I was supposed to fly to Chicago today, but my flight was cancelled. On the plane I was going to write an article about how people treat each other at work, the frequent incidents of disrespectful, inappropriate, even cruel behavior. I had intended to use today’s newspaper, citing examples to make the point. Look what can happen on a normal day in America.
It’s Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It’s not a normal day.
My children were subdued as I drove them to school. We quietly discussed what had happened over the past few hours: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon. They wondered who might feel justified killing thousands of innocent people. What could possibly make them feel entitled to cause so much harm?
This colossal act of violence has taken our society’s collective breath away. Yet the anger at its core is not unfamiliar to us. You don’t need to look at the Balkans or the Middle East, Ireland or Indonesia. We see it in incidents of harassment and bullying every day. It shows up in gay bashing and religious intolerance. It permeates relations between people of different races and cultures. It is indicative of a fundamental lack of respect, and it’s visible in most workplaces. It seems to be part of how we, as a species, treat each other.
We are not, sad to say, born kind and tolerant. Survival instincts still push us to fight or flee, dominate or submit. Just watch children at play. The good news is we’re trainable. We learn our behaviors. We can develop different ways of interacting. We can be taught to play nice.
Workplaces have joined the home and school on the front lines of this kind of learning. This has not primarily occurred for altruistic reasons. Organizations that are wracked with conflict and intimidation tend not to be very productive as employees focus on surviving rather than on their work. Turnover is high, loyalty is low. Add the fear of litigation and employers have found all the motivation they need.
In most cases, disrespectful behavior stems from two root causes: the abuse of power (I hurt you because I can) and what psychologists call the “victimization/entitlement syndrome” (I feel you’ve hurt me and therefore I must hurt you back). In the first case people are expressing dominance and control. In the second they are searching for justice and trying to right a perceived wrong. Either way we end up with incidents of harassment, bullying, and intimidation. We see sabotage, the spreading of malicious rumors, and in the most extreme cases – acts of physical violence.
Isolated incidents of these behaviors are unavoidable. When they occur we must deal with them promptly, using each incident as an opportunity to reinforce the organization’s values and to demonstrate commitment.
Where there is widespread disrespectful behavior in an organization however, we are likely dealing with deeper cultural issues. In those cases, the leadership of the organization has usually signaled that bullying, harassment, etc. are acceptable and perhaps even encouraged. Conditions in these organizations are not likely to improve until the leadership moves beyond paying lip service to a set of values and begins to model and enforce the respectful behaviors it claims to support.
The battle against senseless violence and the struggle for respect in human relationships is closely intertwined. There is so much anger, hatred, and distrust to overcome that at times it can seem overwhelming. But like any long journey, this one needs to be taken one step at a time. Families and schools each have an important role to play. So do our workplaces.
Learning to develop respectful relationships at work is perhaps the most important work related skill we can develop. It’s right up there with developing respectful relationships in our homes and communities. Our successes will be a measure of how far we’ve come as a society. Our failures will end up as headlines in your morning newspaper.