Gail Golden explains why kindness in the workplace is so hard — and why it can transform a business.
The cost of toxic behavior
Having to deal with jerk behavior in the office doesn’t just make you dread going into work on Monday. It also drains profits.
The tech world is especially notorious for being a nasty place to work — sexist, competitive to a fault and gratuitously mean. Reports of this kind of conduct abound: Steve Jobs publicly shaming the MobileMe team following a lackluster launch; Larry Ellison saying to his assistant, “Figures, you cow. MOOOOO!”; Steve Ballmer throwing a chair and spewing expletives about the CEO of a competing company. And these are just the big guys whose bad behavior makes news. There are plenty of ordinary jerks sitting at the next desk.
Anyone who’s seen a department gradually empty out under a bad boss knows what a single jerk can do to turnover and recruitment, and then there’s the day-to-day drag on productivity, creativity, innovation and motivation. Still, the numbers are shocking. According to a 2015 Harvard Business School study, hiring a single toxic employee onto a team of 20 workers costs approximately $12,500 in turnover alone. The reason? Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with one toxic employee, even if they like the other 18 co-workers.
Very few people get out of bed in the morning thinking, “How can I be a total jerk today?” Even fewer people are plotting to make you personally miserable. Yet, day after day, many of us come home from work feeling beaten and used.
Why are my co-workers acting so mean?
Psychologists know there are three primary reasons people act like jerks. The first is that people are clumsy. Even with our best efforts, we sometimes inadvertently offend others. Intention does not always equal impact. These slights, the ones we don’t intend, can hurt the most. Because we’re unaware they’re happening, we end up repeating the offense without apology, allowing a small slight to snowball into unbearable working conditions. Clumsiness can be individual, but it can also be systemic — like a company-wide Movember event that fails to account for team members who can’t grow moustaches. These kinds of slights reveal the unconscious prejudices that cause us to stereotype and demean others.
The second reason people act like jerks is that they enjoy it. There are a few people in the world who get off on being mean to others. Fortunately these folks are in the minority, but when they get into positions of power they can wreak havoc.
The third reason is perhaps the most universal: emotional exhaustion. Being a decent human being is hard work, and sometimes we just get tired. Acting thoughtful and pleasant all the time requires us to be aware of and stifle all kinds of angry, frustrated and insulting responses — many of which might feel very good to say out loud. Remaining polite throughout a 2:00 a.m. product launch is no small feat. Even when we try to be vigilant, sometimes we just reach our limit and let our inner beast leak out, often onto the people who least deserve it.
How to build a workplace culture of kindness
So should we just give up and be obnoxious to each other? Of course not. Savvy business leaders don’t want the wasted costs — both financial and emotional — associated with jerk behavior.
Here are some ways to promote kind and civil interactions in your office:
- The “no-asshole” rule: More and more workplaces have incorporated this guideline, first popularized in a book of that title by Robert Sutton. You’d think this rule wouldn’t be necessary. Why would any leader tolerate boorish, hurtful behavior in the workplace? But in many companies, the rule really is, “No assholes, unless you’re a big rainmaker, an essential technical specialist, the boss’ daughter or whatever.” Leaders who are serious about creating and sustaining civilized work environments don’t make exceptions. They screen out jerks in their selection process, and they fire them if necessary.
- No rocks in the snowballs: Consider the following scenario: Under the guise of being funny, Joe makes an offensive comment to Bill. When Bill objects, Joe says, “Hey, I was only kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” We’ve all seen this situation play out. Somehow, now it’s Bill’s failure, rather than Joe’s. It’s like packing a snowball with a rock in the middle, hurling it at someone and then, when they’re bleeding, saying, “Hey, I only threw a snowball at you!” Training managers to call out hostility disguised as humor instead of laughing along will empower employees to do the same.
- Steam valves: Most workplaces are stressful, both because of the nature of the work and its quantity. Even the most levelheaded and caring individuals sometimes feel overwhelmed. A workplace that provides emotional outlets — taking breaks, workplace friendships, exercise equipment, quiet rooms and so forth — makes it easier for employees to maintain a civilized demeanor.
- Leaders who act like grownups: A CEO recently told me that a big part of his job is acting like the grownup in the room. He has to listen to others’ complaints and frustrations, absorb their anger and stay calm even when he’s feeling just as churned up as they are. There are lots of times he’d be pleased to go on the attack himself. But contrary to popular opinion, being the senior leader doesn’t give you more freedom; in many ways, it offers more constraints. By consistently staying in grown-up mode, this CEO helps to promote the overall civility in his company.
- Apologizing: There should be a course in business school about how to apologize effectively. It means acknowledging that you made a mistake, holding yourself accountable and providing assurance that you won’t do it again. It does not mean saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Don’t apologize for my feeling! Apologize for what you did.
With a little commitment and a lot of empathy, a company really can reduce toxic behavior. Yet, even with all the right tools and the best intentions, people are occasionally going to miss the mark. When someone acts in an immature or thoughtless manner, sometimes you just cut them some slack. After all, it’s not easy being human.
Gail Golden is the founder of Gail Golden Consulting, a management psychology and leadership development firm advising everyone from startups to Fortune 1000 companies. For more than 25 years, Gail’s been combining her Ph.D in psychology with her MBA to unlock business insights and help leaders grow.