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Civility: The Vast Untapped Resource

How you—and everyone in your organization—treat others affects your company's reputation, relationships, and bottom line.

Treating people well is not just a good principle to live by. It leads to better relationships, strengthens careers, increases productivity, and even improves profitability.

Treating others poorly affects everything: it diminishes business relationships, reputations in the community and the bottom line. Harsh remarks or expressing opinions in sarcastic or cynical ways can destroy the fabric of an organization.

In short, it pays to be civil.

Who says so? Dr. John Lentz and Ron Schmidt, co-authors of How Am I Treating You? Living With Civility & Dignity. Their concise, thought provoking book provides insights into business relationships that can benefit every top executive in the world. Chief executives are in a unique position to lead a civility revolution that will benefit their organizations and society at large in a massive trickle-down effect.

In business, instituting civility throughout an organization can act almost like the simple tapping of a vast untapped resource. For example, Montage Hotels and Resorts began teaching, reinforcing, and rewarding grace and humility in the workplace. According to CEO Alan Fuerstman, the behavior resulted in zero turnover in the senior management team in 5 years, 10 percent turnover in management, and 25 percent in non-management — resulting in a 50 percent advantage in the industry.

According to Donald Keough, past-president of the Coca-Cola Company, and author of The Ten Commandments of Business Failure, civility is the bedrock for successful leadership. Keough visited associates in over 140 countries and found one universal reality: People respond to common courtesy in every language and return it with joy. How Am I Treating You? makes it lucidly clear that living with civility and dignity is the centerpiece of a congruent leader.

Treating one another as mere pawns in the game creates its own negative context; trapping people like so many mice on so many tread mills. Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule vividly describes how extreme personalities adversely affect the productivity of those in the workplace as well as the businesses themselves.

Jeffrey Krames’ book, Inside Drucker’s Brain, details Peter Drucker’s insights on Jack Welch, the famed former head of General Electric. Drucker stated that while Welch had many good instincts, his most valuable quality was that he was a great listener. In addition, he asked the right question at the right time of the right person. For the executives of the world, the job is to be the best listener and ask the right question, to affirm and respect employees.

Creating meaningful relationships lies at the core of a successful organization. Treating employees well translates into their treating customers as they would want to be treated, and results in long-term organizational success. According to Walker Information, workers are six times more likely to stay on the job when they believe their company acts with integrity.

Towers Perrin reviewed 25 companies that are renowned for public integrity and consistently rated as desirable places to work. These companies gave their shareholders a 43 percent return, more than double the S&P 500.

David Batstone details the success of Odwalla, a highly successful subsidiary of Coca-Cola, in Saving the Corporate Soul. Their companywide exercise resulted in employees’ determination to act with “honesty, integrity and respect” in their relationships with suppliers, vendors and customers.

This notion of respect for one another may sound “old school,” but think about companies that live this truth‚ĶSouthwest Airlines had 69 straight quarters of profit before the global financial melt down. Howard Behar of Starbucks, in his book It’s Not about the Coffee, prioritizes the relationship when he says Starbucks is in the people business selling coffee, not the coffee business serving people.

Compare that to recent challenges of Toyota where market values have seen substantial declines. The Wall Street Journal reported that the current chief executive, Mr. Toyoda, inherited a company weakened by non-family predecessors who sacrificed quality for faster growth and fattened margins. A former executive stated the root cause of their problems was that the company was hijacked some years ago, by anti-family, financially oriented pirates. Those executives didn’t have the character to maintain a customer-first focus, with civility as a foundation.

Also consider BP’s situation in which 11 lives were lost in a drilling platform explosion that reportedly occurred as a result of cost cutting measures to enhance investor returns. Maximizing profit prevailed over worker safety ‚Äî a decidedly uncivil measure. As weeks turned into months without a solution to plug the leak, BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, exclaimed “I want my life back!” BP’s market value dropped 40 percent. WSJ reported that Hayward’s inability to generate empathy from the American people led to calls for his ouster.

These examples illustrate Don Keough’s concern that the goals and tactics that organizations implement to improve their bottom line in the short run have replaced the focus on the person, the consumer or the employee, who enhances an organization for the long run.

So what to make of the connection between how people are treated and the bottom line? A sound connection and respect for the customer and business partners will always act to the benefit of the organization in the long run.

Every chief executive in every facet of life: At work, home, and in the community, should not only take responsibility for their own actions but also take the steps to demonstrate appropriate behavior to neighbors, colleagues, teammates, and family members. It makes a difference. And what is true in one neighborhood is true in neighborhoods from Spain to Bangladesh. Civility matters and how we should treat one another is the most fundamental issue.



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