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The Power of Civility

At work or at home, how polite are you?

One of the many aspects of my job that I really enjoy is the opportunity to facilitate workshops. And while managing conflict has long been a popular topic, lately I've seen even more interest in sessions about creating a respectful workplace.

This increased focus is not that surprising when you examine the evidence: Christine Pearson and Christine Porath have conducted extensive research into the extent—and associated costs—of incivility in our workplaces. Their analyses indicate that workplace incivility doubled in a seven-year period, with their most recent data showing that one in four employees in North America witness an act of disrespectful behavior every day.

What is especially fascinating about their findings is that the forms of disrespectful behavior that workers cite might be seen as inconsequential to outside observers. One example: Not saying "thank you." Although some people may wonder whether this type of social nicety still has a place in a 140-character world, recent research conducted by Professors Adam Grant and Francesco Gino demonstrates the timeless relevance of this practice.

Will You Help Me?

In their first experiment, participants were divided into two groups and asked to review a cover letter supposedly submitted by a university student named "Eric." Once they were finished, they were asked to email him the young men comments and suggestions. Shortly thereafter, Eric reached out to each of the participants, once again looking for help.

However, two different emails were sent: In his note to the first group, "Eric" thanked the participants for reviewing his cover letter before asking them for additional help. In his email to the second group, Eric did not acknowledge their help on his cover letter and just proceeded to his second request.

Not surprisingly, whether or not Eric thanked the participants had a significant impact on their willingness to help. But the effect was striking: Twice as many people (66 percent) who were thanked by Eric agreed to help a second time, compared with those who were not thanked (32 percent).

What was especially interesting about this research was the impact Eric’s behavior had on future requests for help from others. In a second study, Grant and Gino provided the exact same scenario as in the first. Once again, following their assistance, Eric sent a note to the participants, sometimes saying “thank you,” sometimes not.

In this case, the day after Eric’s follow-up email, the participants received a new request for help, from a different student seeking for feedback on his cover letter. Eric’s actions significantly affected their willingness to help another person. Of those who had been thanked by Eric, 55 percent agreed to assist the new student with his cover letter—but only one-quarter of those in the “unthanked” group were willing to help the new student.

Pay It Forward

Anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that our workplaces are becoming increasingly uncivil. As individuals, we may feel overwhelmed and struggle to find ways to make things better. We may believe it is beyond our scope of influence because it is part of our organizational or societal culture. This sentiment is often accompanied by an exasperated acceptance of defeat, as it seems the problem is too big to solve.

However, the above research suggests that we may be more powerful than we think.

Saying a simple “thank you” really can profoundly affect our own lives, as well as the lives of others. Like the “butterfly effect,” these actions spread out into the world around us.

In closing, I would like to say “thank you” to the readers of this and previous columns. I encourage you to share, below, your personal and professional stories that exhibit the power of saying (or not saying) "thank you."

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