I was almost surprised by because I think it really speaks to the fact that a lot of these things are little changes that we can make that would go a long way as far as how people felt. They would feel valued, work harder, and wouldn’t dwell on things like that.

That was the big one. Other things were the idea of leaders interrupting, or not giving credit where credit is do, not feeling acknowledged by their leaders, and things like that. I’ve had students share this with me when they have taken jobs at some really great organizations, that if they have a boss that will blow by them in the hall and not even acknowledge them and say hello or that kind of thing, it really weighs on them. And it affects how they feel about that workplace and their boss.

What I’m getting to is that most of these things can be changed if a person is aware of it. And so, that’s where I really try to start with people. Get feedback on what are the things that would make a difference to people or how are you being perceived? Because a lot of it can be improved with small steps and being mindful of interactions. So, I think not feeling valued and not feeling listened to are two things, nowadays, because people have so much on their plate.

P&Q: It is fascinating that some of the most common forms of incivility in the workplace stems from potentially good or at least neutral intentions.

CP: Yeah! I think that’s actually one of my biggest take-aways of the last couple decades. I started this in a place where I felt like, gosh, there are some real jerks in the workplace and I need to crack this. But where I’ve landed is much more of the idea that the vast majority of this stems from a lack of self-awareness. So, again, a big piece of this is getting feedback about what you could be doing differently to affect people in more positive ways where you are going to get their best contributions. So, I think that is hopefully an empowering message. You can do something about this to have more influence.

P&Q: What is the best way to build this self-awareness and these ideas your talking about within a business school setting — both at the undergraduate and graduate levels?

CP: I actually teach this to all of our first-year MBAs in a core management course called leadership and personal intelligence. One of the things I do is have them take a quiz on my website — it’s also in the book — but, you can find it at ChristinePorath.com. So, it’s 32 items and hopefully triggers some sort of self-awareness and how you can improve. But the big and most helpful thing I do is I have that in an Excel spreadsheet and ask teams to meet on their own. So, I’m not privy to any of the feedback shared, but they actually provide feedback on what are the three things you are doing well and you should keep working on to be effective and interpersonally influential? And what are three things they should adapt and improve on to improve their influence and effectiveness.

And, you know, I was somewhat surprised. A few years ago, I tried this for the first time and I thought, I don’t know how this is going to go. I wasn’t sure if they were going to like it. But they came back and said this was the most helpful exercise they had done since they arrived at Georgetown. And I try to set it up where I talk about receiving feedback and giving feedback and really try to encourage them to be courageous about stepping out. Because it’s not easy to give negative feedback, especially in these tight-nit teams. But the teams that do it really talk about how valuable it is.

And I think one of the really neat things about both of our undergraduate and graduate programs is they are very international. And so, I think one of the tricky things with civility is that there are very different cultural norms. So, what’s helpful is to get some feedback from teammates and say, this maybe appropriate where you are from, but it may not be helping you in some business situations or our team situation. So, I think it’s helpful even working through some cultural differences while they are at Georgetown and beyond into their career. A lot of them write about that when they do their leadership and personal intelligence plan and how helpful their team feedback was.