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 workplace? 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.