Sunday 1 September 2013

Respect, Care and Compassion at Work :: Can we afford to let them lose their relevance in the corporate world?

When the thought for this blog came to mind I asked my wife to validate my self-assessment i.e. that I showed respect, care and compassion at work. She pursed her lips and told me that she was a bit disappointed as to how much I had changed in the corporate world as I had become self-focused, assertive and sometimes shown borderline aggressive behaviour! I attempted to explain that I may have changed as being a people manager is a difficult endeavour given that I have to deliver on the 'corporation’s objectives' i.e. ‘run a business’! She understood that but she did not want me to forget that showing respect, compassion and care in one’s personal life or as a once off act of charity with complete strangers is far easier than having to extend those attributes at work where people have come together unnaturally i.e. without choice or say in the matter! Before I started losing faith in myself, she smiled and cautioned me to be careful in extending respect, care and compassion in its truest and purest form into this blog. 

This was an important insight and I included the discussion with my wife to highlight the challenge of trying to live up to the tenets of respect, care and compassion in the organisational context where we are subjected to performance appraisals, stack rankings, have perennial concerns about the next increase or bonus, subject to unrealistic deadlines, impacted by office politics as well as numbed by ongoing organisational change efforts and re-alignment(s)! All elements that are the typical road-blocks to respect, care and compassion in the work-place.

As I thought about those managers or employees that I felt could have been more respectful, caring and compassionate at work I realised that most of them had narcissistic tendencies. Narcissistic individuals in simple terms are typically self-loving, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, egoistic individuals who believe that their way is the right way and hence expect complete alignment to their point of view! Such individuals (particularly in a managerial/leadership role) usually have an air of over-confidence around themselves, which they misconstrue to be competence. These are typically the ones who would consider respect, compassion and care as optional or an attribute that is not necessary as they usually rise to the top “because other people think their qualities -- confidence, dominance, authority, and self-esteem -- make them good leaders.” The critical point here is that they do not rise to the top due to their soft skills per se i.e. ability to show respect, care and compassion. They rise despite of these critical skills!

Typically when employees deride the absence of respect, care or compassion in the work-place they cite the behaviour of a narcissist and given that narcissists sometimes occupy high positions in organisations a general observation is made that organisations lack respect, care and compassion!

Narcissism is not necessarily a negative attribute by itself. In times of intense change and where leadership is more about keeping people aligned by being directive or prescriptive in action then it is usually the narcissist who will forge on and take all the difficult decisions. Taking these hard decisions is easier for them as they are aligned to a given objective and the opportunity to advance (due to delivering on that objective) is sufficient to justify taking steps to drive change and be highly prescriptive. This they achieve as their thought process is grounded on the basis that they know best. Narcissists are known to be bad listeners and “they’re not intuitive about how others are feeling or thinking. So they don’t pick up on the subtle signs and maybe even not-so-subtle signs of how people are doing around them. They’re big idea people, but they’re not people people.” However, if one looks closely then you will also realise that these attributes can lead to major issues. 

I must point out that that a large organisation typically has a value system (and some even prescribe leadership values and standards) where at some point a Narcissist’s growth will be thwarted or slowed down due to 360 degree feedback or via performance management (reviews and appraisals) where a person’s attributes can be reviewed and feedback assimilated. The challenge is that in many cultures hierarchical positioning is deemed as a ticket to ride rough-shod over employees. If you are interested in knowing how to handle a narcissist then please do review this simple guidance from Karen Leland.

My hope is that at some point a narcissist will find their way blocked to the top as the organisation realises that the objectives for which they tolerated or promoted a narcissist have been met or the opportunity cost arising from the damage caused to the employees is such that it is best that a style change be undertaken.

Let us assume that I am being evaluated by a narcissist for consideration to be moved into a senior role i.e. promoted to a higher position. How would a narcissist rate me or evaluate me? What criteria would appeal to them? I don’t think respect, compassion and care would rate too high on their agenda? On one occasion I got feedback from a narcissistic peer that my style was more of a weakness and that “ultimately we have a business to run” whether I like it or not. That exchange was an eye-opener for me as my peer outlined my being nice showed an inability to take hard decisions and would hold me back if I were to be considered for a move up in the hierarchy. I could not think of anything to say at that point as my mind was confused by the opportunity cost of how this perception could stop my progress in the organisation. It is exactly this fear i.e. the opportunity cost of having perceived 'weaknesses' that has undermined and removed substantial moral fibre in how we operate and function in organisations. The perennial rat-race has to be won but at what price? [And yes I am aware that even if you win the race you are still a rat!].

I think there is a general assumption that being respectful, caring and compassionate are weaknesses in the corporate world. I don’t agree. It takes tremendous effort to maintain these three attributes! Yes there are trade-offs but my advice is that being strict, disciplined and assertive is fine as long as we are not belittling others or negatively impacting their self-esteem. This is critical to understand. For me any behavior that aims to subdue an employee by impacting their self-esteem is a sign of weakness! Dominance is always easier for narcissists and people in a position of strength or for those who are not willing to pay the opportunity cost that I referred to earlier.

I concede that perceptions do matter at work. I thought about this and started looking at other leaders around me (peers and other executives). They all understood that they had a business to run BUT there were some that still managed to maintain a reputation for showing respect, care and compassion. This helped in redeeming my faith.

I have some guidance to those who believe that the message of this blog does not apply to them as they believe that they are already respectful, caring and compassionate. My own experience is that most individuals tend to over-rate themselves when asked to self-assess their soft skills. I recommend that you ask yourself the following simple questions and make a final assessment based on your response(s):  

  1. Do people seek advice and guidance from you on an ongoing basis? I have noticed that individuals who are low on the attributes of respect, care and compassion also seem to 'encourage' others to give them a wide berth. Look around you and see who do people approach for guidance openly and freely?
  2. After every interaction with others ask yourself a simple honest question. Was the interaction such that the person walking away from you feels better than when they met you? This is an obtuse observation but nevertheless worthy of emulation
  3. Do you address others in a manner that would be contradictory to the organisation’s value system and standards of conduct? This is not as straight-forward as it looks as many people are sensitive to matters or issues over which an organisation cannot prescribe an acceptable behavior or stance
  4. Are you living by the golden rule “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I must caution though that many of us have a higher threshold of tolerance so this can be a relative measure but nevertheless still valid to keep in mind
  5. What is driving your interaction with your colleagues or subordinates? Are they resources to be used on the journey to deliver maximum profits or to be used to deliver benefits to you? Are your actions or decisions self-centered?
  6. How much patience do you show with colleagues and team-mates? Do you have all the answers and wish that people would just listen to you? Have you earned the right to have others listen to you or have you been given the right to make others listen because of your hierarchical position?
  7. There is some element of narcissism in many of us. The following questions can help in determining the level of narcissism that might be present in you. Being aware might help in moderating your style so that you do not impact respect, care and compassion negatively.
    • Do you act as if life revolves only around you?
    • Do people have to compliment you to get your attention or approval?
    • Do you constantly steer the conversation back to yourself?
    • Do you downplay other people’s feelings or interests?
    • If you disagree with someone do you become cold and distant?

Respect, care and compassion or the lack thereof among employees in any organisation is relative. Some of us have high thresholds and others have low thresholds of sensitivity. My own advice is that in life’s erratic/’see-saw’ journey you must realise that you will meet people with different conceptualisations of respect, care and compassion. Some people will reflect the best of humanity and some will not. 

How you deal with and how you want to be remembered should drive your own behavior. For me I would rather leave a manager that is a narcissist and not subject myself to behavior to which I am highly sensitive. I am committed to developing a style that exemplifies and amplifies respect, care and compassion. At times, this will slow my career down (it already has!) or create digressions but in the end I must feel at peace with myself. I want to be standing at an airport ten years from now and if someone that I met along my life’s professional journey sees me and knowingly makes an effort to stop and say hello then that would be the most desirable outcome! 

In closing, my simple response to the question in the title is an emphatic NO. We cannot afford to let respect, care and compassion lose their relevance in the corporate world.

What do you say? What guidance do you have for me?


Please feel free to subscribe via email (on the right use 'follow by email' feature) and also consider sharing with others using the links/tools provided below. This is the best way for me to broaden my reach and increasing my blog's visibility. Thanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment