Don’t Let Trump Finish First

Donald Trump continues to perplex the national media and the collective whole of reasonable Americans with his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. In the wake of his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist groups and violence at his rallies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere, it begs a few questions: Is this really what leadership looks like to some Americans? What’s going on here? Is this the backlash of a middle class who feel genuinely disenfranchised? The recent and alarming rise of xenophobia and frantic nationalism left by the vacuum of leadership from the Republican establishment seems only to be growing. Are we willing to face the consequences of allowing “mean” to define leadership and success in both the private and public sectors? Do we clearly understand the vision and goals of the man who’s bullying his way through our political system in his quest to become our commander in chief? Sadly, the underlying irony may lie in the fact that even his most fervent followers could not explain how we will “Make America great again” in a cohesive, singular vision with realistic and reasonable goals. The reason Trump is eliciting a response is both deeper and more subtle.

The Monster We Know

In the tumultuous 1960s, Hannah Arendt caused national outrage by suggesting that some of the greatest evil the world had ever known boiled down to a Nazi war criminal’s inability to think for himself. Over fifty years later, we are in another time of political and economic upheaval, searching for original thinkers, visionaries, heroes to show us the way. With America preparing to hire its next CEO, we are telegraphing daily to the world our collective values surrounding leadership, power, and the price of success. At the very least, no one would disagree that Donald Trump represents “the ugly American” in its illogical extreme, that boorish, gun-toting, face-punching, self-entitled, narcissistic loudmouth. Is this really who we want to be on the world stage?

We are at a pivotal crossroads: If we blindly follow in the footsteps of mean, that culture will come to define us, crippling our creativity, warping the next generation, and producing demagogues instead of leaders. When these leaders stoke the fears and underlying prejudices of an already angry electorate, the consequences become very real.

Bringing Civility Back

All’s not lost. Accountability, authenticity, relationships, true empathy, and the power of social capital can move us toward a better and brighter future. We as a nation can be both strong and compassionate, both to our fellow Americans as well as our fellow world citizens. Just because the outrageous behavior of characters like Trump takes up all the air in the room, we mustn’t accept his ways as the norm, or believe there is no further “air” to breathe. By owning our actions, clearly communicating alternative scenarios, and cultivating honest, authentic interactions, we begin to reject the cult of personality that rewards poor behavior.

They don’t make the news as often, but they’re there, the nice guys who finish far from last. What does authentic leadership look and feel like in action? Perhaps it’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who publicly demanded a gender-equal cabinet simply “because it’s 2015.” Or Mauricio Macri, the wealthy businessman-turned-president of Argentina who plans to decrease inflation, debt, and the international isolation that has stunted the country for decades. Can we shift our popular and workplace culture to celebrate the true leaders among us? How do we want to define leadership for the generations to follow? What does being an American success really mean?

Regardless of political leanings, we all share the responsibility to own this personal change. It starts now, and it starts with us.

Incivility in America

  One of The New York Times’ most emailed stories last month was an article by Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, entitled “No Time to Be Nice at Work.” Porath made a powerful case in her piece that rudeness and incivility in the workplace have grown dramatically over the past twenty years, during which she’s been studying and collaborating with organizations. And she posits that we as a society are paying the price for this rudeness with our emotional, physical, and mental health. Throughout the course of my research for Mean Men, I’ve noted the same alarming trends. Professor Porath’s work is only the tip of the toxic iceberg.

The 2014 annual report on “Civility in America,”—a national survey of Americans conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, public relations companies, with KRC Research—showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans across four generations—Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation—perceive incivility to be a major problem.

A 2010 Allegheny College survey, for example, on Americans’ views of civility in politics was revealingly titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling & Negativity.” Professor Porath’s 2011 workplace survey found that just over half of employees reported that they experienced rude treatment from fellow employees at least once a week. A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that some 75 percent of Americans felt that people “are becoming ruder and less civilized.”

Much of the discussion generated by reports of increasing incivility focuses on its negative effects on democratic discourse or its direct costs to individuals. Various research initiatives have popped up to promote more thoughtful, less rancorous political engagement, while new “civility projects” and other programs aim to encourage people to “choose civility” and thereby reduce stress in their life.

The findings of these reports are generally consistent with other research published in recent years on the frequency of disrespectful speech and behavior. Though everything from anonymous Internet commenters to politicians was cited as contributing to the issue, most Americans regarded common actions of their fellow citizens as uncivil, such as the way they use cell phones in public or conduct themselves on social media. But the concern with incivility was really driven home by direct personal experiences of rudeness and disrespect, daily experiences of which were especially common at work and online.

Here’s the problem: data from the “Civility in America” project don’t seem to indicate any “incivility cycle” among the general public. Very few people acknowledge having an uncivil behavioral reaction when confronted by the rude, mean, and inconsiderate actions of others. But there was one consistent reaction to rude or mean behavior: tacit avoidance. And avoidance constitutes a problem of its own. In unpleasant face-to-face situations, people often either leave, simply ignore the offender, or suffer in silence under a torrent of abuse. Encountering online ugliness, they often respond by “defriending,” leaving a site or online discussion, or dropping out of an online community. Incivility at work leads people to quit their jobs due to the perception that there’s nothing that can be done to effect change. Although all of this is understandable, avoidance may be cumulatively fostering the incivility problem. The “art of living together,” to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr, requires interaction. Take that away and incivility may be self-perpetuating.

There’s reason to believe that Millennials may represent a part of the solution to this issue. While their older counterparts believe the rise of rudeness is rather hopeless and unstoppable, Millennials are up to four times as likely to believe that civility will improve in the near future. They are vastly less pessimistic than the preceding generations.

Rather than quietly avoiding uncivil situations, Millennials tend to speak with their wallets. Because of how they were treated by someone in an organization, nearly half (49 percent) have either stopped buying from the company and/or advised others not to buy (44 percent). They have stopped attending pro and college sports because of uncivil behavior they witnessed on the field or in the crowd.

Word of incivility can spread with incredible speed via social media—the domain of Millennials—and it can have real costs to those who make missteps, such as in the case of the new media firm that sent out a crude tweet on behalf of Chrysler or any number of brand fails that have damaged companies’ reputations, in some cases beyond repair. Loyalty is essential to maintain a stellar brand, and Millennials are very aware of their power of choice and are equally as willing to exercise their power and hold companies and public figures accountable. Social media users have also shown that they can unite for good causes and spread the word about events where abuse or unfairness might be taking place, such as they did during the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri. Millennials also make good use of sites like Glassdoor to anonymously share the unfiltered truth about what goes on at a company, and particularly how fairly employees are treated, making it harder for bosses who behave badly to recruit new talent.

With social media giving the individual unprecedented ability to make their voice heard, there may yet be hope that the uncivil amongst us will be left with no place to hide.

How Civility Breeds Success

Last week, I wrote about why mean is not effective in the workplace. But is the opposite equally true? Is a harmonious, civil workplace beneficial to a company’s bottom line? It would appear that it is. For the past eighteen years, Fortune magazine has run an annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the United States, the results of which have become a playbook for building trust and employee engagement. The firms that make the list each year show consistently impressive financial outcomes, typically far better than their industry counterparts. Overall, the 100 Best also grow at a faster clip and have significantly lower turnover in side-by-side comparisons with comparable firms.

So what gives? Is it tangible factors like child care, free snacks, a gym, and other benefits offered by places such as Google, Genentech, and Intuit (which all consistently score within the top ten)? Certainly employees appreciate these perks, but the true common denominator is that all of these firms manage—in many cases obsessively—their workplace cultures and demand a high level of civility.

So how do highly effective entrepreneurs shape the culture that enables these firms to become rockets for growth?

Trust and Openness

Spend a week in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and you’ll inevitably find yourself at one of the Zingerman’s businesses. Originally a traditional Jewish deli, Zingerman’s was founded by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, who realized early on that growth was dependent on figuring out how to ensure that every employee thrived at work.

Their brand is now known nationally, and what they call their “Community of Businesses” has grown to include imported gourmet foods, a bakery, a creamery, and a second restaurant (Zingerman’s Roadhouse). They’ve also expanded their brand to include a mail-order catalog, coffee, catering, and more. By 2012, the combined revenues were coming in at $45 million.

Wayne Baker, a management professor and chair of the University of Michigan’s management department, has written several case studies about Zingerman’s and its approach to achieving sustainable growth. He found that Zingerman’s shares enormous amounts of critical information with employees; teams within each unit see exactly how their division performs on a weekly basis.

They are also explicit in their intolerance of incivility. Leaders are expected to treat employees with the same high standards of respect that the employees are meant to uphold with customers. Zingerman’s has built an environment where leaders set the tone and serve as role models.

Another key to the company’s success is that each unit has a managing partner who owns part of that business. “They make the push to go for greatness,” Weinzweig says, and they operate as one business with “semiautonomous units.”

Zingerman’s management philosophy has been so successful that they decided to start a management-training company in 1996 called ZingTrain to help spread the word. The program includes such seminars as “Fun, Flavorful Finance: Why Our Dishwashers Know Our Net Operating Profit.”

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is essential in the critical moments of a start-up. Research shows that when the status quo needs to be challenged, emotionally intelligent employees speak up more frequently and more effectively. They are also more likely to speak up—while keeping their anger in check—when colleagues are treated unjustly. And their ability to express enthusiasm helps them avoid appearing threatening to leaders when bringing new ideas to the fore. Great leaders value these employees and don’t use their own often formidable emotional intelligence to manipulate others, as mean men like Peter Arnell do.

We can see the benefits of emotional intelligence in action by looking at founders of successful companies who remain in leadership positions. Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google are prime examples. The two founded Google while still in their twenties and were mature enough to see early on that they needed a seasoned CEO to help lead the company. But they wanted a CEO who would also value and nurture the culture they were creating at Google, a culture that valued people’s individual creativity and was supportive of their personal goals—for example, by allowing engineers to spend twenty percent of their time working on their own projects. Eric Schmidt fit that bill, and together the three men created a culture that highly talented people found empowering and appealing.

Eventually Schmidt stepped aside, and now Page is CEO of Google. I admire Google for growing so quickly while holding firm to its original values. Google’s ability to quickly grow its highly complex product and service offerings on a global scale, with an organizational structure of mind-numbing intricacy, and remain a place where employees feel valued and empowered is incredible. Full disclosure: Google has been a client of mine, though I cannot say that I often walk away with such a high opinion of leaders I’ve worked with as I did with these guys.

Facebook has a similar story. Mark Zuckerberg was very young when he cofounded it and recognized his need for growth in certain areas. He has reportedly worked hard to develop his emotional intelligence, both with executive coaching and help from Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, a leader renowned for her combination of smarts and civility.

Zuckerberg’s position at Facebook is secure given his stock holdings and the structure of Facebook’s board. Whether he needs to or not, Zuckerberg values civility and he’s consistently ranked as one of the most well-liked CEOs in Silicon Valley.

Emotional intelligence can be a double-edged sword. It’s vital for any leader to recognize, understand, and manage emotions, but a strong intuition about others can be used toward diabolical goals. So, while companies like American Apparel fight tooth and nail to keep their founder out, the leaders who learn the value of civility may spend their entire careers atop the company they built.