by Gael O’Brien
An abundance of research on incivility points to the mountain we need to scale. Incivility (which includes behavior or language that is rude, disrespectful, offensive or demeaning) is on the rise. It’s also contagious – which is why it’s called “the incivility bug” – according to incivility and respect expert Christine Porath.
How does this apply to us? Well, few of us get a free pass here. In research done by psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team, as many as 90 percent of us are likely overconfident about how self-aware we actually are. This puts the kibosh on grade inflation around how well we know ourselves, our impact, how others see us or just how respectful we actually are. This “incivility bug” doesn’t just contaminate our work environments, it pollutes our leadership. It deals a blow to employee engagement, trust (on every level) and why anyone would want to be led by us or buy what we sell.
Asking the bigger question about our own leadership
These challenges inherent in being human go back to Adam, Eve and the snake. Nonetheless, the timing now seems critical to develop further our leadership capacity, challenge our own overconfidence and deepen our awareness of ourselves and how respect shows up in our impact on others. The outcome is a greater sense of personal wholeness – always helpful given the pressures of leading – as well as a more authentic, compelling leadership presence. To that end, let’s look at some resources and ideas supporting respect, self-awareness and presence. Afterward, you might even be inspired to reread psychologist Daniel Goleman’s classic on emotional intelligence “What Makes a Leader.”
Some might argue this approach is futile, going against the flow of the tone being set by the President of the United States communicating in tweets many consider bullying. For example, his encouraging a boycott of Harley-Davidson, when they pushed back against proposed tariffs. However, straw horses won’t take us where we need to go.
The bigger question is very personal — about the kind of leader your team and company need in order to achieve results, organizational purpose and mission as well as sustain crucial relationships. Leadership around civility and respect turns around organizations, creates sustainable engagement and changes lives. Two examples: Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, led a financial and employee engagement turnaround with a conscious agenda to lead with civility. And it worked. Retired Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was honored for his “gift of empathy” during his tenure which saw a reduction in crime as well as a new vision for community policing that demonstrated respect and earned him most Bostonians’ trust, according to a Boston Globe editorial. Evans is now Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Boston College.
When our agenda rushes past the needs and humanity in others, we get outcomes like:
- German scientist and preeminent empathy researcher Tania Singer, who was relieved of management responsibilities of her lab and agreed to a sabbatical as a result of accusations from lab colleagues that over the years, while doing her ground-breaking empathy research, she created an environment of emotional abuse and intimidation.
- Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s derisive tweet backfired. He was outraged at a diver involved in the underwater rescue of trapped Thai athletes because he’d criticized Musk’s solution.
- CBS has begun an investigation into six sexual harassment and intimidation complaints against Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves. Moonves recently had become a prominent voice supporting Hollywood’s #MeToo movement, helping establish the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equity in the Workplace.
What to do; what not to do
In a recent podcast, “Curing the Incivility Bug,” Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said stress and technology are the top reasons people give, according to her research, to explain why they are uncivil.
Stress overload is a signal every leader needs to monitor, but everyone is different in what methods most help recalibration. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises are one option. Recognizing our reactiveness and probing what is driving it can also help us slow ourselves down. If we allow stress to compound itself, it can lead to a situation Elon Musk described about himself in a recent interview with The New York Times, “Elon Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil.”
As civility is also contagious, Porath had suggestions about how leaders can be more respectful in conversations with employees. Being present includes:
- Making eye contact
- Attentive listening (as opposed to multi-tasking on the lap top or iPhone)
- Not interrupting whomever is speaking
Porath points out, little things (like smiling when you pass someone in the hall and saying thank you and expressing appreciation) add up. These gestures demonstrating you value others catch on and are replicated by others.
In a July-August 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” author Kristie Rogers cites Porath’s research that 20,000 workers worldwide ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. However, they also said disrespect and uncivil behavior were increasing each year in their workplaces.
Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University, offers seven ideas for how managers and leaders can convey owed and earned respect in their workplace. One suggestion is establishing a base line of respect that is made clear throughout the organization; something Conant at Campbell’s and other companies have done.
Which brings us back to self-awareness: our ongoing discovery process of going deeper into what makes us who we are (strengths, weaknesses, values passion etc.), how we can sabotage ourselves and what our feelings and instincts tell us. It’s triggered by our focus on development or when we are in change, challenge or crisis. New insights break through our old sense of self. In doing so, we often have to surmount the human hurdle of our not seeing what we don’t want to see; as well as what author Anais Nin wrote nearly 60 years ago (that had its origins in the Talmud). “We don’t see things as they are,” she wrote, “we see things as we are.”
In addition to Daniel Goleman’s and Tasha Eurich’s work on self-awareness, leadership development experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman address diagnosing our weaknesses. They recommend searching out “a truth teller,” a person whom you can count on to share honest feedback who sees that you really want that feedback. If that doesn’t work, they suggest hiring an executive coach or therapist.
The net result of our work to know ourselves far better offers the reward of creating what social psychologist Amy Cuddy refers to as presence. She describes presence with six words that translate into body language in her Ted Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are:” passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, authentic and confident.
In “Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges,” Cuddy explains we have presence when we are able to express our true self, operating out of values etc. that make us who we are. We have it, she elaborates, when we feel personally powerful—which is a power that comes from believing in and trusting ourselves. We have it when we are fully in the present moment.
It is presence, she explains, that enables us to meet life’s inevitable challenges with equilibrium and confidence, not “raging anxiety.” It isn’t a permanent state obviously. We move in and out of it based on our self-awareness.
The ROI is worth the journey.
Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.