Resisting Unjust Empires

On the heels of the scandals with Harvey Weinstein and others that revealed the often-hostile work environments people deal with on a regular basis, a new study shows that toxic, dysfunctional and abusive workplaces are the norm, not the exception. It’s time we do something about it.

On October 12, Mental Health America (MHA) and the Faas Foundation released the findings of a study of 17,000 employees across North America, which revealed a very disturbing picture on the state of the workplace.

These findings include:

  • 65% of respondents reported being distracted more than 30 hours per week due to a hostile work environment,
  • 79% are often distracted or find it difficult to concentrate because of the work environment,
  • Only 17% of respondents feel that their company appropriately deals with coworkers who are not doing his or her job.
  • Only 36% of respondents feel they can rely on their supervisor’s support.
  • 63% of respondents tend to work alone because their workplace is unhelpful or hostile.
  • 71% of the respondents always, often, or sometimes speak poorly about their company to others like family and friends.

Beyond the economics of creating psychologically safe, healthy, and fair workplace cultures, the social benefits are huge. Lives can be saved. A 2015 study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard found that 120,000 deaths annually might be attributable to workplace stress. When we consider these are premature deaths, these numbers appear even graver. Reducing unnecessary stress can also help improve the mental health crisis, which has positive impacts on family and society at large.

Fortunately, organizational leaders are starting to take note. A recent survey showed that 78% of Fortune 1000 CEO’s and CFO’s view culture as one of the top three factors affecting their firm’s value. Unfortunately, however, solutions to this have proven to be ineffective and therefore elusive.

Companies and organizations have dedicated enormous resources and energy to change their cultures. Over the last couple of decades, programs on motivation, diversity and inclusion, harassment, and emotional intelligence have become a multi-billion-dollar industry—unfortunately with precious little to show for them. The needle has barely moved a notch; and one could argue there has been regression.

Often these programs are relegated to human resources departments, viewed by most companies as just another corporate fad or merely a legal shield.

We need a holistic approach, creating emotionally intelligent organizations based on what we all learned in kindergarten: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Emotional Intelligence means to be aware of, control, and express one’s own emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judicially and empathetically. The ideal workplace culture is where every point of human interaction is constructive and positive.  This is not a question of being t about being nice; it’s about respect. This can be done by making it a requirement for everyone from the CEO to the janitor go through Emotional Intelligence training, and that everyone abide by terms of engagement protocol.

To help organizations create this type of culture, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Faas Foundation have embarked on an initiative called “Emotion Revolution in the Workplace,” which will provide evidence-based approaches and solutions to this type of cultural transformation. We are also doing a deep dive on how employees feel about the work they do, the relationships they have at work and how they feel about the organization they work for. More importantly, we are determining why employees feel the way they do on the three dimensions. Our initial findings validate much of what was found in the MHA study.

This initiative is patterned after a Yale study called “Emotion Revolution in Schools”, which showed that emotionally intelligent schools produce students with better academic, behavioural, and attitudinal results and more civility in schools. Greater evidence is accumulating that there is a spill over effect where students in these schools positively influence their family dynamics.

The results from the school study suggest that if workers feel more positive about their boss and employer, they will be more positive about their interactions at work, and this will have a similar spill over effect where they will have more positive interactions outside the work environment.

This has become even more critical today where we are witnessing extremism, the abnormal becoming the normal, and democracy being dismantled. Emotional Intelligence is a huge resource for people to resist authority, whether at work or in society.

Just imagine if every single individual, in every point of interaction with others, used their emotional intelligence and applied the golden rule. If we universally applied this in all our institutions and organizations, the world would certainly be a less scary place. If we can bring emotional intelligence into our schools and our workplaces, then the feeling of safety and fairness can follow into our family life and into the community. When people feel frustrated by what happens in politics, schools and workplaces, they are at least able to practice the art of disagreement in a civil way. As I pointed out in the beginning, this has become more critical today.

Andrew Faas is a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University and author of From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Moving Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire.

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