Building Effective Corporate Cultures One Decency at a Time

By making decency a habit, leaders can surreptitiously and effectively protect a corporate culture—not just the experience of work, but also the company's moral underpinning.

The most basic decencies are those that demonstrate respect and consideration. A simple "hello" at the start of the day and "goodbye" at the end of the day are obvious but sometimes overlooked forms of consideration. Remembering the names of the people you work with regularly is equally as important as saying hello. Beyond these basics, here are some other ways to demonstrate respect and consideration.

Protect the Dignity of Others

We choose whether we are going to build people up or diminish them. This choice is very poignant especially during a downsizing. It's up to those of us at the top to protect the dignity of each and every person who has to be separated. Sometimes, the choices are much less public, but no less telling. Think about how much information you have about people in your organization. Resist the temptation to gossip or break confidences.

Don't Keep People Waiting

Early in my career, I thought that letting the salespeople calling on me "cool their heels" was acceptable. I was the customer, after all. A thoughtful supervisor set me straight. Since that correction, I have never consciously kept a visitor, including a salesperson, waiting. Receiving people promptly is a decency that counts because it is courteous and respectful.

Make Meetings Decent

For meetings you call, be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Leave the Blackberry behind. Rearrange seating to assure that everyone is included and groups are not set in opposition. Take time for introductions. Make space for quiet colleagues to offer their opinions. Finish on time or, for greatest effect, finish early.

Recognition Decencies

The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," is a valuable guideline in life, but when it comes to recognizing employees, I suggest applying the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Outside of formal recognition and reward programs, here are some well-received ways to recognize people day after day.

  • Say "thank you." Hardly anyone will dispute the value of saying thank you, but in many work places, the rush of deadlines crowds out appreciation. It's best to offer thanks personally and in front of peers. "Thank you" means even more when the thought is delivered in writing. While it's tempting to send off an e-mail instead of taking the time to find a note card and address an envelope, it will mean a lot more on paper.
  • Little things mean a lot. Bring in coffee, donuts and snacks to share on an unpredictable basis. Or order a pizza or a huge submarine sandwich for a communal lunch. Don't make a big deal of it, but just say it's a token of how much you appreciate how hard everyone is working.
  • Appoint a proxy. Invite a subordinate to represent you at conferences or meetings. If you select carefully, the associate will get a psychic kick out of representing you. He or she will feel your trust. Later, the employee can share insights gained with team members, giving a second boost of recognition.

Listening Decencies

Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is to be acknowledged. "Attention must be paid!" says Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Everyone yearns to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated and to be appreciated. Being listened to is the prerequisite for all of these. Most of us pay little attention to the quality of our listening. Especially in business situations, we are too busy thinking about what we call "the big picture" to notice that big pictures are the sum of personal moments of truth. Here are some ways you can practice listening decencies.

  • Talk less. It's really that easy . . . and that hard. Listening starts when we stop talking. Some tricks to change the balance are:
    • Stop talking after 60 seconds and give the other person a chance to chime in;
    • Resist the temptation to interrupt—even if it's to agree with the person talking. When you do, you are inadvertently making the conversation about you;
    • Value silence as a chance for the other person to gather their thoughts.
  • Voice questions, not opinions or decisions. As a leader, stating your opinion can immediately shut down the conversation. To get the most of your diverse team, ask open-ended questions, or say, "I wonder what would happen if . . ." Then be quiet, and listen. Hold back from judgment, from expressing objections and from giving advice.
  • Don't multitask. We all need to be efficient. But you can't truly listen to someone and do anything else at the same time. Try focusing on listening for just 10 minutes. You'll learn more and make the other person feel more valued.

Executive Humility Decencies

I first heard the term executive pomposity decades ago, and I have come to believe that a sense of entitlement bred from authority is by far the most corrosive agent in organizations. All this attitude does is distance executives from their colleagues and customers, and, ultimately, from their business. As much as it might inflate executive egos, pomposity deflates others around them. You'll do both yourself and your organization a favor by avoiding anything that smacks of RHIP, or "rank has its privileges," like exclusive dining rooms or parking places. Some other decencies you can practice are:

  • Share the credit, hoard the blame. When things go well, share the credit. When things go badly, be known as someone who is accountable. There will be time to sort out the problem and learn from it later. Be known as someone whose first instinct is to fix the problem rather than affix the blame.
  • If you make a mistake, apologize. Far from diminishing your importance, an apology demonstrates humility, respect for others and a desire to learn, all of which are traits of strong leaders. Refusing to apologize after having made a mistake demonstrates pomposity of the worst kind. Saying "I'm sorry" effectively is one of the most powerful small decencies available to any leader. Good apologies deliver the "4 Rs:"
    1. Recognition of the mistake
    2. Responsibility for the error
    3. Remorse expressed
    4. Restitution offered
  • Make yourself accessible. In his book The Transparent Leader, former Dial Corporation CEO Herb Baum says, "The road to transparency is itself an open one. . . I stress actual physical accessibility as a tool to develop our culture." One way he became accessible was through a program called "Hotdogs with Herb." He describes this as "a fun, casual lunch where I get to spend quality time with a small group of employees . . . It allows them to get to know me, and gives me a chance to get to know them and listen to their concerns or feedback . . . We always have hotdogs—my favorite dish." Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was known for asking city employees, "How am I doing?" and really being open to the answer. In the end, accessibility is not just about being available, it's about being open to input as well.

Ripples in a Pond

People will perk up when you offer a decency. Employees like to work in a place where consideration and respect are palpable and leaders listen with humility. And I think they like to use a leader's example as permission to make the extra effort to act with decency themselves. That's how one leader's commitment to decency emanates throughout a company like ripples in a pond. It's quiet. It may take a little while. But it will bring about a change that is deeply rooted within individual behavior, and that's the best foundation of all.

Steve Harrison is chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison, a global leader in career management solutions based in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. This article is drawn from his new book, The Manager's Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Harrison welcomes examples of decencies and gives a free book each month to the person submitting the most powerful example of a business decency. For more on the book or to submit your decencies, visit http://www.bookofdecencies.com.

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