Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So Easy, Even a Fifth Grader Can Get It

Call him idealistic, but even Short Person 'gets' compassion at a fundamental and practical level. My own experience with compassion in the workplace is that it works far better than the alternatives and it's not just some 'more flies with honey than vinegar' platitude from your grandmother.

First of all, whether in the form of pyramid, circle, or chain, screaming just doesn't work very well. It raises blood pressure - yours and theirs - and it tends to not bring out the best in people. Measure 'best' however you like. Productivity and quality both suffer, as does any kind of loyalty.

I have had more than my share of toxic, and even bullying bosses in the past. We used to say it was 'normal' or 'just the way they are'. These days, we're starting to notice a difference between 'tough' bosses and bosses who are bullies or simply too toxic to have to tolerate.

What it comes down to is that tough bosses ensure work gets done. Toxic bosses claim that's what they're doing but they're actually impeding effective work. As far as I can tell, the difference is the existence or lack of compassion. As a result, some of the toughest bosses I've ever had are the ones that have earned my greatest respect and loyalty and I'm sure others feel the same way.

In any case, it's a hot topic. Search on bully bosses or toxic bosses, and you'll come up with more material than you can read in a single sitting. And in Canada, it's going beyond talk - we're now starting to see some legal liability for bullying in the workplace.

The more I read, the more I come back to the notion that compassion makes the difference between tough and toxic. High expectations and the ability to understand where someone else is coming from are not mutually exclusive capabilities.

Still, there seems to be many who somehow believe that success not only justifies toxic behavior - that being a jerk is, in fact, actually a prerequisite for success. Watching the outcome of the first season of Celebrity Apprentice leads me to believe that Piers Morgan and Donald Trump fall into that category. I take it as proof of shifting standards for good leadership that both of Trump's kids seem to think otherwise.

I agree with Ivanka Trump when she calls into question Piers Morgan's tactics during the Celebrity Apprentice finale. Her argument was that it shouldn't be necessary to be a jerk in order to be successful. Donald Jr. had his say too, pushing Piers to answer for his behavior, implying there are dimensions to success beyond just making money.

Throughout it all, Piers' sole defense was that he brought in the most money - never answering either the question of whether he might still have brought in that much money without alienating the people working with him or the question of whether his methods might have reflected badly on the charity his work was meant to support.

In fact that whole boardroom meeting can be boiled down to three basic points:

  1. Being an a$$hole is not (or shouldn't be) a requirement for success
    Corollary - It is (or should be) possible to be successful without being an a$$hole
  2. There is more to success than making money
  3. Making money does not justify bad behavior
Just because The Donald ultimately ignored every one of these points in choosing Piers over Trace as the Celebrity Apprentice winner doesn't mean it was the right choice to make. I personally can't recommend using his logic to justify poor behavior in the real world, even if it did make for great TV.

What I can recommend is a book called The No A$$hole Rule - Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Bob Sutton, which also provides great information on the true costs to the organization that I've only hinted at here. Or you could just try incorporating a bit more compassion at work. Surely if a fifth grader can comprehend the importance of compassion, so can the rest of us.

If you have thoughts or questions about toxic work environments because of bosses behaving badly or co-workers masquerading as jerks, please leave a comment. This is one of those areas where we're still struggling to find a new normal, which means there is a lot more gray than black and white. We'll need a lot of discussion to fully understand and shape that new normal.

How can compassion support and advance success?