Christine Porath’s book Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace could not be more well-timed. We have just emerged from the most verbally abusive political campaign in recent memory.
The campaign left Americans wondering how low their candidates can go — and whether common courtesy itself is a thing of the past. An associate professor of management at Georgetown University’s business school, Porath seems optimistic, at least for individuals and organizations that do practice kindness toward and respect for others.
Were you aware, when writing the book, how stinging the presidential campaign would become?
I wrote the book before the campaigns really got rough, but I wasn’t shocked. We’ve seen a general decline in civility in all areas of our lives. This has been going on for some time, and things can spiral out of control. That’s one of the dangers of incivility.
Can you offer some other examples?
We’re seeing it in the workplace. Relationships with employers and employees are more transactional now than they used to be. Employees don’t have the same level of trust they once did in the organizations that employ them. With outsourcing, layoffs, mergers and acquisitions and all that, people no longer feel their employers have their best interests at heart or even appreciate them. A study I did of 20,000 people across several industries and organizations found that only 50 percent felt respected by their employers. But being respected was the one thing they said they valued the most.
Employers should care about that, right?
Yes, if for no other reason than that treating their employees with respect and consideration makes for better retention, for deeper engagement and for greater creativity. Of course, as organizations have to do more with less, they feel constrained in what they can do to reward their employees.
You also trace some of this decline in civility to globalization.
I think that globalization presents more opportunities for misunderstanding. Globalization is a factor for the same reason that an increasingly diverse workforce is a factor. We have to make more of an effort to understand different cultures and their norms.
There’s an element of generational change operating here, too?
Definitely. Millennials don’t show the same deference toward seniority, hierarchy and experience that earlier generational cohorts did. This makes it a challenge for people in senior positions with a great deal of experience who feel that they are not respected by younger workers.
Finally, the “Twitterverse” doesn’t exactly lend itself to the exchange of pleasantries, does it?
No. Our communications are more truncated now, with less room for nuance. This is especially the case in the U.S., where a lot of these factors have come together — globalization, generational change and even new ways of working. A lot of our exchanges with co-workers are no longer face to face. With people working at home or in remote locations, we use email a lot, so we can’t see facial expressions or tones of voice that can soften what we say.
What are the consequences of not mastering civility?
We saw some of them during the political campaigns. When there is little or no attempt to make people feel included — and instead make them feel excluded — we lose their contributions. They tune out or even engage in a kind of payback. And this isn’t the case only with politics. You see it in business, where companies have to spend a great deal more than they should on recruitment and retention. They lose a lot of money in those areas. You even see the consequences in hospital operating rooms. When people don’t feel what they have to offer is valued, they don’t share important information. They shut up, and patient care suffers.
If the rest of the world is practicing incivility, why should anyone not just go with the flow and accept the new ways of communicating and working together?
I think organizations that do practice civility — that show they value others and treat them with consideration and respect — will enjoy a significant competitive advantage. Because people want to be respected, they will choose to work for employers who have a reputation for treating their workers well. These organizations will thrive. They will spend less on recruitment and enjoy greater retention. Studies show that their workers are more creative and more loyal, and performance improves.
Reach Porath at 202.687.3209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more author interviews in the Impact archives.