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To improve productivity, try saying thank you

One of my favorite questions for senior professionals in any field is “How has this endeavor changed since you first joined it many years ago?”

The question is designed to elicit reflections based on careers sometimes as long as 35 years. Often the responses show great insights and sometimes elucidate how organizations and our larger society are changing.

Recently, a client turned the question back to me by rephrasing it slightly to, “What is the single most important thing you have learned over more than two decades of consulting in a wide variety of organizations?”

What instantly came into my mind was: People in organizations want to be treated respectfully. It then occurred to me, as the optimist I am, that over the course of my career the practice of management has become more respectful and thus more challenging. It is easy to tell people what to do, but it requires sophistication and skill to build employee commitment to perform in the workplace.

A colleague often notes that you can make people work but you cannot make them work well. My first job, as laborer in a lead smelter in Montana, taught me that the primary management technique at that time was management by force. All of us were a little bit afraid of the foremen even though they were our neighbors. In today’s marketplace, where we value people for their minds, not their muscles, the Gen Xers are teaching us that if we don’t treat them well they are gone.

People in organizations want to be treated respectfully.

Several weeks ago I was rereading one of Peter Drucker’s fine articles on management and organizations and I ran across the following statement: “Courtesy is the lubricant that makes organizations work.” Wouldn’t it be lovely if this statement was posted at the door of every organization and that people would live by it? The statement triggered a train of thought about my best and worst clients. Interestingly, there is an almost one-to-one relationship between how productive an organization is and how respectfully it treats its employees and customers.

If everyone would simply follow this prescription I would be out of work, and I clearly am not. Why not? When I reflect on the circumstances where I was not as courteous or respectful as I should have been the intervening variable seems to always be that I was not as emotionally grounded at that moment as I should have been. I acted impulsively and thoughtlessly. Simply put, in these situations emotion trumped reason.

This conclusion leads to the literature on emotional intelligence and the idea that emotions are highly contagious. Thus one of the major behavioral challenges for people, especially managers, in the work place is to understand their emotions as well as the emotions of others, to understand that some situations set off our emotions involuntarily. These insights guide us to considering how to better manage ourselves.

What better and simpler way to do this than to make a concerted effort to be unfailingly courteous to those we work and live around. For example, over the years I have evolved a personal perception of a male type I refer to as the gentle man, as opposed to gentleman. I have noticed that thoughtful, sensitive women quickly recognize gentle men because of the particularly respectful manner in which they treat women. This type is a rare breed and I only know a handful of such males.

But back to the main point, my mother used to say, somewhat more colorfully, that in life it’s not the elephants that get you - it’s the ants. Little day-to-day, moment-to-moment irritations and micro-insults can have a corrosive effect in the workplace. The reciprocal is also true: Small courtesies, genuinely shared, can make any situation have a better emotional feel. And amazingly enough all of us know the most powerful of these — thank you and please, but how infrequently we use them. Food for thought.

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