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Christine Porath: What Is The Cost Of Being Uncivil In The Workplace?

Jan 18, 2019
Originally published on January 18, 2019 7:21 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Approaching With Kindness.

About Christine Porath's TED Talk

It's free to be kind, yet managers often ignore the value of appreciation. Christine Porath argues that workers and companies experience real costs when there is incivility in the workplace.

About Christine Porath

Christine Porath is a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

She's the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior.

She has written for the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, McKinsey Quarterly and The Washington Post. She serves on the Advisory Council for the Partnership for Public Service.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, approaching the world with gratitude and kindness.

CHRISTINE PORATH: I think people desperately want to feel valued. And, you know, it makes a huge difference to most people.

RAZ: This is Christine Porath. She's a professor of management at Georgetown University. And Christine studies what happens when people don't feel appreciated at work, something she first saw her own dad experience. Here's Christine Porath on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PORATH: Over 22 years ago, I vividly recall walking into this stuffy hospital room. It was heartbreaking to see my dad - this strong, athletic, energetic guy - lying in the bed with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there was work-related stress. For over a decade, he suffered an uncivil boss.

And for me, I thought he was just an outlier at that time. But just a couple years later, I witnessed and experienced a lot of incivility in my first job out of college. I spent a year going to work every day and hearing things from coworkers like, are you an idiot; that's not how it's done, and, if I wanted your opinion, I'd ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PORATH: I just felt like we could and should do better.

RAZ: Yeah.

PORATH: And I was surprised that, you know, management wasn't paying attention. But I was an economics major as an undergrad, and so I felt like, well, you need to show them money. You know, show them what it's costing organizations in order to really put it on managers' radar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PORATH: So I did the natural thing. I quit, and I went back to grad school to study the effects of this. And there, I met Christine Pearson. And she had a theory that small, uncivil actions can lead to much bigger problems, like aggression and violence. We believe that incivility affected performance and the bottom line, so we launched a study, and what we found was eye-opening.

We sent a survey to business school alumni working in all different organizations, and we asked them to write a few sentences about one experience where they were treated rudely, disrespectfully or insensitively, and to answer questions about how they reacted. One person told us about a boss that made insulting statements like, that's kindergartners' work, and another tore up someone's work in front of the entire team.

And what we found is that incivility made people less motivated. Sixty-six percent cut back work efforts, 80 percent lost time worrying about what happened and 12 percent left their jobs.

And after we published these results, two things happened. One, we got calls from organizations. Cisco read about these numbers, took just a few of these and estimated, conservatively, incivility was costing them $12 million a year. The second thing that happened was that we heard from others in our academic field who said, well, people are reporting this, but how can you really show it? Does people's performance really suffer? And what we found is that those that experience incivility do actually function much worse.

RAZ: You know, I have always been motivated when I feel valued and appreciated - right? - for what I do. And I've left jobs in the past when I didn't feel that way. And, I mean, I can't imagine that's unique, right? I mean, why would somebody be motivated to do their best work if they didn't feel appreciated?

PORATH: I don't think that's unique at all. In fact, I did a study with Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review, and I was really curious what leader behaviors were most important to people and had the biggest effect on the outcomes that were measured. And the No. 1 thing that affected people and that people seemed to want most was respect, or the sense of feeling valued. And that was actually more important than recognition, appreciation, than useful feedback, even than opportunities for learning and growth.

And, you know, those people that felt respected - and sadly, it was less than half - they reported being far more focused. You know, they were 92 percent more focused. They said that they were 56 percent healthier. They were much more likely to stay with their firm. And they were about 55 percent more engaged. And so, you know, I was even surprised, even though I buy into this topic, at just across the different leader behaviors that we know are important, that was the one that won out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When we come back in just a moment, Christine Porath explains how we can make the world around us just a little more respectful. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about appreciation. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, approaching the world with kindness. And we were just hearing from Christine Porath about the consequences and the real-world costs of not being civil to your co-workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PORATH: So if incivility has such a huge cost, why do we still see so much of it? I was curious. So we surveyed people about this, too. The No. 1 reason is stress. People feel overwhelmed. The other reason that people are not more civil is because they're skeptical, and even concerned, about being civil or appearing nice. They believe they'll appear less leader-like. They wonder, do nice guys finish last? Or, in other words, do jerks get ahead? It's easy to think so.

Especially when we see a few prominent examples that dominate the conversation. Well, turns out, in the long run, they don't. There's really rich research on this by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo, when they were at the Center for Creative Leadership. And they found the No. 1 reason tied to executive failure was an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style. There will always be some outliers that succeed despite their incivility. Sooner or later, though, most uncivil people sabotage their success.

For example, with uncivil executives, it comes back to hurt them when they're in a place of weakness or they need something. People won't have their backs. But what about nice guys? Does civility pay? Yes, it does. And being civil doesn't just mean that you're not a jerk. Not holding someone down isn't the same as lifting them up. Being truly civil means doing the small things, like smiling and saying hello in the hallway, listening fully when someone's speaking to you.

Now, you can have strong opinions, disagree, have conflict or give negative feedback civilly, with respect. Some people call it radical candor, where you care personally, but you challenge directly. So yes, civility pays. Why does civility pay? Because people see you as an important and a powerful, unique combination of two key characteristics - warm and competent, friendly and smart.

In other words, being civil isn't just about motivating others. It's about you. If you're civil, you're more likely to be seen as a leader. You'll perform better, and you're seen as warm and competent.

RAZ: So in order for a workplace to be a kind of place where people feel appreciated and valued, does it have to be a leader who makes that happen?

PORATH: I think it helps a lot. You know? I think that you need leaders to be role models, and that matters. And people become cynical if, for example, you know, you have values of respect, or valuing people or treating people well, and they're not doing it. So however, I do think it's possible to build from the middle or from the ground up.

You know, I think what you want to do is kind of own and take responsibility for, what's the culture we want to create? OK. Well, then let's high-five each other. You know? Let's find ways to celebrate each other on our own. Let's write each other thank-you notes, or circulate emails for a project well-done.

Or whatever the case may be, find ways to do this with your team or your department. And what we found in our research is people not only reciprocate, but they actually pass it forward in their social networks at work and beyond.

RAZ: I mean, what you're talking about is free. It's, like, a free, cost-nothing. Like, it doesn't - they don't have to bring in consultants. You don't have to spend money. It's so weird that it wouldn't just being the norm.

PORATH: It is. I think the good news, on that front, is if you can get a cycle going, you know, it really can bring a lot of benefits. And again, like you said, without a lot of resources. So I try to emphasize that whenever I'm talking with leaders or organizations that, you know, this is not something that they're spending millions on a gym or, you know, certain employee benefits. This is something that, yes, we need to be more mindful and practice this on a daily basis, but it is doable. You know? And you will get so many wins across the board.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Christine Porath. She's a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.