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Be Nice

| June 8, 2021

by Jim Bruce

[Today’s author, Jim Bruce, is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
Every time I hear the words “be nice,” I think of my mother. She would frequently use these words to remind me that I should be “nice” to my younger brother, to guests, to other kids, to any pets we had, etc. In doing so, she was saying that she expected me to be polite, to treat them well, to demonstrate that I care for them, etc.
Christine Porath, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business has written extensively on being nice, civility, and the cost of bad behavior in the workplace. Her research makes it clear that incivility, rudeness and bad behavior have all increased. She writes:1 “How we treat each other matters.  Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance, and souls.” Porath also notes that Robert Sapolsky, the 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 4,500 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 individuals 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 respected or disrespected. 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, Porath’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 or whom we were engaged with. 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 believe that there is no benefit in being civil. We don’t think being civil will help us succeed. To the contrary, however, 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,2 “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. Ochsner Health in Louisiana 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. This behavioral change 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.
Other things you might do to be more nice include:

  • Helping others you observe needing help,
  • Listen attentively,
  • Be empathetic, care about others,
  • Accept your mistakes and take responsibility for them,
  • Accept your strengths and weaknesses,
  • Accept criticism and take action,
  • Speak the truth to yourself and others,
  • Seek the greater common good,
  • Approach everyone with kindness,
  • Be generous with your “stuff” including your time,
  • Go the extra mile,
  • Nice people put themselves “out” for others even when they would rather not, etc.

Consider taking time this week to reflect on your interactions with your staff and others.  What might you do to be seen as someone who is more civil and respectful?  More caring? A nicer person? 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. Christine Porath, No Time to Be Nice at Work, June 19, 2015, New York Times Sunday Review.
  2. Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, John Neffinger, Connect, Then Lead, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2013.

 [An earlier version of today’s essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading on July 15, 2015 and in the EDUCAUSE Review, August 13, 2018.]