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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 29, 2019


Our workplaces can easily move towards what researchers call incivility. So what are the benefits of being nice to one another, and what can we do as leaders to get there?


Hello and welcome to episode 62 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore why being nice to one another is so important for business performance.

I was working with a client recently and discussing their culture. He said “as a psychologist you have the opportunity to work with lots of different organisations - I bet you walk in and get a pretty quick sense of the mood and culture”. It’s true - I find it easy to gain a quick read on the mood and culture of an organisation. Compare these two workplaces I recently visited. In one organisation I noticed people frowning, staring at screens, no conversation or laughter, and lots of sighs. In another the atmosphere was bordering on joyful - people warmly greeting one other, big smiles, people saying “hello” to me as I walked past even though they had no idea who I was. It was hard in the first organisation not to be dragged down, and it was equally hard in the second organisation not to be lifted up.

But it’s not like being able to read the mood and culture of a workplace is some special power granted only to psychologists and consultants. It’s a special power we all have that comes with being human. We all read a room quickly at a subconscious level. However we become familiar and used to the rooms where we spend the most time. The cultural quirks that hit us on day one at a new organisation fade by month three. We rapidly soak up the standards we see around us. We quickly understand what’s tolerated and what isn’t. If the culture is great, then that’s fantastic - we absorb it and maybe even become a better person. But if the culture is toxic, even the best of us will either lower our standards to fit in, or exit stage right to another organisation.

In some workplaces people aren’t very nice to each other. It might be that most people are 5 to 10 minutes late to meetings, setup their laptops and just continue their work. They interrupt others, they talk to the person next to them while someone else is presenting. They make demands of their colleagues in other departments. They gossip and spread rumours. Before you know it, the place quickly becomes toxic. This is so common that some researchers specialise in looking at what they call incivility. Perhaps the best known researcher in the field is Christine Porath. Her TED talk “Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business” has racked up over 2.5 million views. As people rightly note in the comments below her video, do we really need a TED talk to convince people to be nice to each other? Apparently we do.

Her research demonstrates that incivility lead to 66% of people cutting back their efforts, 80% of people being distracted from their work, and 12% of people leaving their job. In a laboratory study where people witnessed a fellow participant, who was actually setup, being berated for being late, there was a 25% reduction in performance, and 45% fewer ideas generated by the group. Christine argues that incivility is like a virus that we can catch and transmit. As a result people operate out of fear and try to remain invisible. Innovation plummets - after all, why would you risk sharing a new idea when people aren’t being nice to each other?

So why do people end up being mean, unthoughtful, rude, aggressive or passive aggressive towards each other? Here are some reasons that I’ve observed:

1. It works - taking on an aggressive, belittling style may, in the short term, help people to get things done, particularly where there is a lack of clarity and standards.

2. Feedback free environment - people may not actually recognise what they’re doing, or at least the impact that it is having on others.

3. Excessive stress - people are unlikely to be on their best behaviour where they are experiencing high levels of stress.

4. Role models - in some organisations, taking on an aggressive style is modelled and rewarded by more senior leaders.

We can change this. An example Christine shares is a health organisation where they introduced what they called the 10-5 way. The guidance they gave to staff was to make eye contact and smile when they were within 10 feet of another person, and to say ‘hello’ when they were within 5 feet of another person. That sounds incredibly prescriptive and it’s hard to believe it worked, but they saw both patient satisfaction and referrals increase. As we raise our kindness towards others, we’re more likely to be seen as leaders, and we’re more likely to produce better results. This aligns with a wealth of research that shows people are much more effective when they’re in a positive mood, versus being neutral or negative in their mood.

As a leader I suggest the following:

1. Role model being nice towards others. Civility is contagious. You see it when a positive team member enters the room - they lift the mood, people start smiling and laughing, there’s a sense of energy. It really doesn’t take many people to change the culture, and leaders are the ones people look towards to set the emotional tone.

2. Connect with others. Take the time to understand the day to day work and experiences of those within your organisation. You might be surprised at some of the frustrations and obstacles they face, and how easy it may be for you in a position of leadership to remove these.

3. Help others to connect. It’s really difficult to bully people that you know, like and respect. It’s also really hard to bully someone that has strong connections with their colleagues - the weight of numbers makes the bully the odd one out.

4. Look after yourself, and help others to do the same. Think about activities you can encourage that focus on the classic wellbeing areas of exercise, diet and sleep.

So let’s think this week about ways we can encourage others and lift them up. The relatively small acts that we take as leaders on a daily basis can have a huge impact on those we lead and the cultures we create.

I have included links to Christine Porath’s TED talk and book in the show notes - make sure you check them out. And for those listening in the United States, a big Thanksgiving holiday greeting for the week that has just passed. I trust it has been a great time to connect with family and friends to reflect on all the great things we have in our lives that we so easily take for granted. Have a great week.


Christine Porath’s TED Talk - Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business.

Christine Porath (2016) Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace