Civil Actions: Creating A Culture of Kindness at Work

Civil Actions: Creating A Culture of Kindness at Work
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A recent essay in Harvard Business Review makes an obvious but often neglected observation: manners matter. Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, demonstrates the ways in which a study that documented “how incivility diminishes collaboration and performance in medical settings,” echoes results from her own research.

Supporting her contention that “people who lack a sense of psychological safety—the feeling that the team environment is a trusting, respectful, and a safe place to take risks—shut down, often without realizing it.” Porath describes the outcomes: people are less likely to seek or accept feedback, to experiment, discuss errors or speak up on any number of issues. This behavior generates “a cloud of negativity” that translates into negative conduct, and continues as a miserable cycle of bad performance and poor outcomes. Recognizing that many lack the perspective or experience to acknowledge and adjust their comportment accordingly, Porath recommends that organizations take time to develop collective norms and agreed upon standards for civil conduct.

Another way of describing what Portman wishes to create in organizations is culture. While she suggests trainings and workshops to help employees develop “listening and feedback skills,” Jerry Wagner, founder of the Academy of Culture Ambassadors (Academy), takes another approach: look to role models—at work and afield. Then become a role model yourself. Jerry’s career has spanned academia and industry. A prolific software entrepreneur, Jerry has served as head of research statistics with a Fortune 50 company and as a Gallup Senior Scientist and has held positions at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska in Omaha and Bellevue University.

As Jerry recounted to me in a conversation, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements from Gallup, was the inspiration for the Academy. He also recounted the deep impression left when he provided a staff psychologist to support employee’s well being at this first software company in Austin in the early 80s. What became the Academy first began at Bellevue University where Jerry started the Institute for Employee Wellbeing. While there he consulted with several organizations and paid attention when he noticed businesses with an exceptional workplace culture. Imagining a way for others to be introduced to these organizations for admiration and imitation, he started producing the monthly online publication that became Culture ROLE MODELS and eventually progressed to include others in spreading the word to become the Academy.

As set forth in their mission statement, “The Academy of Culture Ambassadors is a community of socially minded workplace culture ambassadors that have an exemplary reputation for sharing innovative practices for superior workplace joy, productivity, and innovation. The Academy supports workplace cultures where there is a relentless passion for kindness, empathy, dignity, trust, transparency, sharing, happiness, compassion, and love.”

Wagner seeks out organizational theorists, human resource professionals, management gurus, and role models from a variety of settings who “celebrate kindness, joy, and love as a business priority” and offer “spiritual leadership” shaped by a conscious capitalist model.

As the graphic above illustrates, the Academy sets forth the proposition that the essential elements that generate healthy and sustainable workplace cultures are known and measurable, as Porath’s research demonstrates. Jerry’s schema clarifies individual and corporate roles and responsibilities, implicitly suggesting that culture is what unites them. Each plays a role in promoting a place where employees want to come to work and collectively solve problems and advance their goals.

Recognizing that an online presence was inadequate, Jerry began developing the concept of local grassroots organizations that could support professionals interested in organizational culture modeled on the essential elements. Fifteen months after starting, there are 7 city chapters of Culture Ambassadors across the mid and southwest. Jerry describes the local chapters as the pillars of the Academy. Each chapter has a lead person with a planning team that operate as self-managed team.

With chapters thriving and plans for new sites expanding, Jerry is raising his ambitions and in October 2017 is offering a 2 day conference in Santa Fe on workplace culture and well-being: Wisdom for Modern Workplaces. Jerry intends for the conference to address kinds of concerns raised by a registered conference attendee: “Our company has great aspirations for creating a workplace culture in which people look forward to coming in each day and are passionate about what they do. We want an environment that develops and rewards high performers who are fueled by their accomplishments and contributions to the team. We want to create a deep sense of collaboration and team spirit. At the same time, we have some deep issues and challenges. I hope to gain insights, inspiration, and tools to fundamentally change our workplace.”

The foundation for the conference, the Academy, and the publications, which Jerry--who does not run his organization a 501c3 non-profit but also does not accept donations and does not pursue grant monies—makes freely available, include the charming Ancient Wisdom for Modern Workplaces, by Graham Williams. Mr. Williams and others, like Marcella Bremer—who as a consultant in Europe promotes positive leadership, inclusive change, and cultures of kindness and has developed an online instrument to assess organizational culture—are lending their support. All share Jerry Wagner’s hope that while creating civility is a necessary first step in changing the climate of a workplace, to build a sustainable and respectful culture requires more. Mark Twain recognized what does work long ago when he observed: "Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see."

Kimberly Rae Connor, Professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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