Understanding You and the Future Workplace (Well-being Edition)

Contributing Author: John Hollway, Senior Fellow (Positive Psychology Center) & Associate Dean and Executive Director (Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice)

As everyone in every industry struggles with returning to — well, whatever the heck it is we’re going to return to — the question that I, and a lot of the people I talk to, are asking themselves is — and I’m quoting here — “I really want to go back to the office. Except, of course, for the things that I hate about the office. How can we fix those things?”

Video platforms have been a wonderful crutch in our time of need (unless you’re appearing for a hearing with the “I’m a cat” filter on). But these platforms are all business, and when we click the “Leave” button and return to our living rooms, we haven’t made a lot of progress building the interpersonal basis for constructive relationships that we will need to thrive at work.

Two years is a long time not to exercise our “make a personal connection” muscles. That creates challenges for everyone returning to work, but it might be even worse for people, like lawyers, who need to work collaboratively but also work in adversarial environments. Here’s an example of the problem:

I recently had the experience of having my deposition taken via Zoom. Four attorneys (one of whom was mine) and I were on the screen together. The lawyers introduced themselves to me, and the lawyer who was going first began to ask me questions. Within five minutes, she introduced an exhibit and gave it a number. Another (male) lawyer objected because the numbering convention conflicted with what was used in other depositions. Tempers got hotter than an Arizona parking lot in summer, in less time than an Olympics 100m sprint. (Thank you, I’ll be here all week). The female lawyer yelled accusations of “mansplaining and interrupting.” The male lawyer used words like “idiot” and “obstructionist.” My lawyer direct messaged me to “pull up a chair and grab your popcorn, here we go.” Within three minutes we were on hold as the lawyers called the judge to resolve this essential issue. When the deposition resumed, everyone was angry and on edge and multiple interruptions persisted.

Returning to work amid vaccines and masks may add to these stressors, but they are a symptom, not a cause of the true problem. The true problem is incivility. Incivility — the demonstration of disrespect and rudeness to others — can be seen in any number of small acts: sending a nasty or demeaning email (especially while copying others), talking to someone like they are a child, excluding people from meetings. Some of these things we might not even notice we’re doing, like cutting off someone in the middle of a sentence or not saying a simple “hello” to someone when we see them, and immediately pushing into whatever is on our agenda.

Each of these acts may seem inconsequential, and we often unintentionally inflict these acts upon colleagues we like. But incivility can have huge impacts. One study found that in uncivil work environments, 66% of workers reduced their effort at work, 80% of workers lost time worrying about the environment, and 12% of workers simply quit and went to work elsewhere. And these are in collaborative environments. How much worse is it in adversarial ones?

Assistant U. S. Attorney Jane Chong and US 3rd Circuit Judge Cheryl Krause recently looked at the role of incivility in legal well-being. They noted that incivility interferes with our ability to form connections with other attorneys, in a way that creates stress and contributes to “the deterioration of lawyers’ physical and mental health.” It also sets off a diminishing cycle of civility as people respond to your incivility in kind.

Many of us contribute to incivility in the profession unconsciously. Others say, “I know it’s important, but I’m overwhelmed and I’m moving too fast and the work is too important to be civil.” COVID and Zoom have only made these feelings of urgency and being overworked more pronounced — but the return to work provides an opportunity to reboot our civility skills. Here’s how to do that in three easy steps:

Step One: Get your “civility benchmark.” To see where your current approach to civility ranks among others, and to get quick pointers on how to improve, try this quick civility assessment.

Step Two: Remember these three things, which are true about all of us:

1. Everyone you work with — even the people you don’t like — has had extra unwanted stress in their lives from the past 20+ months of the pandemic.

2. Everyone you work with — even the people you think are lazy — would rather succeed at their jobs than do them poorly.

3. Everyone you work with — everyone — would rather be respected by others than disrespected.

In other words, even our adversaries share our basic human needs, and are as worthy as we are of the civility of others.

Step Three: Resist the urge to say “I’m too busy” — because you aren’t. It turns out that being civil takes almost no time at all, and I’m going to prove it to you now. For each person you engage with in a professional setting, try this exercise. It’s called “The One-Minute High Quality Connection.”

Guess how long it takes?

The One-Minute High-Quality Connection (taught to me by Monica Worline and stemming from her collaborations with Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan) helps us build human relationships with people, and can help us see each other as the human individuals we are when we step out of the adversarial roles that we engage in as attorneys. It’s really simple. Pick a person, and say to yourself, “I’m going to create a connection with that person.” Then give yourself 60 seconds to go do it.

That’s it.

I have done this with dozens of groups, and it hasn’t failed yet. I give the groups no warning. I just say, “OK everyone, find someone in the group and create a high-quality connection in 60 seconds. Go.”

What happens next is remarkable. People approach and engage with others. They look into the others’ eyes with open body language. They ask the other person’s name and show interest in what the other person has to say. They listen to the response, acknowledge it, and say something related to it to find a connection with the other person that they can build upon. All of this happens without any coaching or training from me — everyone instinctively understands how to do this when the situation requires. And they do it in less than one minute.

When the exercise is done, I often give an anonymous real-time poll from participants’ phones. The overwhelming majority of respondents say that they feel closer to the person they just connected with than they did before. And now they have a place to engage with the other person that isn’t connected to their job, but to something deeper about the person. Even better, their outreach has been returned in kind, creating a new mutual connection that can be turned to when the job makes that challenging.

The return to physical work environments is going to be stressful. It will be stressful for everyone, and none of us needs more stress right now. Treating others, including adversaries, with civility can help relieve that stress by reminding us that we’re all in this together. Remember the three steps: Check your Civility Baseline. Remember the human element. And invest 60 seconds for the people in your office (or your courtroom, or your still-hybrid video calls). Make a connection with each of them about something other than work. Dedicate yourself to letting them finish their sentences, to not talking down to them, and to being polite. When you’re with them, convey that they are worth your time, and make sure your verbal and written communications demonstrate your respect for them and your awareness that we’re all dealing with a lot of stuff in and out of the workplace. COVID has given us this opportunity for a workplace civility reboot — let’s take advantage.

John Hollway is Senior Fellow at the Positive Psychology Center and Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.