toxic environments

Being Mean and Being Effective are Not the Same Thing

The New York Times recently published a great article about how there is “No Time to Be Nice at Work.” Author Christine Porath was on target regarding several significant concerns that are especially relevant today. One of the first things that struck me was her points that incivility has been growing, and that it definitely has a cost.

Porath joins others in noting that incivility and similar behavior causes stress. Continued stress, even intermittent stress, creates a hit to one’s immune system, sometimes a big hit. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers are all possible results or side effects of long-term stress. Several of these can kill you or a co-worker.

The author also notes that you don’t always need to experience causes of stress directly. Simply being in a chronically toxic environment for several hours each day can do the damage.

Porath focuses much of her article on mean bosses, but I’d also note that toxic environments can also be caused by fellow employees. That’s why I stress that smart leaders should be aware of the environment at the office, including how staff members treat each other. It’s the type of intangible that can make a big difference in any workplace.

Some will find it unintuitive, but numerous studies have shown that performance is degraded by more than half when testers deliberately exhibit a rude, dismissive or demeaning behavior. Although it would be an exaggeration to expect 50 or 60 percent better office performance just from being nice, the evidence clearly shows that chronic off-hand brusqueness and the like is counter productive. Employers and managers who prefer to be rude and obnoxious can continue to do so, but they need to know it costs them, big time.

One of Porath’s interesting points involves contemporary incivility. She writes that this and similar bad behavior have grown over recent decades and that it’s part of a culture of “busy-ness.” In one extensive study, Porath noted people said they were simply “too busy to be civil.”

“Over half of them claim it is because they are overloaded, and more than 40 percent say they have no time to be nice,” Porath wrote. “But respect doesn’t necessarily require extra time. It’s about how something is conveyed; tone and nonverbal manner are crucial.”

Clearly, no human in any role can always be “Miss Manners,” and any executive, manager or other leader can always be nice. Just ask Donald Trump! But good management starts with awareness if others are experiencing anxiety or stress, followed by offering to listen and providing support. This used to be called moral support—letting people know that they are not going through this alone is stress and anxiety reducing. Likewise, deliberately creating a “Shark Tank” environment as part of a long-term organizational plan is not a good idea. It might work for a 30-minute television show, or even peak office situations that occur on occasion, but it will not lead to long-term success.

Most managers will know if some staff members are feeling pushed too much, but keep in mind that everyone will react to pressure and show stress in different ways. A given factor may be serious for one person and little more than a bump to another. Differences will occur depending on what is going on in the employee’s life; illness, death of a loved one and financial problems are among the possible factors. Likewise, people will show stress in different ways; some are very vocal while others keep it bottled up (which may be worse). That’s why an option worth considering is an annual employee satisfaction survey. These can help you know if employees are overly stressed or anxious and pickup on issues you might not sense.

I would definitely agree with this article that stress in your office should not be overlooked. Although seeing and dealing with it may require some effort, especially at first, handling it properly can definitely pay dividends.