Anyone Thinking About Tolerance and Empathy in the Workplace?
It may seem to be something of a cliché, but it's nonetheless true: now that communication is driven by social media and technology, many feel they can “say” anything that's on their mind, no matter how politically incorrect (a popular expression these days) the message may be. This is an issue that really touches all relationships, especially those within the workplace. The baby boomer generation grew up with specific rules about appropriate behavior and etiquette for almost all situations. Growing up in the South, one of the co-authors of this article was sent to “charm school,” where she was expected to behave like a “lady” and her grandmother made sure she did so until the day she died. The other co-author actually sent his children to Cotillion, hoping to make them into appropriate young ladies and gentlemen. We posit that millennials and those coming after probably never heard of “charm school” or Cotillion, and acting appropriate is no longer an expectation in this “neutrally driven” culture we live in. However, some of these “old fashioned” behaviors may be worth considering in today’s world and, particularly, in the workplace.
A Case for Civility … and Honesty
We've all learned that it's not so much knowledge as access to information that's power. This is particularly true in the technology-driven age we live in. The problem, however, is that with so many channels for distributing information, it's difficult to determine what's actually accurate or true. For whatever reason, many people believe they can post messages on any one or more of the many social media venues and say whatever is on their mind, even if fueled with bias, if it borders on bullying, and has a touch of nastiness.
In our current world, communication doesn't depend on any actual human interaction and, hence, is often actually “one-way messaging.” It's not unusual for a tech-savvy individual to go hours or even days without interacting with other actual humans, either in person or via phone. The nuances of tone of voice, body language and even subtle humor simply don't exist in this type of communication flow. There's a sense missing as the visual has taken a back seat to that which is written. Many people feel they have full license to say or share anything; any thoughts, no matter how targeted, biased or inappropriate they may be. What does this tell us about civility? We argue that it doesn’t really tell us much at all.
Our parents and grandparents believed if something was published in a newspaper or periodical, it was true. And if for some reason it was found not to be true, there was a consequence — a public retraction. Generally, people believed what they read in reputable publications — e.g., newspapers, magazines or books. The same cannot be assumed today. With the proliferation of communication “channels” and the disappearance of actual in-person interaction, we've arrived at an age of extreme cynicism. Now instead of assuming something to be factual, the first thought one has when reading whatever is shared on social media is to question its truth, substance or source. At the very least, there's an element of cynicism with regard to the message or information therein.
What impact does this have on the work place? We argue that this reality has profound implications in most work environments. The retail industry is an excellent example. Is the digital age the true cause of the decline of traditional brick-and-mortar retail? Though it's a major force behind this decline, the shift in overall human behavior and in communication, in particular, has also affected the traditional in-store shopping experience. How many of us have visited a department or specialty store and been subjected to indifference or an “I couldn’t be bothered attitude” from the sales staff? (Think Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”) We're not suggesting that all sales staff behave this way … only most of them. Just visit an Apple store to see and feel the difference. But we're arguing that the decline in human interaction has played a significant role in why so many people choose to forego visiting stores and prefer to transact their business online. Yes, online shopping has its advantages; however, the loss of human interaction also has major (albeit more subtle) consequences.
We offer an example of the power of human exchange in a retail environment. Think about an automotive purchase. One of our colleagues visited the car dealership where she purchased her car for a service issue. As she waited for the diagnostic, she decided to roam around the showroom floor and take a look at the newer models. A salesman approached her as she was admiring the next evolution of her current automobile. We won’t go into a lot of detail, but after several minutes of thorough discussion about the benefits of this new car and a highly successful human exchange where she was thoroughly engaged in a discussion, our colleague decided to purchase the new model then and there.
When she entered the showroom she had no intention of buying a car; she was just killing time. She shared with us that she bought the car because she loved the way it looked and performed after the test drive. More importantly, however, she was totally engaged by the salesman’s attentiveness, knowledge and passion. She said this car purchase was the most enjoyable of any she has had in the past.
This case can be made for any level of purchase at any location. It’s about the value of verbal engagement and face-to-face communication. I grant that buying a car is a major purchase. However, the skill set is one that should be evidenced in any “live” interaction of this type. In other words, it’s about connection and human interaction.
Manners and Etiquette
Manners and etiquette may be old-fashioned terms for behaviors, but we argue that the absence of these is the basic cause of all levels of misunderstanding, confusion and, more often than in the past, chaos of some sort. A few months ago, we conducted a joint workshop for millennials in the workplace and began the session with a simple etiquette test. The assessment covered basics like determining the correct fork to use, appropriate handshakes, the need for eye contact, the time for the use of mobile devices and so on. The results were astounding as the majority of participants were woefully unschooled in basic behaviors.
This was particularly problematic because the client who determined the need for the workshop was the head of an advertising group and these young executives were expected to manage their external clients and develop long-standing business and professional relationships. Service industries rely upon relationships both for in-personal and digital connection. We've found that many millennials and the generation following behind them lack these simple interpersonal skills. While they may excel at utilizing the latest social media platforms, they're lacking in basic human interactive skills — and this impacts the work environment. In an earlier article, we discussed the need for a multigenerational work force. Operating from two distinct and separate communication “platforms” ensures the failure of any cultural and generational melding.
Debate, Not Dogma
Our last point relates directly to this interpersonal skills deficiency. So many individuals now rely on technology, tend to communicate almost exclusively using digital means and believe they can find a site to post almost any opinion. Lacking extensive experience and basic “practice” outside of family and friends, where is the pace of human debate? It's not the fault of any one group or any single generation; it's the almost entropic way in which generations interact (or don’t) and how acceptable misunderstanding has become.
We've found that the healthy debate about ideas and points-of-view have diminished significantly. People tend to express opinions via social media and aren't interested or refuse to consider opposite points of view. We're all beginning to live in silos and, if we're not careful, will exchange the verbal for the written, and the understood for the possibly (and often) misunderstood. How many people don’t realize their tone or the impact of their words when there's no direct line of site of the recipient? Far too many and the number is growing.
We began this article with the notion that information is power. We believe this and believe that the American workforce has always been built on a platform of diversity of ideas and beliefs as well as the ability to argue and find compromise. We argue that differing points of view and healthy debate are critical to human exchange. However, there are rules of engagement and there's some need for this type of guidance (or guard rails).
Every facet of life, including our work experiences, depends on successful human interactions. This includes tech-driven, as well as human or face-to-face exchanges. Manners, respect, tolerance and empathy help set the tone for effective communication. Intolerance, dogma and self-absorption lead to misunderstandings and potential breakdowns in the chain of understanding and partnership. One can create the most innovative product, but without the ability to understand, attract and sell to a customer, that product is irrelevant. And that product maybe an idea, gadget or belief.
Empathy matters. Just look at the explosion of research in the emotional intelligence area over the past few years. Many studies argue that empathy is a critical skill for effective leadership. We agree with this and argue that effective communication is related to an empathic leadership style. Understanding and “practicing” the human dynamic remains critical to the success of any organization. We have an obligation to “teach” our tech-driven populations about human interactions. We're also responsible for preserving civility, and evolve that concept as we change our styles and types of communication. This is necessary in every facet of our lives. And if we don’t start to recognize what' happening, we may face more serious obstacles to getting things done in the future and to achieving as a whole, rather than in parts.