Improving Civility in the Workplace

Krista Tippett, host of “On Being,” believes we are in the middle of a big shift in the workplace. For a long time, she says, we were taught to keep all of our personal opinions and problems out of the office — even if that wasn’t the reality. Now, as worker expectations change and people bring more of their authentic selves to work, Tippett says managers need to discover how to allow more honesty and emotions and humanity in the workplace, while still delivering in a high-performing environment.

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

The workplace used to be more of a zone of neutrality, where you went to be productive and get your work done. Your personal life — with all its concerns and emotions — was mainly separate. But in today’s digital social media world, the line between our work identity and our personal identity is blurring. We have more access to each other and our thoughts and emotions.

And increasingly organizations are pushing us in this direction. Research shows how companies get an edge by engaging their workforce more fully, collaborating across silos, skill sets, generations, and individual backgrounds. That means the role of the manager is changing to today’s leaders have to help their employees bring their authentic selves, their whole selves to work, but then also manage the interpersonal dynamics that would have gone unspoken in the past.

Whether it comes to politics, religion, or any controversial subject, how do we engage openly with others in a high-performing workplace while still maintaining a sense of civility?

Our guest today has explored that question in our work and as an organizational leader, Krista Tippett hosts the radio show and podcast On Being. She also curates the Civil Conversations Project and she’s the author of several books. Her most recent is Becoming Wise. Krista, thanks for coming on this show.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I’m so glad to be with you.

CURT NICKISCH: What is your understanding of civility in the workplace? How do you think about it?

KRISTA TIPPETT: The interesting thing is that in very recent history, we didn’t even really think we had to put those two words together in a sentence – civility and the workplace. Somehow in the late 20th century, we lived with a different kind of structure and role expectation in every aspect of our lives, right? Even in the family. People played roles in inhabited them and compartmentalize their lives, including distinguishing between their lives at work and their lives at home.

And somehow that worked and it doesn’t work anymore. And I think new generations, in particular, are just not willing to divide themselves up in that way. And in terms of the civility piece, I mean this is also one manifestation of the fact that the human drama has entered public life and political life in a way that it wasn’t out on the surface before and it and it has entered all of the aspects of our life together. And life at work is one of those.

Somehow we used to be able to pretend that we could separate these spheres out, but I think any leader of an organization now – you know, and I am one – has to take in and acknowledge that people are coming to work, feeling all the feelings, having all the reactions around the things that are happening in public life now.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you have a good memory from your own career? How you thought about the workplace earlier on, and how that’s changed for you?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, yes. I mean I was very ambitious in my twenties and I was in Europe. I was in divided Berlin. I worked as a journalist and  I worked – we didn’t have an embassy in Berlin, we had the U.S. Mission to Berlin. But that was a hierarchical workplace. You know, the diplomatic hierarchy.

I’ve reflected on this a lot as an organizational leader because I have said – I don’t say this anymore, but a few years ago I would say to young employees, “You know, do you know how I knew I was doing a good job when I was your age?” I can’t believe I said this, but I would, you know, and think it: “I knew I was doing a good job when they asked me to do something even harder next.”

Right? I had no expectation that I would be complimented or really nurtured and then there were all kinds of other ways that manifests. Like you just, you know, there was such a strict boundary and so much more expansive a sense for what counted as personal life and private that you would not let intrude on the workplace. You know, even being sick.

I didn’t have any expectation that the fullness of my identity and my personal values would necessarily find reflection in my job. And that is a new kind of expectation. Now to me, that’s about the fact that in the 21st century we are developing an expanded sensibility of what it means to be a whole human being.

And I mean we’re literally getting new information from science about our brains and our bodies and how something like trauma is actually something that we carry around and that it transmits in our social spaces, including in a workplace – like we know things about human wholeness that are about the hard side of being human.

But also about – we know that people who are able to feel good about what they do – who are well, who are healthy – are also going to be, you know, more productive.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s funny, I went back and looked at the academic research on workplace civility and it really took off in 1999, right at the turn of the century, where Lynne Anderson and Christine Pearson wrote about the spiraling effects of incivility in the workplace.

And you know, since then there’ve been so many studies that show how when people feel like their workplace is civil or they’re treated uncivilly at work, their work effort goes down. They also spend a lot of time thinking about it and ruminating about it and how much that affects their productivity. And one study put a monetary cost of $14,000 per employee.

I mean, I think a lot of that stands to reason. We understand now much better how, especially in the knowledge economy, how more satisfied employees are just more productive. But the other thing that is changing is just this merging of the individual with the organization. And then that creates new problems because you still have organizations based on the 20th-century factory.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, yeah you do. And this is tricky, right? We are on a frontier for which there are no maps. It is a good thing. And you know, there are lots of reasons as you’re describing to justify this in economic terms. But I also think, you know, I want to celebrate the fact that more and more people – leaders – want to create a life-giving workplace also because it’s the right thing to do, right? Because it’s life-giving for them and yet what we still have to figure out is it still is a workplace, right?

It’s not a family. There do have to be appropriate boundaries. Authority does need to be exercised, but we have to reinvent how all of that works. In my organization – you know, we’ve moved from, I don’t know, eight or 10 people a year ago to 23 today, which is not a huge organization, but it’s huge growth.

And we are trying to create a culture inside – an internal sensibility – that mirrors the kind of sensibility of the content we offer to the world. But that’s a very hard thing to do. And we’re trying to figure it out. And I know that we had a hard moment where we had to let somebody go, which is going to happen in a workplace, right? But how do we say we do want to be joyful, but also the way we serve each other and are good to each other is also in the job we do.

And when somebody has to leave, you know, this is not a family. And the way there aren’t that many high functioning families in the world, so that’s a difficult metaphor anyway. Do you know what I’m saying?

And I said that when we were having this, this stuff in our workplace, I said – because there was a sensibility of, you know, we care about this person and we’re going to miss them. And I felt exactly the same way and I know that’s going to happen again. But I said, you know, I don’t really want to recreate a family here because one of the things that defines every family is what you are not talking about at any given moment.

So how can we create a workplace where we honor each other and we feel that we are fully human here, but that we speak the truth and that even though we speak the truth in love, but what can that mean in a professional setting? How can we figure out what that means, what the boundaries are around it?

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, you were approaching that situation as a leader and as a manager. And is there a difference between a manager and a regular employee bringing their personal lives to the office because you’re also, as a manager, you know, you want to be able to be yourself, but you also don’t want to burden other people with whom you are. Your job is actually to help people with who they are and what they bring. And so, how do you think about that difference?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, I mean, I wish I could tell you that I knew the answers to this. I don’t know. I’m kind of walking this like everybody else. I will say that I am definitely living into a place in my working life where also as the leader, I also do feel like I bring my whole self, but there’s a lot of judgment that goes into what that means. What I’m expressing when and how.

CURT NICKISCH: Is that talking about ourselves more or letting, allowing personal feelings impact decisions or is it just being able to talk politics, faith, the that things that used to be off limits in the neutral workplace.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well see, I think ironically if we start to get honest about the fact that it was never true that people weren’t bringing their whole selves – you know, it’s just that we weren’t speaking the truth and we weren’t letting our reactions show, but people were losing a lot of nights of sleep over things that were happening and we still all do – about things that are happening in the office. Right?

I think this is a messy period of change, but I think ironically, if we start to honor and acknowledge the reality – because it is a reality – that we bring our whole selves to work, whether we plan for that or not, then I think you start to create a setting where people take responsibility for themselves, at every level of the organization. Where everybody starts to know that they’re bringing their whole selves and then be able to exercise some judgment about that’s true and how do you express it and when do you express it and where do you create the boundaries that are going to work in a professional setting.

You know John O’Donohue is a guest on our show, you know, he says, “Every time you enter into a conversation with another human being, you’re entering halfway into the conversation they’re already having with themselves,” right? That’s just the reality of life. It’s true in a workplace.

So now that we’re letting that be true, we will start to develop a new toolkit and new muscles. Each and every one of us, wherever we are in the organization. And organizations I think are going to be skilled at supporting people in this. We’re going to develop new muscles to take responsibility for that fullness of ourselves and to create whatever those boundaries need to be.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you make of this radical candor, radical transparency movement? Where everything’s on the table to talk about and where you always have a good sense of what your coworkers are thinking of you. Is that something you’ve followed?

KRISTA TIPPETT: I have not followed that, but that is not emotional intelligence. So you know, emotion has come into our workplaces in a way that it wasn’t at least honest about itself before. I think what we want to move towards is what is it to be a wise workplace? And emotional intelligence has been tremendously undervalued in our public spaces and in this sense I think workplaces are public space, just like politics. And as we take this seriously in workspaces that emotion and the fullness of identities are there – then we also want that to be done well and it would not work in any relationships we have in our personal sphere if we laid everything out on the table at every moment, whether somebody was ready to hear it or equipped to hear it or whether it was appropriate or not.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you think of these things that companies have set up to help their employees wrestle with difficult issues in a constructed way, and I’m thinking of like town hall-style forums that a lot of companies held, you know, after police shootings of black people in the United States – those sorts of moderated, facilitated places for people to talk about things that were affecting how they felt in their personal lives and be able to talk about it with people that they were spending so many hours with.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Do you have heard of people doing that and saying that it was really constructive and helpful? Sounds dangerous. It sounds tricky to me.

CURT NICKISCH: It definitely sounds tricky to me too. On this podcast, we talk to the Chief Diversity Officer at Intel. She’s now at Google, Danielle Brown, and she felt that if done right, that that was a very positive thing to do and also allowed people who felt like maybe they didn’t belong or we’re not allowed to participate in that conversation say things because they felt like it was a community talking about it.

KRISTA TIPPETT: What would be interesting would be to talk to people who were there at different levels of the organization. I mean, I don’t doubt – I definitely think we can’t pretend that you know, the world is a very tumultuous place right now. The news is freaking people out moment to moment, hour to hour, and we can’t pretend that they’re not bringing that to work with them.

And I’m sure there are ways to do this, what you described, the town hall forum.

CURT NICKISCH: It scales as the tech industry would say.

KRISTA TIPPETT: It scales. I guess what makes me a little nervous about it is it, it sounds like taking a political form, right? A form that we know in the civic political space.

CURT NICKISCH: Well yeah, it has as both edges to it. It does have that sense of building consensus and community, but it also has the “I’m going to say my piece” aspect to it.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. And so those forums have had value in our life together. I don’t think they’re working especially well right now in political life, so I don’t know why we would think that they would work well if we’d recreate them in the workplace.

I think really the challenge, which is also an opportunity, is going to be to create new forms for this, to ask this question, how do you create ways for people to be feeling all the things they’re feeling? I mean even just about what’s going on politics. And yeah, from a purely functional perspective, so that that’s not getting in the way of them really being at work doing their jobs, or that if it is that we, that there’s enough honesty that…

I mean, let me just give you an example. Like I think we’re going to have to get a whole new vocabulary. I personally, I’m weary of and suspicious of a lot of the catchwords that we’ve used to address and contain contentious issues like diversity and inclusion and equity.

Diversity – the way we’ve done it, it’s about checking boxes. That’s not where we want to be ultimately. We want to have the fullness of humanity in the room, the full array of humanity in the room. We’re working on this in our workplace because we’ve gone from being a very majority white workplace to about 50% non-white, people of color, people of many different backgrounds – a full array of humanity.

I kind of said to my colleagues, we’re not going to call it our “diversity and inclusion initiative.” And so their language they came up with was our “placemaking initiative” and I really liked that, that we want to create this workplace where everyone knows they have a place and feels that.

So that’s expansive. It’s positive as opposed to being, you know, about getting something right. I mean it actually has possibility and openness to it. And that’s just one example. I mean, I think in this period different people in different workplaces are going to be innovating the next stage of things like diversity, inclusion, equity. And the next stage of, oh, the only way we know how to bring a political discussion in or acknowledge the fact that there are differences is to have a town hall meeting.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, you used the word innovating. If you’re able to create that culture, ideally you’re also performing better. It’s the opposite of kind of the old system which is where somebody could be a great performer and hit the numbers and you know, be a total jerk. And that was the person who was “Employee of the Month.”

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yes. And we’ve all, I think most of us still of a certain age we remember those workplaces and of course they’re still with us and those employees of the month are still with us. But you know, I worked in a big 20th century – a successful 20th-century media organization – in which there were so many wonderful, creative people working there and they were being creative in spite of the organization.

So to your point, and I’m having this experience here and we can all think of workplaces now that are doing this. When you create a place that people are excited to come in the morning where their creativity is not hindered by bureaucracy and kind of soul-stealing process and hierarchy, it is unleashed.

So yes, it is more productive and more creative, it is more innovative. I mean, I think the other conversation that we’re having culturally and inside industries and companies and nonprofits is: what is our metric for success? And you know, I think we’re moving away from – of course, depending on what the business is – were moving away from necessarily, that the measure of success is greater and greater productivity, greater and greater profit. Which is not to say that we don’t value productivity and profit, right?

But that’s also this other interesting reflection and perhaps reframing that is flowing out of human beings – 21st Century human beings – wanting their work to be more integrated with their life, with their life in the world with who they want to be with the world they went to inhabit. With the world we’re creating for our children.

CURT NICKISCH: What do you tell individuals who are wrestling with the same problem, but just from a different position in the organizational hierarchy. What would you suggest to somebody who’s an individual contributor or an aspiring manager? What would you tell them to be thinking about if they want to help shape what the future organization looks like?

KRISTA TIPPETT: One thing I would say is to take in what a remarkable and wonderful thing it is to be living in a moment where we’re asking that question so seriously. And to take in that – as you and I have been discussing – we’re kind of on this frontier with no maps, which is also very exciting and creative and also maddening and difficult. I don’t know if this sounds soft, you know, in the context of the world of business, but I think one thing that’s happening is we are kind of redefining what is hard and what is soft, right?

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. The hard skills are, are easy in the soft skills are hard.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. And so this notion of living the questions, [Rainer Maria] Rilke, another turn of century person: that there are questions we have to live because we can’t live into the answers yet. And I think with this, there are in fact great leaders, innovative organizations all over the place, not necessarily the ones that get all the attention, right? You have to look around and you have to find your teachers and you have to find your mentors.

And I think it’s so important to have your community of people, of friends, you know, leaders or managers, if that’s what you’re doing. We kind of have to accompany each other right now because we are making this up. But I would say hold the questions because one of the ways we’ve acted and lived that has gotten us into this place we’re in now, and one of the things that goes wrong is that we’re so quick to leap to answers and solutions or opinions, right?

As you’re saying like, “I’m just going to blurt it all out.” These are really civilizational reframings we’re going through. And I do believe, and I believe this and you know, again, I don’t feel this is soft, I feel this is hard. That you formulate a better question. We know that in science like you hold the best question you can, and that will yield the better discoveries.

So even as you having to walk whatever you know is the everyday work, you’re holding this big civilizational question and looking for the wisdom that’s out there and letting it be okay that we don’t have all the answers yet.

Because we all know this also – if you rush to the answers on hard things, you often waste time, you know, in the end, you waste time. You know, sometimes innovation is innovation and sometimes it’s something that you’re going to end up spending a lot of money and time rolling back. So again, these, these civilizational questions – this beautiful question of how we create not just whole people, but whole organizations – life-giving. You know, Annie Dillard said how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. How do we spend our days? At work. So we have to get this right.

CURT NICKISCH: Krista, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Thank you. Have a beautiful turn of the year.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Krista Tippett. She’s the host of the radio show and podcast On Being. She curates the Civil Conversations Project, and her most recent book is Becoming Wise.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We got technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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