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Corporate Leaders Must Remove Fear Factor from the Workplace

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"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Many of the leaders I work with tell me they spend as much as 40 per cent of their time and energy managing the "fear factor." That's 40 per cent of their time dealing with the fear of being on the receiving end of verbal outbursts and negative actions by others. It is usually the leader with the most power who provokes the most fear. With leaders worried about outbursts and other nasty behaviour from those with even more power than they have, imagine the toll the fear factor must take on the people who wield substantially less power: everybody else.

Although many a CEO would espouse that they "challenge their people," many employees would argue those "challenges" feel threatening. The reality is simple -- employees blossom when challenged and wither when threatened. There is no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative and productive, but there is data proving that employees in a threatening environment are less engaged, less loyal and for the most part miserable.

There are many sophisticated tools, such as Gallup's Q12 and Korn/Ferry's Talent Engagement Architect, to evaluate corporate culture. Numerous studies have emphatically concluded that a positive corporate environment directly impacts the bottom line positively. People adapt to their work environment and culture. They either thrive or slowly begin to die. Obviously, that shrinking of the human spirit affects not only people's work lives, but their lives in general, and, by extension, society as a whole. Lack of civility debilitates and destroys.

Researchers have been studying this for more than a decade, and it is long past time to put their findings into practice. In the 2003 Baltimore Workplace Study lead by the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute and the John Hopkins University, 83 per cent of workers report that it is "very important" to work in a civil environment. More than one-third of the respondents, 36 per cent, felt they had been the victim of uncivil workplace behaviour either "occasionally" or "frequently."

In my work as the CEO of a leadership institute, I've talked to people whose employers or supervisors have repeatedly belittled them during meetings, sent scathing e-mails about their work and/or "challenged" them by with-holding a promised bonus.

Those who have been targets of such bad behavior often become uncivil themselves. They spread gossip to deflect attention. They sabotage their peers. They call in sick and leave early. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, employees faced with incivility are likely to narrow their focus to avoid risks, and lose opportunities to learn in the process. Obviously this impacts their level of personal success and the success of the organization.

Civility is not a term we typically associate with corporate life or use to describe the everyday world in workplaces around the globe. But consider the potential impact on corporate culture, and society as a whole, if civility were not just expected, but championed by senior leadership.

Given that most people spend upwards of 40 hours a week at work, imbuing the workplace and corporate culture with civility would unquestionably have a ripple effect on our larger society. Key to a civil corporate culture and a civil society are strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence -- the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself and others. An increasing number of corporate hiring authorities say that hiring for emotional intelligence is now of equal importance to hiring for intellect.

Emotional intelligence is the bedrock of civil discourse not only within corporations, but throughout society.

Imagine what civility could bring not only to boardrooms, but to political discourse around the world. Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, will always disagree. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, we must learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

When the level of public discourse falls to the point where a national U.S. radio commentator calls a young woman a "slut" and a "prostitute" for saying that birth control should be covered under health insurance programs, and a Canadian cabinet minister tells Canadians that they're "with the child pornographers" if they disagree with his Bill C-30, it's time to recall Dr. King's words.

Recalling those words and acting upon them within the corporate environment would go a long way towards creating a more civil society. Corporate leaders have a responsibility to disagree without being disagreeable, to remove the "fear factor" in their organizations, and to use their influence to contribute to a civil society.

I am convinced that civility within corporate discourse is the best way to influence civility in our national and global discourse.

This post originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun.

Mary Prefontaine is the co-producer of the Corporate State Vancouver Summit on May 1, 2012 and the President and CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) -- a non- profit leadership institute based in the U.S.