Why You Should Bring Your Humanity to Work

Everyday office rudeness is a seriously expensive business problem. It harms people, productivity and creativity. Research shows witnesses of workplace rudeness reduce their performance by 25% and have 45% fewer ideas. This isn’t an uncomfortable element you should learn to tolerate. It’s unprofessional, inappropriate and must be dealt with. For some practical ways to tackle it head on, read this article.

Workplace Culture Matters

Last century we saw a clear split between behaviors-for-work and behaviors-for-home. Work was an aggressive, competitive place where you went to ‘win’. Efficiency was king. We were too busy raising production and lowering costs to let good manners or emotions get in the way. Home was where you connected with other humans, where you could be your full-self. Where you could be emotionally-connected, and vulnerable.

Fast-forward to today. Through experience and thanks to research (and millennials!), the biggest and best companies know work has to be a place we want to be. Where we connect with others. Where we can be vulnerable. We know that workplaces supporting and accepting early failure as part of the iterative process are the ones winning the race. Especially in this diverse, digitally-disruptive world. Friendly workplaces allow disparate departments to connect to deliver better results. When it isn’t scary to suggest improvements, companies get invaluable insights and ideas from front-line workers. These workplaces allow us to raise our hand for support before we burn out.

Your Toxic Workplace Culture is Expensive

For those with their humanity still left at home, Christine Porath offers some convincing reasons to go ahead and bring it into the office. In her TedTalk, she puts the cost of rudeness in hard numbers. In her research, people exposed to rudeness were five times more likely to miss key pieces of information right in front of them.

Only this week a friend painted this all-to-common picture for me. She describes an office environment where project managers berate individual technicians. Especially juniors. In front of the entire office. They see it as the way to get the work done. They think that instilling fear/humiliation might somehow get the projects done faster. That, by treating them like naughty children, they’ll motivate them to improve.

This week, the behavior did motivate a member of the team. It motivated the newest member of the team to go and find another job. He’d been working there for a year. He has enormous potential to not only contribute but to lead them in new directions. He was the most inspired and ambitious of the lot; the only member of the entire company spending his evenings studying a Masters.

They’ll now waste 200% of his annual wage on recruitment, induction, and training of his replacement. His whole team feels disappointed that he’s leaving, and sad because they understand why. And many are thinking, ‘he’s right, this place is toxic. Why am I staying on?’

But What Can I Do?

Maybe you’re reading this article and nodding along. Because you know the work environment I’m describing. Because you work in it. So here’s my advice, for both small and sweeping changes.

At a micro level, make a conscious effort to be polite, but assertive. Be gracious, thanking people for their help. But don’t be a doormat. If colleagues are rude or aggressive, you can let them know in a direct but respectful way that you need civility to function at your best. We call that effective feedback, and I’ll break it down in just a minute.

At a macro level, consider making a civility-contract together. How? Read on. The examples below are ideas that anyone can put in place. That’s intentional. You don’t need to be the manager to roll these out. Sometimes you have more power to subvert the existing culture if you’re not the manager.

The Micro Response: Get Assertive

The next time you see inappropriate or rude behavior, call it out. Be fair, but firm. Here’s a simple recipe for success.

Step One: Right Time, Place, and Mood

Find a good place and time for the conversation. Friday 5 pm wouldn’t be best. Neither is sitting next to them while at lunch. Or in the adjoining bathroom stall. The invitation for a discussion might look something like this:

“Would you have 15 minutes for a quick talk at some time today?”

Go to a quiet break-out space or meeting room, because these are power-neutral spaces. Try inviting some good-will before you launch:

“I really enjoy my work. It’s important for me to be open about problems. Can I give you some feedback about a frustration I have?”

Step Two: Make an Objective Observation

In first-person, tell them what you have directly observed. Without adding a subjective evaluation to it. For example:

“Earlier today, you came to the area of the office where my team and I work. You said I had made a mistake on an important project. You said this to me while my team and manager were present and listening.”

Try to get some agreement at this early stage of the discussion. Remember that perspectives can give us entirely different recollections of the same events:

Is that fair to say?” or, “Do you remember the moment I am talking about?

Step Three: Combine Action with its Effect

Explain the effect of their conduct on you or your team. Own the emotions you feel and explain why. Avoid finger-pointing or labelling. Instead of “When you are rude it makes me angry”, try:

It bothers me when you raise these issues in front of my manager and my colleagues as a first step. It has the effect of escalating the problem before we’ve had the chance to try problem-solve together

Step Four: Talk Needs and Values

Talk about the value system you have that this behavior goes against. Suggest the sort of behavior you need instead:

I value office harmony and collaboration. I feel it would be more constructive if you discussed the matter with me directly and discreetly first. That gives us the chance to clear up any misunderstandings and problem-solve together. If for any reason you then need to escalate the issue, we can ask my manager to join the conversation.”

Step Five: Wrap it Up Gently

If they’re still in the room, and still listening, you’re doing well. Time to bring it home. Seek their buy-in or point of view again:

Would you be open to trying to do it in a discreet and direct way first in future?” or “Would you be willing to try this out?

Assertive Communication Gets Easier With Practice

This sort of assertive feedback is worlds apart from the way most of us learned to communicate. We’re more comfortable insulting other people. Playing the victim. Using subjective descriptions. Saying ‘all’, ‘never’, ‘everybody’, or ‘always’. “You never show any respect, every time something insignificant happens to go wrong you humiliate me while everyone is listening. Because you have no manners!

However, if we challenge these unhelpful, uncivil habits we can start to give feedback in an objective, non-judgmental way. Owning our emotions, and stating our values. This will nip toxic interactions in the bud. While aggressive, insulting statements can be satisfying in the heat of the moment, they rarely get us the result we really want.

To learn more about communicating assertively, check out the classic, Nonviolent Communication’ by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. Knowing how to state what you need in an assertive but nonaggressive way will help you. In any relationship, at work, with clients, or in family and romantic relationships.

The Macro Response to a Toxic Workplace

If rudeness is ripe at your workplace, know that is a negative culture that has formed. Workplace culture is dynamic, and can shift. Why not watch Porath’s talk as a team? It gives you a name for these behviours, externalizing them. You’re no longer talking about certain ‘rude’ colleagues but about set of behaviours that cost your company time, money, and talent. You open up a forum to discuss another set of behaviours (civility), that generate energy, support, and innovation.

Follow the video with a discussion. How does it feel when we have experiences at work like the ones described? What might work look like if it was more civil? Are there some basics of office civility we can brainstorm as a group and hold each other to? You can take the self-assessment on Porath’s website to find your own areas for improvement (link at the end of this article).

What to Do When Civility Fails

There’s a risk people won’t get on board. They might feel safer repeating the same negative habits they’ve always known. Change can be scary. We can feel vulnerable when taking ownership of our emotions. At least you know you gave it your best shot. Perhaps now it’s time to dust yourself off, and find a job where you and your humanity are both given a seat at the table.


Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

How civil are you?

Watch Christine Porath’s talk as a team, use it as a catalyst for a more respectful office culture

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