Thomas Giles talks about the benefits of genuine kindness, from his new book of the same name.
The Old Way
Today, we live in a world where many of our interactions with each other reflect polarisation and disrespect. This dysfunction is present not only in the social and political framework but also the workplace. Stated bluntly, people are often cruel to each other at work.
Countless documented stories illustrate caustic workplace interactions, and most, if not all, of us have participated in these situations, on the giving or receiving end. Research highlights the troubling impact of workplace cruelty: employee disengagement, reduced productivity, the squelching of innovation, the loss of business, forfeited profits, and tarnished public reputation.
The problem has reached a fever pitch, and there’s simply no justification for it.
We’re on a difficult trajectory, with a focus on business results at any cost creating tolerance of harsh and unkind behaviors. This overarching problem has reached epidemic proportions in all parts of society and around the world.
As I write this, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, in the midst of which society is reckoning with issues of racial inequality, unconscious and conscious bias, police brutality, and other complex societal issues. The temptation to yell, berate, and condescend is out there. We will not find our way through any of this by resorting to pressured, cruel tactics. We need an alternative way of working together.
An unpleasant culture is not a magnet for great talent, nor a driver of business opportunities.
Many businesses justify or tolerate uncivil behavior if the individual or team in question gets results. Time and again, I have seen an organisation proclaim its respectful standards of conduct – yet make an exception for certain people or teams who violate those standards if they’re achieving a financially or operationally beneficial result.
In those cases, employees are not held accountable to standards of civility. Letting their behaviour slide may yield a short-term result for the organisation. In the long term, though, such compromises do a lot of damage – in terms of engagement, morale, and productivity throughout the organisation – as people witness the inconsistency or even outright hypocrisy.
Of course, such outcomes reflect poorly on the company culture: In a study conducted by Georgetown professor and workplace incivility expert Christine Porath, more than 25% of those surveyed blamed their own behaviour on their organisation not providing them with the basic skills they needed.
I’ve spent more than three decades observing workplace behaviour, having worked in a variety of high-level HR roles and now as the founder and CEO of a global leadership coaching and organisational development consultancy since 2013.
I’ve seen first hand the dysfunctional patterns I’ve described in a variety of organisations and industries around the world. They are big drivers of what, in the end, results in an extremely unkind, unpleasant workplace experience.
Difficult people might at first seem ambitious and goal-oriented. It may be hard to see a downside when they increase the bottom line. However, over time, tolerance of unkind behaviour drags people down and erodes their engagement.
There are many studies showing that a disengaged workforce doesn’t create as much value as an engaged one does.
Higher engagement aligns with seasons of profitability in the business world, as indicated by a 2018 Gallup report that 34% of the American workforce were actively engaged—up from 28% during the last recession—while only 13% were actively disengaged at work, down from 18% between 2008 and 2012.
Correlation, in this case, is causation, as Jim Harter of Gallup writes: “Organisations that are the best in engaging their employees achieve earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors.”
Unkind work environments defeat engagement. When people snipe at each other, when there are turf wars and politics, condescension in conversation, and demanding or manipulative behavior, a caustic environment results that fuels disengagement, staff turnover, reputation damage, and overall diminished business results.
In an eight-year study of more than 800 organisations around the world, ‘healthy’ companies with non-toxic work environments generated total returns to shareholders three times higher than those of unhealthy ones.
I’ve witnessed first hand the results when a company has a noble list of cultural standards but allows its employees to flout every single one of those values. They’re not held accountable because they get valuable short-term results that benefit the CEO, board, or senior team.
What leaders don’t realise is, almost without fail, the short-term result is not sustainable. Good people leave the organisation, and systems break down. Your workplace culture inevitably becomes your default employer brand, and an unpleasant culture is not a magnet for great talent, nor a driver of business opportunities.
About the author
Thomas Giles is the founder of TG Consultancy and handles an international portfolio of clients, dividing his time equally between the company’s UK and US operations and providing his clients with a strategic HR consultancy. This is an extract from his book ‘Genuine Kindness’, which is published on the Amazon Kindle Store in August.