Isn't sustainability your job? Why it's time to be nice at work

Inspired Protagonist

Isn't sustainability your job? Why it's time to be nice at work

Have a nice day written on a post-it note
ShutterstockGyorgy Barna
Social niceties have a serious role to play in the sustainability workplace.

A recent New York Times story confirmed my suspicion that the primary reason most employees hate their jobs are lousy managers. Bad managers destroy motivation, passion, interest and curiosity. Bad managers even adversely affect productivity, effectiveness, innovation, growth, teamwork and profitability. But what about the world of sustainable business — we don’t behave like that, do we?

Sadly, based on my own experience, we're just as bad as everyone else — and that’s pretty bad.

So why are there so many bad managers?

Christine Porathjune spent 20 years studying, consulting and collaborating with organizations around the world to learn more about the costs of this incivility, which she detailed in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article.

She wrote in the New York Times, “How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls.”

Beyond that, there are obvious negative impacts of working for a jerk.

Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and the author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” argued that when people experience incivility for too long or too often, their immune systems pay the price. We also may experience major health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers.

Porathjune went on to note, “Intermittent stressors — like experiencing or witnessing uncivil incidents or even replaying one in your head — elevate levels of hormones called glucocorticoids throughout the day, potentially leading to a host of health problems, including increased appetite and obesity.

“A study published in 2012 that tracked women for 10 years concluded that stressful jobs increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by 38 percent.”

Incivility is also the result of a lack of confidence, self-awareness and the ability to be self-reflective.

In businesses like ours, with a commitment to a higher calling, a triple bottom line, a kind and caring attitude to all living things — it seems like we left just one species out of our consideration: Fellow human beings.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the most typical behaviors that can cause these negative results: Walking away from a conversation; answering a phone call in the middle of a meeting; pointing out someone’s flaws in front of others; taking credit for someone else’s work; failing to take responsibility for your contribution to a problem; showing up late with no explanation; always needing to speak in a meeting, not allowing others to participate; always having the right answer; showing constant lack of trust in someone’s else’s ability, and that’s just for a start.

In Porathjune’s research, over half of all managers claim their behavior is the result of their own excessive workload — as we all know, saving the planet is a big job. More than 40 percent simply say they have no time to be nice (we’re too busy, what with global climate change, fresh water running out and toxic chemicals everywhere).

Porathjune continued, “Many are skeptical about the returns of civility. A quarter believe that they will be less leader-like, and nearly 40 percent are afraid that they’ll be taken advantage of if they are nice at work. Nearly half think that it is better to flex one’s muscles to garner power. They are jockeying for position in a competitive workplace and don’t want to put themselves at a disadvantage.”

I would place the primary fault for this destructive behavior somewhere else. When managers fail to treat their staff in a decent, supportive manner, they most likely either are working in a culture that allows or encourages such behavior or are working for an individual above them that has failed to make it clear that such behavior will not be rewarded, or better yet, tolerated. We can blame individual managers all we want, but are unlikely to see any change in their behavior until they personally are disciplined for being abusive.

How is such a disconnect possible between mission and action? Often our mission is just so important, we don’t want to let people get in our way. Wouldn’t our senior-most leaders be better than that? Sadly not.

Why would any company support an abusive culture? For all the same reasons as traditional businesses do: We think we’ll be less competitive if we’re nice. We’ll be taken advantage of. People won’t pay attention to us. We won’t be taken seriously.

Managers who have experienced incivility, even within the world of sustainability, often believe it’s the business norm and claim they know of no other way of managing. But to change abusive behavior, we need to change culture. Often the abusive manager gets great results but at a very high price.

The high price is invisible and falls through the cracks of the traditional metrics companies use to evaluate their performance. Abusive cultures are likely to have high turnover rates and employees that take more sick days, don’t work well in teams and cover-up mistakes. But I’d say that ultimately, the problem starts at the top and trickles down to infect the whole culture.

While Porathjune identified simple tactics that can create marginal improvements — such as better listening, smiling, sharing, eye contact and saying “Thank you” — I would argue that significant change only comes from corporate leadership that is intolerant of incivility; that disciplines managers who are uncivil; and that personally model warm and supportive behavior.

This requires a different type of leader committed to a different type of culture. That's something we lack all to often in a world that glamorizes aggression, competition and individualism — yet it should be a natural fit in the world of sustainable business.