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iWhat Works-i The Power of Nice

December 31, 2002
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Kenny Moore could win the Nobel Prize for being nice. Inspired by SomebodyLoves You, Mr. Hatch, a children’s book that shows how simple kindness cantransform lives, he began giving flowers to people in the workplace. Thearrangements would arrive anonymously, with a thank-you balloon and a note: "Don’tever think your good efforts go unnoticed. From someone who cares."

Flowers went to males and females throughout Keyspan, where Moore iscorporate ombudsman and director of human resources. People started buzzingabout the mystery, and wherever they arrived, the flowers added joy to theworkday. One manager even followed suit and sent flowers to congratulate acolleague on her promotion.

If only we could clone Kenny Moore and sprinkle his like throughout the workworld. Being nice is powerful stuff, and here’s why: (1) The alternativestinks. Who wants to spend eight or more hours a day in a den of incivility? (2)When people have to deal with low-grade incivility and high-grade bullying fromcolleagues, their work suffers big-time. (3) The bottom line suffers, too.

Over the years, I’ve received an increasing number of calls and e-mailsfrom people who can’t stop venting about their non-nice bosses and coworkers."My manager is riding her broom again," wrote one person. "This guy I workwith is just like Snape," wrote another, referring to the Harry Pottercharacter who’s an expert potion-mixer and schemer. Yet another went on and onabout the small daily indignities inflicted upon him by his boss. "He neverlets anyone speak up at meetings. When I tried, he plastered a smile on his faceuntil I finished. Then he asked, ‘Are you done now?’ What a jerk."

Admittedly, there’s nothing nice about calling someone a witch, a Snape, ora jerk. And that’s part of the problem. Call it negative reciprocity. Whenpeople are on the receiving end of someone’s incivility or bullying, they wantto dish it back. You wanna slam my idea? Alright, Einstein, let’s see whathappens the next time you come up with something. You forget to send me thatadvance report? Fine, guess who just got deleted from my distribution list?

According to various studies on the subject, people are deeply concernedabout our behavior toward one another. In a 1996 poll conducted by U.S. News& World Report, 89 percent of respondents described incivility as a seriousproblem; 78 percent said it had worsened in the past 10 years. Another study,concluded this year by the research group Public Agenda, found that four out offive Americans think that the "lack of respect and courtesy" has become "aserious problem and we should try to address it."

In the workplace, incivility can spiral down into outright bullying. Includedin this category are verbally harassing someone on a regular basis, withholdingresources to guarantee failure, and spreading stories to undermine a person’sreputation in the workplace. One credible study, conducted by two researchersfrom Wayne State University, found that one in six workers in the sample grouphad suffered through destructive bullying in the past year.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to tell people to buck up and just deal withit. You’ve heard the rallying cries: When the going gets tough, the tough getgoing. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. To which I say:hogwash. Show me one credible study that shows that pushing people around isgood for their psyches and good for long-term productivity, and I’llpersonally sit down and eat every page of this magazine.

The only studies worth their salt say just the opposite. One of the best isfrom Christine Pearson, a management professor at the University of NorthCarolina’s graduate business school. She did in-depth research involving 775people who had been on the receiving end of incivility at work. These employeeshad been demeaned in e-mails, falsely accused of trying to undermine projects,verbally taken apart by their bosses, and so on. (We’re not talking sexualharassment, racial discrimination, bullying, or workplace violence--justlow-grade lousy behavior.) The aftershocks went right to the bottom line.

  • 28 percent lost work time trying to avoid the instigator.

  • 53 percent lost work time worrying about the incident or future interactions.

  • 37 percent reported a weakened sense of commitment to their organization.

  • 46 percent thought about changing jobs to get away from the instigator.

  • 12 percent did change jobs--to avoid the instigator.

To a large extent, fixing the problem begins with a brutally honest look inthe mirror. In the Public Agenda study, 41 percent of the respondents fessed upand said that they’re at least occasional instigators of incivility in theirworkplace. That’s a promising statistic, in a way. It shows a level ofawareness that’s necessary to start making things better.

Where are you in all of this? Are your actions creating a kinder workplace,an environment where all people are treated with deep respect day after day? Orare you among the 41 percent who are making things a bit rough for yourcoworkers? If you take time to think about it--if you rewind the tape andmentally replay some of your interactions with people--you’ll make bigdiscoveries about yourself.

From there, you can decide on one or two things to do differently. Forstarters, be less inclined to give advice and more inclined to seek it. Say whatyou mean, and mean what you say. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions aboutpeople and their motives; go to the source and get the facts. When things gowrong, avoid the blame game. It’s the system that usually fails, so fix thesystem, not the people.

Go out of your way to say thank you. If you’re overdue in showinggratitude, make up for lost time. When credit and compliments come your way,spread them around to all who helped. If you tend to send e-mails to colleagueswho are an easy walk away, give the computer a rest. Get up, walk over, and havea no-tech conversation.

Gandhi was the ultimate nice guy, and he had it right: We must be the changewe wish to see in the world.

Workforce, January 2003, pp. 22-24 -- Subscribe Now!


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