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Be Nice!

| July 28, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, Be Nice!, is based on Christine Porath’s June 19, 2015, New York Times Sunday Review essay, No Time to Be Nice at Work.  Porath is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Her research over the past two decades makes it clear that incivility, rudeness and bad behavior have increased.  She writes:  “How we treat each other matters.  Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance, and souls.”  Robert Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, with joint appointments in Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery, argues that when people experience intermittent stressors like incivility for too long or too often, their immune systems pay the price.  And, they may also experience major health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and ulcers. 

For example, a study published in 2012 tracked women for 10 years and concluded that a stressful job increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by 30%.  Also, according to a study of more than 4500 medical doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel, 71% tied disruptive behavior including abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct to medical errors and 27% tied such behavior to patient deaths.

Individuals in positions of authority can demoralize and thereby stress their staff and associates in many different ways:  By turning or walking away from a conversation, by answering phone calls in the middle of a conversation or meeting, by pointing out an individual’s shortcomings in public, by reminding others of their “title” and “position,” by taking credit for results that were not theirs, by publicly assigning blame, etc.;  and the list goes on.  Staff who experience these behaviors tend to withdraw, stop sharing ideas, stop asking for help to solve problems, and hold back.

In her research spanning 17 industries, Porath asked hundreds of individuals why they had behaved uncivilly.  Over half said that they were overloaded, and a similar number said they didn’t have time.  Interesting, because showing respect doesn’t take extra time;  it’s about your behavior, about how you convey something, your tone and nonverbal behaviors, in particular.

Further, many feel that there is nothing to gain by being civil.  They feel that if they are nice they won’t be seen as a leader or will be taken advantage of.  Nearly half think that it’s better to flex one’s muscles to garner power even if that means they are uncivil. 

Yet, we all want to be respected.  Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 concept of the “looking-glass self” posits that we use others’ expressions (e.g., smiles), behaviors (e.g., acknowledging us), and reactions (e.g., listening to us, or ignoring or insulting us) to define ourselves.  In short, how we believe others see us shapes how we see ourselves.  Based on these brief interactions, we feel disrespected or respected.  And, when we are respected we feel valued;  and, when we feel we are not respected, we feel small and unvalued.  Civility thus lifts people while incivility makes people feel small and unvalued.

Yet, Pograth’s surveys indicate that the number of people who reported that they had been treated rudely at least once in the past week, doubled to over 50% between 1998 and 2012.

What is driving this increase when every one of us would say that we don’t want to be treated in an uncivil way?  There are at least three drivers.  First, it may be a learned default behavior.  We may have been treated uncivilly in the past.  So we automatically engage in the same way.  Second, it may be abetted by our “always-on behavior.”  We are wired to our smartphones.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, when our smartphone chirps, we jump to respond ceasing to pay attention to what we were engaged in.  And, third, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, we believe that we can multitask.  And, in that multitasking we ignore the person we were interacting with.

Further, to cap it all off, many feel that there is no benefit from being civil.  We don’t think being civil will help us succeed.  But, to the contrary, recent studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology show that behavior involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace pays off.  And, at one biotech company, people seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.

Work by professors Susan Fiske at Princeton and Amy Cuddy at Harvard suggests that the way others perceive your levels of warmth and competence, which are elicited by civility, drive their impressions of you, and account for more that 90% of the variation in the positive or negative impressions formed about us.  These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you, and support you.  They write, “ If you’re highly competent but show only moderate warmth, you’ll get people to go along with you, but you won’t earn their true engagement and support.  And if you show no warmth, beware of those who may try to derail your efforts – and maybe your career.”

Incivility has high costs, personally, professionally, and organizationally.  In addition to the few examples cited here insensitivity and disrespect sabotages support in all manner of situations.

So, what do you need to do to be more civil?  As a start, you might work on listening, smiling, sharing, and thanking others as all of these have a huge positive impact when authentic.  At Ochsner Health in Louisiana, they implemented the “10/5 way.”  Employees are encouraged to make eye contact if they are within 10 feet of someone and say hello if they are within 5 feet.  For them, it’s resulted in increased patient satisfaction and referrals.  And, you can stop behaviors such as walking away from conversations, assigning blame in public, embarrassing staff, taking credit when credit is not due, etc. 

Take some time this week to reflect on your interactions with your staff and others.  What might you do to be seen as someone who is civil and respectful?  And, begin to work on your list.  While it will take time to see a change, it will come.

Make this a great week.  .  .  .    jim



  1. Joachim Vogt Isaksen, The Looking Glass Self: How Our Self-image is Shaped by Society
  2. Cooley & the Looking Glass Self,  enotes
  3. Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, John Neffinger, Connect, Then Lead