Imagine that a vicious competitor secretly installed an evil device in your company’s lobby. Without workers knowing, the contraption zaps away half their motivation and productivity. Perky people approach the building, but wilted workers arrive at your meeting.
Guess what? If your company is like most, that nasty demotivating device is already firmly installed. According to research by Georgetown University’s Christine Porath, it has zapped 98 percent of workers.
Don’t, however, look for a science-fiction gizmo in the rafters. Look at your work culture. With its hard edges and intolerance for inefficiency, today’s dominant work culture is sterile and cold. Workers are not comfortable caring for others or even expressing concern for human suffering. A central part of their personality, their Inner Giver, is exiled from their place of work. Without the softening influence of Inner Givers, workplace rudeness is acceptable because it’s direct and efficient; meetings might be harsh but decisions are timely; and employees rarely stray from their assigned tasks. This might sound productive, but it’s not.
A work culture devoid of kindness makes workers feel emotionally unsafe and, thus, triggers their evolutionary response to danger. Their nervous systems secrete cortisol. This “stress hormone,” as it’s known, awakens the part of their personality that protects – using violence if needed – the self. It unleashes the Inner Egotist. You’re now left trying to manage a team of frightened individuals chemically predisposed to hurt each other. Porath studied 800 managers and employees in 17 industries and found that performance dropped in 66% of workers experiencing incivility, as she calls a culture overrun by Inner Egotists.
Fortunately, putting a small crack in an uncivil culture is usually enough for a few courageous workers to unleash their Inner Givers. Their example, in turn, makes it safe for a few others to follow. Before you know it, Inner Givers run your workplace, Inner Egotists are mostly exiled and you discover your team is quite likable.
The question, then, is how the heck do you crack open customary incivility so that workers’ buried benevolence can flourish?
With his angular jaw, tall shoulders and over-sized gestures, you might confuse Charles Antis for the tough superhero who appears in ads for Antis Roofing & Waterproofing, the company he founded. I, however, know better. I’ve seen Charles do something anathema to a superhero. I’ve seen him cry.
As CEO of Antis, Charles decided to reward one high-performing team member with a company-branded charitable gift card at every staff meeting. The winners direct the $25 donation to the charity of their choice and, at the following staff meeting, can share which cause they helped and why. Staff members talk about the high-school mentor who never gave up on them, about hospice caring for their dying mother and about a societal injustice they wish to vanquish. It is at these touching presentations that you can catch Charles wiping away tears.
Charles’ gift-card program is a brilliant example of the practice that restores humanity in uncivil cultures: structuring and modeling giving behaviors. First, Charles provides a space where employees can express their Inner Givers without taking a big risk or feeling awkward. Second, he models such expression.
Charles admits that, once upon a time, his workplace was uncivil. “People were looking over their shoulder. Dyads and triads would form and immediately fall apart because of generalized distrust.” Some urged him to catch and punish those who stole from the company, disrespected others and perpetrated other incivilities. On a hunch, Charles decided to do the exact opposite: try to “catch workers doing good” by instituting the giving-card program. It was an act of desperation but, to his delight, it worked. “I’m amazed that opening the door to simple kindness sweeps away workplace nastiness.” I can attest that today it’s hard to find nastiness at Antis.
For the record, Charles bristles at the suggestion that there’s any connection between him and heroism. If you’re mired in a miasmic culture, you might disagree. His workplace turnaround smacks of a superhuman feat. However, Charles is right. You, and all managers, can also soften your harsh culture. No superpower is needed, only the ordinary management practice of structuring and modeling giving behaviors. Oh, and you might also need a box of tissues.