Mastering Civility – A Conversation with Georgetown Professor and Author Christine Porath - rocketMBA
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Mastering Civility – A Conversation with Georgetown Professor and Author Christine Porath

Christine Porath is the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) and an Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She is also a consultant working with leading organizations to help them create a thriving workplace.

Her speaking and consulting clients include Google, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, Genentech, Department of Labor, and National Security Agency. Christine’s work has been featured worldwide in media outlets such as CNN, BBC, NBC, Time, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Fortune, Forbes, NY Times, and The Washington Post.

rocketMBA got a chance to sit down with Christine to chat about her research on civility and to find out how leaders can create a more productive and happier work environment by fostering a culture of civility.

What inspired you to start researching civility?

At the beginning of my career, I scored what I thought was my dream job, helping a global athletic brand launch a sports academy. As I soon discovered, I had walked into an uncivil work culture where bullying, rudeness, and other forms of incivility ran rampant. The actions of a narcissistic, dictatorial boss trickled down through the ranks. Employees felt disconnected and disengaged. Some intentionally sabotaged the organization, stealing supplies and equipment, padding their time cards with hours they hadn’t worked and charging personal items to their expense accounts. Many took out their frustrations on others, barking orders at colleagues, making snide remarks to customers, and failing to pitch in like good teammates do. Many talented people left, with some joining competing businesses. I was one of them.

I’d like to say the experience left me unscathed, but that wouldn’t be true. I was a strong person (or so I thought); after all, I was a two-sport college athlete at a Division I school. My colleagues were resilient as well—not the type of people who would wilt easily when challenged. Yet many of us were depleted after just a few months of working in a hostile environment. We quickly became husks of our former selves.

After this experience, and watching as my loved ones faced uncivil behaviors over the years, I decided to dedicate my professional life to studying incivility in the workplace and to helping build more positive cultures where people can thrive. Wanting to demonstrate to the world that the way people treat one another at work matters, I set out to show what leaders and organizations lose financially when they allow rudeness to run rampant. Given how much time we spend at work, and how closely we connect our identities and happiness to our careers, I thought that we could do better—that we had to do better. I wanted to show how creating positive, civil workplaces would be good for people, organizations, and society.

In American business, in particular, it seems that sometimes the hard charging, visionary leader is often glorified. Most people would probably say that Steve Jobs didn’t have a lot of civility. Why do you see it as important?

If you’re eager to move up the corporate ladder, people need to think of you as a leader. Studies I performed with Alexandra Gerbasi at the University of Surrey and Sebastian Schorch at the Universidad de los Andes showed that people tended to associate civility (defined in this study as treating someone respectfully, with dignity, politeness, or pleasantry) with being a leader. In a study we did at a biotechnology firm, those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders than those deemed uncivil, and they performed 13 percent better.

Demonstrations of civility also help determine if people see someone as an effective leader. In a global study of over seventy-five thousand people, participants rated “caring,” “cooperative,” and “fair-minded” most highly among the characteristics of admired leaders. A survey I performed of twenty thousand employees worldwide found that “demonstrating respect” was the most important leadership quality for garnering commitment and engagement. As the authors of research who analyzed the findings from sixty-nine previous studies noted, “Leadership now, more than in the past, appears to incorporate more feminine relational qualities, such as sensitivity, warmth, and understanding.”

You might object that some leaders seem to succeed even though they behave uncivilly. I would counter that those people have succeeded despite their incivility. Studies have shown that the number one characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive, or bullying style, while number three is aloofness or arrogance. Sure, power can force compliance, but insensitivity or disrespect can sabotage support in crucial situations. Employees may fail to share important information or withhold efforts or resources; payback may come immediately or when uncivil leaders least expect it. And no one can say if it’s intentional or unconscious.

What is an example of a change our readers can make to be more civil and have more influence in their jobs today?

Before addressing other aspects of civility, master the basics: smile more, acknowledge people, and listen effectively.

Imagine that I am a new manager taking over the leadership of a new group with a lot of acrimony. What should I do right away to start establishing a more respectful workplace?

I would address it head on. Discuss your desire for who you want your group to be. Explain how you expect everyone to treat one another.

Don’t simply impose civility though. Engage employees in an ongoing conversation, defining precisely what civility means. You will garner more support and empower employees to hold one another accountable for civil behavior by involving them in the process.

From his first meeting with the 2008 US men’s Olympic basketball team, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski, coach at Duke University) set two clear standards for his players’ conduct: (1) look one another in the eye, and (2) always tell the truth. He also asked each team member to contribute his own ideas, promising that any idea agreed upon by all players would be added to the team’s standards. The team produced fifteen guidelines that everyone agreed to, including Jason Kidd’s suggestion: “We shouldn’t be late and we should respect one another.” After the team won gold, Coach K explained, “We never had a guy late and we never had a bad practice.… It was me asking them, ‘What do you guys believe in?’”

Organizations of all kinds can benefit from talking about civility with employees. In the Irvine, California, office of law firm Bryan Cave, managing partner Stuart Price and I led employees through an exercise in which they could define collective norms. We asked employees the pivotal question: “Who do you want to be?” And we asked them to name rules for which they were willing to hold one another accountable—what norms were right for their organization. In just over an hour, employees generated and agreed upon ten norms. The firm embraced these norms and bound them into a “civility code,” which they prominently display in their lobby. As Price attests, the civility code was directly responsible for the firm being ranked number one among Orange County’s Best Places to Work.

As the leader, you’ll have to role model respectful behavior. So it’s crucial that you’re setting the tone for a more respectful workplace through your everyday interactions with employees (and others).

Are there any gender nuances to civility that are important to mention?

Both genders are affected by incivility, although we’ve found some gender nuances as to how it plays out differently. Male gender and high status are associated with more aggressive responses, whereas female gender and low status are associated with more avoidant responses. Men and women’s responses aren’t perfectly antithetical: men show the greatest resistance toward peers, which may reflect greater sensitivity to status contests among men.

Are there any known leaders that you think do a great job of having the level of respect you talk about while also achieving exemplary results?

There are a lot of leaders who do a great job having the level of respect I discuss while also achieving exemplary results. Some favorite examples include Jim Sinegal, Richard Branson, and Doug Conant.

Consider the example of Costco founder Jim Sinegal. Regarding the retailer’s customers and employees as more important than its shareholders, Sinegal made a point of visiting stores to simply say hello, a gesture he thought employees appreciated. He also made sure the company respected and rewarded its employees; Costco notably pays its workers an average hourly rate of $20.89, about 65 percent more than Walmart, the parent company of Costco’s biggest competitor, Sam’s Club.

Over time, Costco’s huge investment in its employees—including health benefits for part-time workers—has paid off. As Sinegal has said, “Imagine that you have 120,000 loyal ambassadors out there who are constantly saying good things about Costco. It has to be a significant advantage for you.” Costco’s employees generate nearly twice the sales of Sam’s Club employees. Moreover, they stay much longer with the company: Costco’s turnover among employees who stay at least a year is very low by industry standards. Low turnover costs can save Costco several hundred million dollars a year. In addition, Costco has the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) in the industry. Between 2003 and 2013, Costco’s stock rose more than 200 percent, while Walmart’s rose by only about 50 percent.

We always like to ask… what is your life motto or favorite quote?

One of my favorites is:
What does not destroy me, makes me stronger. —Friedrich Nietzsche


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Before graduating from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2016, Alex worked for three years in public equity investing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Alex enjoys hanging out at the beach with friends, playing basketball, and learning about history. He currently works in Equity Research in Downtown LA.

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