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Too busy for nice?

July 23, 2015

By Mary Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Early in my career I had a boss who enjoyed what my colleagues and I called  “running people up and down the flagpole.” I was fortunate in that he seemed to like me, so I was never the brunt of his uncivil behavior.  But I saw it happen dozens of times to my coworkers. It was always ugly, and just being a witness to it was very stressful for me. I can only imagine how stressful it was for them.

He would make people feel stupid, walk away in the middle of conversations, or take phone calls in the middle of meetings. I remember once he took a call from his wife as I sat there in his office, and made me wait while they decided what they would have for dinner that evening. Being a student of the mind, I always wondered what really was going through his head when he did those things.  I concluded it was a power and insecurity response. And I decided I would never be that way if I ever got into a position of managing others.

I read a really interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks back entitled “No Time to be Nice at Work,” by Christine Porath. Ms. Porath talked about “intermittent stressors—like experiencing or witnessing uncivil incidents” at work. She was giving a name to exactly what I had seen so much of early in my career. And she pointed out that intermittent stressors break down the immune system and lead to a host of health problems including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and ulcers, even if all you do is witness them.

Ms. Porath has been studying uncivil behavior at work for many years. According to her research, uncivil behavior at work is at an all-time high today. Back in 1998 about a quarter of people she talked to reported they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. In 2005 it was close to one-half, and in 2011 over one-half. When she asked those who behaved uncivilly why they did it, more than half said it was because they were overloaded, and over 40% actually said it was because they did not have time to be nice. Further, a quarter believed that if they behaved with more civility they would be less leader-like, 40% believed they would be taken advantage of, and almost half felt they would be at a competitive disadvantage in their highly competitive workplaces.

Two out of five believe they don’t have time to be civil? What?

The problem is that people take their cues for how they feel about themselves from others, especially their leaders. Over 100 years ago a sociologist named Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking glass self,” a concept still widely accepted today. Our self-image is substantially derived from what we perceive others to think about us based on their behaviors towards us. And our own behaviors—our level of engagement in what we do, our energy level, our creativity level—flow largely out of our self-image. A positive self-image, helped along by a supportive boss and colleagues, and you do better at work and life in general. A negative self-image, made worse by an uncivil boss and/or colleagues, and it all goes south for you.

Think about what that means if you are a leader of others—or even if you are just a colleague, or a member of a team.

One of the other lessons I’ve learned about being a boss is that whether I like it or not I have to always be “on” in my demeanor. That is regardless of how I feel, how badly I slept last night, or if I’m struggling with some business or personal problem.  People watch my body language and listen to what I say, all for those “looking glass” cues. My problem, as people who know me know, is that I am an introvert with a high “D” (driven, decision-making) DISC profile. I don’t do well with small talk. But I realize how important it is. Luckily I have an awesome assistant who reminds me every day of certain little things about people on the staff that I would otherwise miss in my crazy workdays. I do my best to get out on the office floor and talk to people with the “looking-glass” effect in mind, even though I’m sure I don’t do it as much as I should. The Times article reminded me of just how important it is to make time for “nice.” Maybe if we all did that we’d see more productive and engaged team players.

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