Hal Gregersenis executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and aThinkers50 management thinker; talks sense about incivility and at the future of leadership for Forbes.
Incivility - in the community, in politics, in the workplace - is on the rise. In one survey, nearly everyone (79%) believes it’s creating a serious problem in society. It’s whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls. It’s affecting business. It’s compromising the American Dream for future generations. How we treat one another matters. It centers on respect - something we, as a society, don’t seem to respect.
Many place blame for our plethora of problems at the feet of two camps: parents and leaders. It’s a fiery debate. But regardless of where the worst of our issues originate, leaders have the distinct responsibility - and greatest opportunity - to be the solution.
Tom Kochan, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor and author of Shaping the Future of Work, shares both my concern and my optimism. As he explained in our recent interview, “There’s such a deep need to bring people together. We have so many divisions in our society, in our workplaces and in our personal lives that we need leaders who can bring people together to resolve problems, to build consensus, to mobilize action, and then to actually make progress in dealing with the difficult challenges we face every day.”
Tackling bipartisan challenges from collaborative base has never been easy. Over 30 years ago I worked for two U.S. Senators in Washington D.C. Toward the end of my second (and final) stint in the capitol, I heard a retiring U.S. senator lament at how “statesmen leaders” were few and far between - in the mid 1980s! His conclusion was accurate then, and is even more so after the divisive presidential politics of 2016. Clearly, the need to find more common ground is critical to safeguarding our future - of work and society. In a recent interview with me for the MIT Thought Leader Series, Kochan and I explored three ways today’s leaders can tackle the destructive effects of incivility:
1. Invest in your workforce. Labor isn’t a commodity, a cost to be minimized and controlled. Good, quality jobs equate to higher productivity. Southwest Airlines is a prime example of what Kochan calls “high road employers.” It is profitable, productive and a “best place to work” for good reason (research by our MIT Sloan colleague Zeynep Ton frames this dynamic as a ” good jobs strategy “). Even though Southwest Airlines is highly unionized, it works effectively with labor partners. Its unions - which represent 83% of the airline’s workforce - have generally cooperated with management on business improvement initiatives even as they bargained over pay and benefits. A few years ago, for example, jet fuel prices were climbing sharply. The company and the pilots’ union launched a joint program known as Plane Smart Business to get pilots involved in tracking their own fuel usage and coming up with ways to reduce it.
2. Empower your people. Strong evidence says workers need a voice; they want to make a difference and they want do it in a cooperative, collaborative way. Kochan, co-director of MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research (LINK), has long studied the tradition of unions; he argues that they’re no longer working well in our society. It’s time to reinvent them. The good news, he says, is a wide range of experiments with new forms of mobilization and worker representation are now underway inside and outside of the labor movement.
But beyond unions, there are other ways leaders can - and should - encourage employees to speak up. Invite participation and exchange of ideas, and use them. Support autonomy and personal leadership. Create the space and resources for people to solve critical problems themselves. Build teams that bring diverse perspectives together to get important work done. Ask questions - and even more important, create a culture where others ask senior leaders crucial, even uncomfortable questions. But most of importantly, as organizational culture expert Ed Schein advises in one of my favorite books, stop telling and start listening.
3. Unite forces. Above all, respect really is about collaboration. Kochan makes this point clear: “It’s not enough for business leaders to address these issues… it’s not enough for workers either, individually or collectively. We must find ways to get businesses, government, educators, workers, all on the same wavelength - leading, negotiating and working through differences for the common good.”
He recalled a time when a group called the National Policy Association would bring government, business, labor and the academic community together. “You saw people sitting down, recognizing they had different responsibilities and sometimes significant disagreements, but you could see the personal respect that was built [through discussion]. You could see the fact that when a crisis occurred, this business leader or CEO personally knew the labor leader, and would call and say, “This might be getting out of hand. What can do? How can we address this? How can we bring this together before something unfortunate happens?” This doesn’t happen much today. We need to rebuild them - which is precisely what Peter Sims and team have been trying to do at Parliament for the past several years.