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A Kind Company

By Scott Ellis, Ed.D.

May 17, 2024

I miss the idea of polite society. As a child of the 1960s, I have witnessed ever-decreasing expectations of decency, respect for differences, and responsibility for individual behavior. If this deterioration can be slowed, then it is incumbent upon people of influence to model respect and self-control. In leading and managing our companies, we have the opportunity, if not responsibility, to create a polite society at work. As the owner of one of the most successful businesses in our industry said, “We are smart, we are highly competitive, and we usually win.
Now I want us to be kind.”

The current rules of engagement on the highways, on social media, and in our relationships have become increasingly volatile and reactive. We may not accept that there is a new standard of behavior, but neither are we shocked when we see people who “don’t know how to behave.” Counting Karens may soon replace the old Punch Buggy game.

Perhaps it is possible for leaders of any stripe to raise the expectation by sharing models for responsibility and respect within our scope of influence. I say perhaps because it comforts me to believe that ignorance drives this bad behavior. If they know better and they are still acting this way, then I must forfeit hope.

One such model that might easily be deployed in the workplace is taken out of the substance abuse recovery curriculum. It may be utilized to de-escalate a conflict between employees or as a description of your own process. The conversation might go like this: “You seem pretty upset. Let’s talk this through.” Having eddied out, the leader might explain that they are working on being more proactive than reactive in communication.

I choose this particular tool because, like most of us, I have overreacted with incomplete information and complete emotion, with the result of escalating conflict and being foolish. To avoid repeating this offense, I ask myself these questions: Who am I upset with? Who was/is the object of my resentment?

This could be a person, an institution, a political party, or a particular group. Prior to asking this question, I may believe I am upset about everything. I might default to generalizations (“Everything is ruined,” or “Nothing is going right”). The simple act of stating what I am specifically troubled by will focus the issue. Then it is a problem defined.

The cause. What specific action did that person take that hurt me? This further defines the event. It also might be an opportunity to explore alternative explanations for the event. Granted, if a person ran over my foot, then my pain is not diminished by their motivation. This may, however, create the opportunity to see the event from a different perspective. The ability to see things from another perspective is a prerequisite to the respect and self-control in a relationship that is my ambition. Without perspective, the population degrades into good people like me and bad people like you. It is a simple way to live on the road to chaos.

The effect. What effect did the action have on my life? What did I feel? When I explore how I actually feel in reference to the other person’s actions, I must start by being brutally honest, even if it exposes an overreaction on my part. Only after being honest with myself about the feeling can I take the next step. Was my reaction in proportion to the offensive actions of the other person? If it was a level 10 response to a level five action, then why do I believe this occurred?

The damage. What harm came from the action of the other person? What damage was developed as a result of the effect I listed above? Has it changed my belief about myself or the workplace? Do I believe it is beyond repair?

My part. What part of the resentment am I responsible for? How did my behavior contribute, even in a small way, to the problem? If I return to the example of someone having run over my foot, then I may need to take responsibility for my own lapse in attention or my decision not to wear steel toe boots on that day. Even if I am a victim, I can acknowledge my own choices. Even if it is determined that my foot-targeter did so with malice aforethought, I will be better equipped to avoid a recurrence.

Conclusion

These five questions might be answered alone or in dialogue. In either case, the result is often a reduction in the scope and effect of the event in question. Company culture models many tools for continuous improvement of quality regarding products and service. This interpersonal model is a root cause analysis for problems in our interactions. One benefit of adding such a practice to a company culture is that it has potential to stem the escalation of a problem between two to the many. It is just one methodology that may be helpful if you intend to restore polite society in your little corner of the world.

One final word. This will never be effective unless it begins with leadership. Only in practicing interpersonal ophthalmology, by which I remove the log that blocks my vision, will I have the clarity or credibility to help a team member with their perspective.


Scott Ellis, Ed.D., delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at workingwell.bz. AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.

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