Playing Nice in the Office: A Faculty Spotlight on Christine Porath

January 6, 2017

Christine Porath PhDFrom promoting civility in the workplace to finding a better work-life balance, Bovard College adjunct professor Christine Porath has dedicated her career to creating a positive workplace experience.

Porath, who splits her time between USC and her associate professorship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, is out with a new book, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.”

The book, which ranked No. 1 in Amazon’s Workplace Culture category days after its release and was listed in the Washington Post’s 10 Books on leadership to read in 2017, was positively reviewed by The New York Times, which called it a “compelling guide to treating others respectfully and protecting oneself from those who don’t.”

“Professor Porath makes a persuasive case that unchecked incivility, even by a relatively small number of individuals, acts ‘as an infectious pathogen’ that radically undermines corporate effectiveness,” the Times wrote. “Based on the range of research findings described, Professor Porath seems on solid ground.”

Porath has previously co-authored “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It,” and published numerous research articles in publications such as the Academy of Management Journal and the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Below, Porath shares her thoughts on the state of the human resources industry and what excites her about teaching future leaders.

 

What about a career in HR appealed to you?

I worked in a toxic organization. I realized how negative workplace experiences can shape people’s lives — both within the workplace, but they also take it home with them. I believe that your workplace experience has a huge impact on the quality of one’s life and thought we could do better.

It set me out to try and document and then show, in the most objective way possible, what are the consequences of negative behavior in the workplace on people, specifically incivility. And then what are the benefits of creating a thriving workplace environment, both for people but also for organizations, so objectively showing what the costs and benefits are that workplaces and leaders can create for their employees.

 

Your expertise is bad behavior. What is the single worst behavior that can make a workplace toxic and how can HR leaders mitigate that?

I think it’s about making people feel small. Leaders could do this in a number of ways. It could be more direct if they belittle or insult them, demean their performance. But it also can be not paying attention to them, acknowledging them, giving credit for work. So, doing things that decrease people’s motivations.

What I have mainly focused on is, what are the things that make people feel small and therefore they’re not delivering their best or it’s taking them off track. What people want is leaders that pay attention to them and that respect them. Respect is actually the number one thing people are looking for as far as it affects their engagement, their motivation, and their willingness to stay with the organization.

That’s something I tried to highlight — that’s often more important than some of the more tangible things like even getting feedback and the leader having a compelling vision, or even providing opportunities for learning and growth. People at their core have a desire to feel respected and valued.

 

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

It’s recent, but the “Mastering Civility” book, was the most rewarding professional experience as far as research, and one that I’m proudest of.  It’s a compilation of 20 years nearly, since graduate school on basically, of what I’ve done research-wise, but it’s also a little bit of the stories from others and really trying to make a compelling case for why treating people well matters and what leaders and organizations can do to facilitate that.

I’ve had the opportunity to present at a lot of really interesting places – the United Nations, Google, others.  What I’m trying to do is have a positive impact on not only leaders that we would be teaching, let’s say at USC Bovard, but also organizations and even society. Because it’s something that generalizes beyond the confines of the workplace.

 

Why do you want to teach?

I love having a positive impact on people and particularly my expertise is how they can shape workplaces to be more thriving domains for people to perform well, but also to live better, richer, more satisfying lives.

How can they lead well in ways that I think are going to benefit people [by] having better workplace experiences, but also producing more for the organization. So, kind of a win-win opportunity. And often without a lot of resources. You can’t expect everyone to be working for Google or Facebook or what have you, but how can you create opportunities and leverage programs that really reward people and motivate them to perform well.

 

What is a common misconception about HR?

A common misconception about HR is that their role is passive, and is often about dealing with personnel issues handed to them. However, HR is responsible for organizations’ most vital asset — people. HR leaders are crucial players in crafting organizations where people thrive.

 

What are the biggest challenges facing the human resources industry?

I think diversity and inclusion is a big one. Learning how to motivate people via technology. So many people are working globally and virtually, and so trying to figure out — how do you empower people and give them flexibility as far as work-life balance, but also maintain productivity.

And personally, and this might be a little biased, but I think how do you create a more human workplace where people thrive? What are the best levers that leaders and human resource professionals can use to make that happen? Because I do think there are good returns.

 

What are you looking forward to next?

The book, some speaking engagements with Work Human next year – that’s a big one. There are great speakers like Susan Cain and Adam Grant and I’ll be giving a talk. That’s a really great conference I did last year.

I’m looking to do more research with leading firms and getting more of that off the ground. I have some research with social networks trying to show how does civility or incivility grow in the workplace. And what can you as a manager or organization to mitigate incivility from spreading and what can you do to promote civility growing in workplaces.

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