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Georgetown Prof Asks: Are You An Uncivil Leader?

McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University: Washington D.C., Architect: Goody Clancy

P&Q: And what about working professionals? How do they go about increasing their self-awareness and personal intelligence to become more civil?

CP: There are a few things. The main big picture goal is to get feedback. And I think that can be done in a variety of ways in an organization. I always suggest 360 feedback. However, that can be more or less useful depending on the kind of culture you work on and how trusted the 360 process is. It can be incredibly helpful to people that have colleagues that share direct feedback, but it’s not always if you are working in a culture where people are fearful or resentful, then often the best feedback is not shared.

Also, working with coaches that can solicit feedback from others for you. It can be translated and anonymous if need be and so forth. Teammates, like I mentioned, because organizations might not have the resources to hire externals to do a 360. So, even just sitting down with your subordinates or teammates and asking for what am I doing that’s really helping you and what could I do to potentially be more helpful? A lot of times, the feedback will come from peers that way.

The other things are taking the civility quiz or simply reflecting on what you could be doing differently or what are your triggers? For example, if I reflect on when I’m not my best self and when I may be more likely to be uncivil. There are times when the time of day matters. Maybe I’m not much of a morning person, so the afternoons are better. Or, maybe if I feel pushed or stressed, I respond in more curt or uncivil ways. It could be the email that sounds snarky or could be misconstrued because you don’t have the mindfulness to write a better email. Not sending emails in the afternoon is one thing I’ve adapted. And catching on to when I’m feeling stressed. I know that is not a time, for example, to send an email or have a really hard conversation. So, paying attention to your triggers is useful.

And as obvious as it sounds, I think taking care of yourself is important. Just the basics. Like, it’s really hard to be effective interacting with others when you’re sleep deprived. Also, eating well and even exercising. Exercising is a great way to work out your stress. Those are some of the things I recommend generally to people to try to be more effective and civil.

P&Q: What would you say to the crowd of people who believe this is just a bunch of touchy-feely stuff and people should just be tougher?

CP: Well, there is a lot of research now that shows civility pays. Just the idea that you want to connect with your employees or teammates with warmth — that’s how you get judged initially. And then go from there. I think that the idea that it’s the number one thing people want from their leaders. When we surveyed over 20,000 people, it was more important to them and had a bigger affect on things like engagement, satisfaction, health and well-being and retention that things like receiving helpful feedback, having an inspiring vision, and opportunities for learning and growth.

It’s really important employees get this from their leaders. And when they do, they are far more engaged. There’s a clear trend in relationship between being respected by your leader and engagement. And when I’ve studied in the social networking studies, whether it’s an international MBA population or a biotech or consulting firms, there is a clear relationship where if people are received as civil, they are much more likely to be seen as leaders. People are more likely to share information with you. And their ultimately going to perform better. At the biotech firm, they performed 13% better than those that were perceived as less civil.

So, there is more and more evidence showing how civility pays. And I think the costs are extreme. So, on the other hand, we know incivility takes people off-track. In experiments, I found people are far less focused, they can’t remember as well, they perform about 33% to 50% worse than other people on various tasks. They are three times less helpful. And, unfortunately, these consequences bleed over to not only the people experiencing it, but to witnesses, too.

Those are some of the reasons why people might want to pay attention to this. And for organizations, there is also a relationship with retention. If you want the best and brightest, you should be managing for this, because people that have choices, typically choose more positive cultures.

P&Q: One of the things that struck me while reading through your book was when you mentioned believing workplace incivility has gotten worse over the past two decades. What were some of your specific findings that led you to this conclusion and how can this trend be flipped?

CP: Over the past couple decades, what I’ve seen is an increase in incivility as reported by people. So, basically, over the past couple decades, it’s really grown quite a bit. A lot more people are experiencing it and a lot more people are witnessing it. There is a clear pattern there. I think part of it is people feel more stressed. The number one reason people report being uncivil is they get overwhelmed or stressed out and don’t have time to be nice. I would argue that it doesn’t involve time. But, nonetheless, I think time is a big factor. I think technology potentially creates more misunderstandings, because you don’t know the tone or the non-verbals, so it can lead you to misinterpret things negatively. Or, the fact that someone wasn’t civil when that wasn’t their intention. Technology actually makes getting all this right more challenging, particularly given the more diverse workplaces. Those are a few of the reasons why, unfortunately, we see more of it.

The good news is that managers and organizations are much more aware of it. A lot of people contact me because they are working on it in their organizations. A couple decades ago, that wasn’t the case. They didn’t really have an understanding of what this was. And it wasn’t on their radar screen. A lot of organizations now, even if it’s moving from good to great, think about how can we improve this? That’s a real positive sign and why I’m hopeful that we can improve this.

P&Q: Your entire last section of the book was dedicated to how the “targets” of incivility should go about handling the situation. Can you share some of those points with us?

CP: Sadly, more than two-thirds of the time, incivility comes from people with greater power or status. But the most important theme is, you need to take care of yourself. Because, you might not be able to change the behavior of your boss or leader. So, I think the one thing I found that helps is to improve your since of thriving, whether it’s inside and outside the workplace. Thinking about and identifying areas of growth and pursuing development in those areas, that’s a key theme. If you’re making progress in other areas, even if it’s outside of the workplace or going back to grad school, that’s at least somewhat helpful because people feel at least some sense of growing and moving forward.

Likewise, looking for opportunities to innovate, I think is great. Whether you craft your job to being more meaningful or you’re working on some tasks that you feel like you can be innovative, that will usually boost your feelings. Turning to a mentor can also be very helpful. They can help you navigate the situation, really reminding you how to stay on track. Taking care of yourself and managing your energy is really important. I talked about that earlier, but just the idea that literally, making sure you’re sleeping, exercising, and eating well — anything you can do. Exercise is particularly useful. If you are depressed, there have been studies that have shown exercise is as effective as the most popular drug that treats depression. It’s a really useful self-help booster.

Trying to find a sense of meaning and purpose within your work and reminding yourself of that is another thing to do. Or crafting your job to work on different projects, events, or causes that may benefit not only you, but also your organization is also helpful. And seeking positive relationships inside and outside work, because what I have found is working with people that frustrate you or suck the life out of you in some way has four to seven times the effect of a positive relationship. So if you are being pulled down by incivility, you really have to work to build up the positive relationships in your life.

And finally, focusing on thriving outside of work. Any energy you can derive from outside of the workplace, you bring back to the workplace. That can also help you recover from incivility. Those are the main things I would recommend.

P&Q: Lastly, after all of this work and research, how are you feeling about incivility in the workplace and where workplace cultures are heading?

CP: I’m hopeful. I’m encouraged by the fact that more leaders are paying attention to this and that I’m having more opportunities to speak with organizations and leaders about it. I love getting the message out there because I’m hopeful that more and more leaders are managing towards this or are setting different expectations and holding themselves accountable. What has also been helpful is I’ve done a lot of work on creating more thriving workplaces and building more positive cultures and one of the things I’ve seen really compelling research around is just how having a positive culture really is a great return on investment. Those are the companies you should invest in. My friend, Tom Gardner, who founded Motley Fool, he’s written a lot about this. They recommend investing in organizations that have good cultures, because that’s where you see a lot of great things happening. And civility is a piece of that. So, my hope is that there is more and more research that speaks to this.

Even working with military groups that are paying attention to how costly this is and potentially thinking about training leaders so they’re aware of this. Implementing this in professions that have more direct aggressive styles sometimes, is very interesting. So, I’m hopeful.

P&Q: Any final thoughts?

CP: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I hope that as a society, we improve this as well. The majority of this research is around and applies to organizations, but when I’ve spoken about this with groups from the United Nations or various international groups, what people pointed to is this is needed for families, this is needed for our communities, and this is needed in our cultures. So, I’m hoping this is a message for people in society — not just our leaders, but everyone in society — because, I think this makes a big difference to people.