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The no jerk rule and being human at work

The no jerk rule and being human at work
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First Published: Fri, Oct 28 2011. 01 15 AM IST

Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work.
Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work.
Updated: Fri, Oct 28 2011. 02 47 PM IST
You wouldn’t have thought it possible, but your co-workers could be killing you. Arie Shirom of Tel Aviv University and colleagues studied nearly 800 employees across multiple companies in diverse industries for well over 20 years. Their study indicates that your longevity directly depends on how nice your co-workers are. Their primary finding was that unsupportive colleagues lead to higher death rates in a statistically significant manner.
In many ways the Tel Aviv study validates the work of professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University, whose work on workplace civility has led many companies to adopt a “No Jerks Rule”. Of course, as most of us have learned the hard way, making a rule is a whole lot easier than enforcing it.
Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work.
The received wisdom in modern Western business setting has been that there are three distinct spheres to our lives—the professional, the personal and the political—the three Ps. And that only the first has any relevance to the workplace.
Of course, in more recent times, the personal has not only begun to be acknowledged, but is being taken into account. Paternity leave, work-life balance programmes or bring-your-daughter/children-to-work days are ever more commonplace. The aging demographic and rising health costs in Western countries have made the personal health of employees a matter of great concern to employers. The rise of a litigious society, particularly in North America, has also meant that ever more of employees’ personal behaviours even outside the workplace are under the scanner. Sexual harassment, race and gender discrimination have all fallen under the purview of unacceptable behaviour, even in the personal sphere.
However, the political lives of folks, particularly party politics and personal political action, has continued to be verboten. The irony that most large corporations are hotbeds of professional politics is largely lost in this clear distinction that’s made between personal politics and professional life.
In India, on the other hand, the boundary between the personal and the professional has for most part been non-existent in proprietor- or family-owned businesses. Even in “professionally” managed firms it has been quite grey, reflecting the larger reality of our society. The large public sector and unionized workforce has also meant that politics—of every stripe—has rarely been distinct from the professional.
With more global and transnational firms entering India, the received wisdom of separating the three Ps is happening in pockets such as knowledge or technology industries. Even in these firms, the demand/supply mismatch for employees has meant more “progressive” policies that take into account the personal needs of these employees.
Yet, one of the first rules most of us learnt in our personal lives—be nice to others—seems to be lost in a professional setting. Looking at the number of jerks, particularly in high positions, you encounter in a corporate setting, it appears that to succeed professionally, you can’t be nice. In his book, Small Decencies, John Cowan disagrees.
Building on his decades of organizational development work at large corporations, as a consultant and as a parish priest, he casts an incisive eye on our behaviour in and out of the workplace. The book is written as a series of vignettes, most featuring folks just like us and many his own family. Cowan reminds us that our everyday actions, whether in the attention we give (or not) to the company receptionist or security guard or when we cut off another sailor (or driver) while thoughtlessly zooming by, diminishes and makes us all a little less human.
Despite the easy reading and Cowan’s laid-back storytelling style, Small Decencies is a powerful book that gets under your skin, as you encounter people and events right out of your professional and personal life. And it hits home particularly when it reminds you of incidents where you were likely the jerk.
While the formal work of Sutton and more recently Shirom validate many of the observations that Cowan makes in his “reflections and meditations”, his storytelling style makes it easy to understand and hopefully easier to practice.
K Srikrishna is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers regularly face and books that could help.
Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Oct 28 2011. 01 15 AM IST