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Seven Steps For Creating a Kinder, Gentler Workplace

Is the election getting your down? You are not alone; a new American Psychological Association/Harris Poll survey finds the presidential election is leading to incredible levels of personal stress!

This election has become so dark, and so negative, that we're actually feeling it in the pit of our stomachs. Incivility -- at least in the media -- has reached a new high in this election. APA experts suggest limiting our media exposure until election day to block out all the very stark, incredibly mean messaging.

We can shy away from media, but we can't shy away from work. We still need to show up every day -- after somebody cuts in front of us in the coffee line and somebody else cuts us off in traffic, that is! Dealing with the thousand cuts of incivility every day can take its toll on our stress level. I still believe that most people are essentially good and will do the right thing in the end, though. For every time someone cuts us off in traffic, someone else will hold open a door for us. The warm people in life are a much-needed counterweight to the coldness we encounter in other people.

When Workplaces Get Leaner...and Meaner
What if you're a new manager who feels like your workplace has become not just lean, but incredibly mean? You feel like the last few years of rough and tumble social and political discourse -- on top of the lingering impact of the Great Recession -- has left a mark on employees. "All for one, and one for all" has been replaced by "all for me." Co-workers who once said "good morning" don't bother to say it anymore. General cooperation has turned into zero-sum competition.

You might feel like it's a lost cause to expect much empathy and civility in the current environment, but it's something we can, and should, expect from each other on the job. There are basic things we can do today to turn the tide back toward civility and cooperation if we feel those qualities are lacking at work. Here are seven steps for working toward a kinder, gentler workplace:

1. Set some ground rules. What are the ground rules for kindness and civility in your workplace? Now is a great time to visit this topic with employees, since kindness and civility (or the lack thereof...) is on everyone's mind at election day looms. Ask employees for their input. How do they define "civility" at work? What would make this workplace a kinder, more civil workplace?

2. Set a good example. A code of civility is included in the company manual, but management doesn't have the time or energy to follow up and enforce it. Employees quietly read between the lines to see that what management says about civility doesn't really matter. When this happens, the office bullies feel empowered. What's to stop them? If you're a manager, know that employees are quietly looking to you all the time to set the example of civility around the office. What you aren't saying and doing speaks volumes. Disciplining toxic employees sends the message that toxic behavior will no longer be tolerated.

3. Be fair and communicate well. Employees might grumble about a workplace decision, but they'll come around to acceptance if they think your decision is fair and balanced, all things considered. Communicate the "why" along with the "how" of final decisions. Employees want to know what's going on at work. If you don't tell them, they'll fill in the blanks. It's not fair, but that's what happens.

4. Make time for employees. Employees -- especially those who are on the front lines dealing with grumpy, suspicious customers all day -- need to know that management has their back. Knowing they can come to you with questions and concerns (or simply to vent about a particularly bad customer interaction) can make all the difference in how they view the job. Don't just talk, listen. Strive for short, weekly one-on-ones with each employee in the department. Touch base to ask how things are going. Face-to-face communication is the only way to really find out what's happening with people!

5. Mix up the office cliques. If employees have worked themselves into Breakfast Club-like cliques on the job, then mix things up. You might change their seating arrangements or host a departmental retreat where employees will be grouped all day long with employees from another clique. Look for ways to pair employees from different cliques on specific projects where they have to cooperate and get to know each other. The holidays are just around the corner too, which presents opportunities for having employees who don't hang together help plan the company party, and so on.

6. Hire for kindness, not just for skills. An applicant has all the right skills and qualifications, but what about manners and basic kindness? Hire in haste, and you could repent at leisure as a new hire manages to change the entire dynamic of a department toward meanness. I've seen it happen. Employees got along well until so-and-so showed up, and then morale went down the toilet, turnover went up, and eradicating the bad vibe became nearly impossible. Set the bar high for kindness, fairness, thoughtfulness and empathy in new hires. Ask interview questions that help you gauge these traits. Here are seven great questions to ask.

7. Don't let rudeness stand. Let's say that you overhear an employee take a unkind swipe at another co-worker. Do you keep walking past, or do you say something? Sometimes, simply asking, "Why would you say that? It's sort of mean, don't you think?" can make an office bully think twice next time. At the very least, you're letting the employee who was on the receiving end of an insult know that somebody else heard it too so they feel validated in knowing it was an unkind thing to say. Start standing up for your co-workers in small ways. We diminish a bully's power when we stand up for each other. There's strength in numbers. We're all in this together!

We can all do our part, but management must lead the way toward a kinder, gentler workplace. This is no longer pie-in-the-sky thinking; it's crucial to developing workplaces that continue to work well for employees and customers alike. Now go play nice.


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