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Are We Encouraging Uncivil Workplaces?

Thursday, August 1, 2013
The Society for the Advancement of Consulting® has asked its global members to comment on whether organizations were encouraging or discouraging uncivil workplaces and customer interactions. "We are a global association of top consultants," notes SAC CEO Alan Weiss, PhD. "and we regularly ask our clients and our members what they are seeing. Here's a representative sample."

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a San Francisco Bay Area executive coach and consulting psychologist. Maynard is the president of Working Resources, and an expert in strategic talent management specializing in executive coaching and emotional intelligence-based leadership development.

Dr. Brusman notes: "While leadership development programs may promote social and emotional intelligence, we’re not doing so well in our workplace interactions. Over the last 14 years, thousands of workers have been polled on how they’re treated on the job—and a whopping 98% have reported experiencing uncivil behavior. In 2011, half said they were treated rudely at least once a week, up from 25% in 1998.

"The only way to prevent rudeness and incivility is to change the way an organization approaches problems. Leaders must be aware of the company’s culture: Does it consciously or unconsciously allow for bad behavior? Rudeness and workplace incivility can be responses to frustration, fear and uncertainty in high-stress work organizations, especially in an era of globalization, new technologies, and economic volatility. Stress can be mitigated by a healthy work environment, where employees are trusted and treated with dignity. Studies show that when people perceive the workplace as fair, they don’t act out."

"We are seeing a rise in what I would call faux civility in customer facing roles," said Linda Popky, president of Redwood Shores, CA-based strategic marketing firm Leverage2Market Associates. "This includes the ‘greeters’ who accost customers as they walk into a store and the invariably too-cheery-to-be-for-real call center staff we’re all encountered one too many times.

"These employees are trained to be invariably polite, to thank the customer for their business, and to apologize for errors—even to address the customer by first name. The problem is they are so limited in terms of their ability to actually solve the customer’s problem that the situation often devolves to a frustrating, negative encounter. Customers become irate, employees try to stay cool and calm amidst the storm, and very little is accomplished.

"Rather than focus on civility as the end goal, best-in-breed organizations empower their customer facing employees to listen carefully, assess the situation at hand, and do what needs to be done to solve the problem. We expect customer facing employees to be polite, but successful organizations also expect them to get results for customers," she said.

Gayle Lantz, leadership expert, author of Take the Bull by the Horns and founder of WorkMatters, Inc. in Birmingham, AL notes that the degree of civility differs from organization to organization. Lantz says, "Employee behavior is often driven by the example set by senior executives. Top executives should be aware of how they are perceived."

In her work with organizations in the south, some executives have expressed concern that employees are "too civil." As one client said, "Our people are too nice to each other. They are not giving direct feedback or challenging ideas." Lantz encourages leaders to "be assertive, speak their minds, address problems fearlessly and work through conflict constructively. You don’t have to sacrifice civility in the process."

"As a global business consultant and former supply chain executive, I’m seeing a trend of increasing civility in the workplace; however, it often comes with an offset to business performance," points out Lisa Anderson, President of LMA Consulting Group, Inc. in Claremont, CA. "For example, I often see that my clients are overly concerned with each person’s perception or feelings because they are worried about HR complications; instead, they must address reality head-on if they want to thrive in today’s new normal business environment. Those executives who are willing to address reality and confront performance issues in a respectful manner will not only increase civility but will dramatically improve performance – and just might leapfrog their competition."

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