The idea of “cutting some slack” to another person or giving another the “benefit of the doubt” is a personal ideal for me. I have spent more than twenty years of my career in high-tech companies and have experienced many different corporate cultures. One early experience in a high-tech startup company, on balance, was very good. The company in many ways had a very progressive environment, replete with enjoyable outings, Ping-Pong tables for stress relief, free beverages, pizza on Fridays, the freedom to set our own hours (within reason) and to wear what was most comfortable.
But, every week when our product cycle meeting (a weekly cross-functional meeting that included representatives from marketing, sales, engineering, software quality assurance, technical support, documentation and operations) was about to commence, I felt angst. I found these meetings to be much more adversarial than productive. I once lamented to a co-worker that the mental image I held for these meetings was of participants hiding behind boulders, emerging to speak with their sniper guns propped, aimed and ready to fire as they spoke, and then quickly disappearing behind shelter to hear the responses – a rain of gunfire. I decided then and there that at least two dysfunctional things were transpiring in those meetings: 1) many were trying to prove their intellect as superior to others, and 2) the meeting lacked cooperative communication skills, where co-workers are extended the benefit of the doubt. As a result, they were jumping to conclusions rather than asking questions, or in other cases, not letting some of the more inconsequential opinions go unchallenged. This adversarial climate caused many participants to be quiet, when they might otherwise have contributed. At other times participants would just sit idle rather than do something perceived as risky – which can be fatal for a technology startup, where risk-taking is the lifeblood to competing in the fast-paced tech market. In this case, the company perks were progressive, but the mindset in such meetings certainly was not.
I began to wonder what it would take to bring others out from behind their proverbial boulders. As we perform seemingly small actions, such as giving another the benefit of the doubt, what might the ripple effects be for the individual, the team and the organization? If I give the benefit of the doubt to another, will the same be later extended to me? Can we bring a more gracious mindset to an organization creating a practice of giving others the benefit of the doubt?
I completed a master’s in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, fulfilling a long-held goal of studying the science of human flourishing. In my final capstone project, I pondered what would be the impact to organizational culture if the members of that organization practiced giving another the benefit of the doubt as a matter of course, which I labeled a Gracious Mindset (GM). Imagine actively deciding to consciously practice assuming a respectful interpretation of another’s intent or motivation in situations wherever the benefit outweighs the risks. While my question, framed as such, has not been empirically investigated, I found related research that has led me to believe that such a mindset could positively impact organizational culture.
Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate: A seasoned worker finds that a new employee has taken his well-earned and convenient parking space. There are many attitudes he might assume about the offender: the other person is just an inconsiderate jerk – this attribution causes stress and anger and might affect his physiology – a racing heart rate, rising blood pressure, and constriction of blood vessels. While sometimes negative affect is appropriate, useful, and productive (as it can narrow our focus and keep us grounded), it is often unproductive and inappropriate; gratuitous negativity is neither helpful nor healthy.
Imagine this example, but where our driver practices a gracious mindset, bringing this outlook to the same circumstance, assuming a respectful explanation or as close to that as he might come given his current situation. The driver could choose to believe he was cut out of his usual space because his co-worker might: 1) be in a hurry for an emergency, 2) not have been told of the company practice of giving those with the most tenure the best parking spots, or 3) have made an honest mistake quite unconsciously. The offended worker could also employ a general awareness that other more benevolent interpretations are plausible without a thought to the specifics.
In this scenario, our offended worker can continue his day with a small hiccup, in a “nearly uninterrupted” state. The cost of a gracious mindset in these micro moments is little to none. Whether one decides the new employee who took the coveted parking spot is a jerk or gives him the benefit of the doubt for erring, the other “offending” employee goes on and we are only left to our own physiological selves with little chance of backlash from the other. The offended employee is now free to engage his “offending” co-worker without resentment built on beliefs rather than facts to determine why he is in his special parking space, thus potentially avoiding a further alienating event.
Should an individual forgo an angry response, they personally benefit from not going down the “rat hole” that such a response sometimes ignites. But it also can impact the experience of our coworkers. It can impact the perceived civility of the environment to those who might have otherwise witnessed an angry outburst. When we witness situations perceived to be uncivil, it can have a reverberating impact. According to research by Christine Porath, author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior” and professor at Georgetown University, incivility has such a strong effect that merely witnessing such behaviors has negative consequences, many of which are the same as for those who actually experienced the incivility, including reduced productivity and creativity.
Research has shown that incivility can negatively impact our health, and the health of the organization leading to: increased stress, reduced job satisfaction, diminished sense of meaning in work, and reduced productivity. In fact, studies by Christine Porath and Amir Erez (researcher, author and professor at the University of Florida) show that even a one-time, low-intensity incident of incivility leads to decreased connection and low performance. Toxic environments, where incivility is high, show increased depression, hostility, and alienation, and predictably lead to increased employee turnover and absenteeism.
Conversely, according to studies conducted by Porath and Erez, those who work in civil environments show increased energy by 26%, are 36% more satisfied with their jobs, and are 44% more committed to their organizations. Civility increases our sense of psychological safety or feeling that the organizational environment is a safe place to take risks. Think about it…where are you more likely to share your great ideas— in a civil or uncivil environment? Civility is good for teams and can result in better information and idea flow, and according to Porath, breeds increased motivation and trust. But on top of that, if we perceive our environment to be unsafe, we are unlikely to give another the benefit of the doubt.
Civility as a core value and in practice can thus be integrated into everything from the stated corporate values to hiring practices and everyday show of appreciation. To increase respect and civility, attention should be paid to organizational policies and practices that encourage the behaviors we wish to see. Sometimes even a simple “thank you” or pat on the back can convey appreciation and certainly performance reviews can reflect appreciation for and recognition of civility.
Given the importance of civility to workplace culture and employee wellbeing, organizations would do well to foster it. Gracious Mindset is an intentional conscious practice that can be employed on a day-to-day basis – one in which we consciously “arm” ourselves before a trespass has transpired and incivility ensues. Thus, whether you are on board to consider Gracious Mindset as part of your corporate culture, or whether you might give another the benefit of the doubt next time someone steps on your toes, you might consider the civility of your culture and how to best build a climate of consideration, respectful treatment, positive interactions, and valuing and appreciating others.