Compassion in the workplace, now more than ever

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” — Thomas Paine

The words above were written during the early stages of the Revolutionary War in 1776. I don’t think it is too dramatic to say that the current times are trying as well, but in ways other than were present in 1776. These are the days of another revolution, this one in the workplace and it has been going on for over thirty years. In this case the enemy is hard to define, the battles hard to identify and stress and tensions are in many cases the order of the day.

In reading a recently published article in the McKinsey Quarterly, ‘The Hidden Toll of Workplace Incivility’ by Christine Porath, I was struck by the correlation between my own experience and what the research cited in the article asserted. Incivility in the workplace is on the rise. Personally, as a consultant for over 30 years I have seen a gradual but constant decline in the “conscience” of the workplace, the unwritten rules we employ to maintain respect in our daily interactions. I am not talking about being politically correct, simply civil towards our co-workers.

If there is one thing I know, and I’d ask you to check with yourself on this, when I feel respected I am open to participate and collaborate, when I do not, I hold back and more than that, think about ways to level the playing field. That’s a nice way of saying that I look to find occasions to get even when I have been offended.

We live and work with populations of largely non-confrontational, conflict averse people. We like harmony but that doesn’t mean we aren’t all capable of plotting to avenge a personal slight. And in the workplace, getting even always has a cost. How does this cost reveal itself? Indirectly. Unexplained turnover of seemingly satisfied employees, lack of collaboration and less than satisfactory customer service are just a few of the ways a business experiences the cost on incivility.

Just how rampant is the incivility in our places of work? The Porath research that supports her article says 62 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they were subject to being treated rudely by a co-worker at least once a month. That figure is up from 49 percent reported in 1998. So, what? Here’s what: incivility is not only in the rise but seems to have a home in the workplace. Seriously, 1998 was not so great either.

Back to the words of Thomas Paine then, what is it about NOW that is so trying that would contribute to the rise of incivility the workplace seems to be subject to? I titled this piece, ‘Compassion in the Workplace, Now More Than Ever.’ I did so working from a perspective that there are no villains or victims in this drama we are all living, we are all living it, employers and employees alike. But, when it is you on the receiving end of some insult, oversight or seemingly thoughtless behavior the fact that we are all in this together is likely not your first thought.

Ever since the advent of the global economy in the late 1970s (some of you will remember the oil embargo of 1974) when the seeds of this current revolution were first sown, there has been a steady unwinding of the connection between employers and employees. Increased competition worldwide in all sectors of the economy had bred a continuous condition of uncertainty which is now accelerated by advancements in technology. It’s all good and it’s all bad at the same time, and stress is the order of the day.

If you are an employer or a manager I hesitate to put the burden of responsibility for civility on you at this moment, life is no less uncertain for you than anyone else. However, the single feature of Porath’s study that has shown the most consistent impact on employee commitment and engagement is being related to by leadership in a respectful manner. As Porath says…

“Being treated with respect was more important
 to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback, or
 even providing opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”

It has never been the case that it was “not personal, this is just business.” If ever there was a great lie that was it. No matter what the choice, be it bringing in new talent from outside the business and passing over long time employees, installing new technology or automating a job, there is always a personal consequence. If these changes can be made in an environment of mutual respect they don’t necessarily have different outcome but they definitely are experienced in much different manner. Compassion for all will make a big difference.

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