Employee Engagement: Are You Nice Enough?

Employee Engagement: Are You Nice Enough?

June 25, 2015

Some days, it’s tough to be nice. By the time you get to the office, you may have already battled getting everyone out the door to school and work, encountered a heart-pounding dose of road rage on the commute, and maybe you haven’t even had your coffee. But in the workplace, nice matters and for more reasons than you’d think.

Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business laid it all out in a New York Times article, “No Time to be Nice at Work.”

Not only does work stress shorten lives, but incivility also reduces our ability to be effective at the office.  In one study of 4500 hospital workers, “71% tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct to medical errors, and 27% tied such behavior to patient deaths.” In less life-or-death office situations, those working in “an environment characterized by incivility” are less able to solve problems, be creative, and process information. After a rude encounter, study participants did 61% worse on word puzzles.

What’s going on? Being rudely treated makes us question our competence and fear making any kind of move at all. It becomes a loop we replay in our minds, occupying our mental energy. We’re busy being mad or offended or hurt. Being rudely treated becomes a symbol of being undervalued in the workplace. It can break the link between the employee and the organization. I don’t matter here, we say to ourselves… So why bother?

Interestingly, Porath has also found that the behaviors that disrupt our workplaces aren’t always intentional or obvious. They can represent a simple lack of manners, that has wider repercussions.

Among bosses, Porath gives us the top three rude behaviors from a recent survey, citing managers who:

  • Interrupt people
  • Are judgmental of those who are different
  • Pay little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions

Not to be outdone, the top three rude behaviors survey participants noted in themselves:

  • Hibernating into e-gadgets
  • Using jargon even when it excludes others
  • Ignoring invitations

In looking at this list, I confess to being guilty of at least one on a relatively regular basis.

Unfortunately, some managers believe that a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership is the best. In fact, our colleagues and employees judge us by many things. Research at Princeton and Harvard shows that “warmth and competence… account for more than 90% of the variation in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us.” And being perceived as being both warm and competent makes a strong leader who inspires trust and builds necessary relationships.  Porath writes of one experiment, “a smile and a simple thanks (as compared with not doing this) resulted in people being viewed as 27% warmer, 13% more competent, and 22% more civil.”

To thrive in the workplace, we all need to feel respected and to be assured that our thoughts and opinions matter – that we matter. That’s a big part of what employee recognition and engagement programs are all about. They help people understand what’s expected of them, then set a framework in place to make sure they are acknowledged for the contributions they make. They also provide leaders with a path to doing the right thing and treating people with appreciation and respect.

Make time for the “thank you.” Leave road rage in the car. Stop at Starbucks for that second cup of coffee before you get to your desk. You’ll be a better leader.  Your team will have a better chance at success and will feel better about your organization.


You can read more about Christine Porath’s thinking on burnout in the workplace, click here for our blog.

And to learn how recognition and engagement programs can help your company institutionalize the right leadership behaviors, see our article for the Performance Improvement Council here.