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At Large: Why jerks make the worst compliance officers

At work, when a boss or colleague insults us, whether intentionally or not, we feel it. Our usual reaction? Clam up and retreat into our shell.

No matter how much “game face” we show the outside world, inside we’re all a bunch of softies. And when our feelings get hurt, what happens? We stop listening, too busy nursing the new grudge and plotting revenge.

The application to compliance is clear: Critiques and suggestions delivered with even a tiny dose of rudeness will bury the remedial message. Incivility can trigger both retaliation against the rude compliance officer and sabotage against the compliance program itself.

Christine Porath is one of the world’s leading authorities on rudeness at work. She teaches at Georgetown’s business school and wrote Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.

Prof Porath’s research showed how critical comments and tactless conduct can ruin any plans for forward motion.

In the Harvard Business Review a few years ago, she said, “Incivility can fracture a team, destroying collaboration, splintering members’ sense of psychological safety, and hampering team effectiveness. Belittling and demeaning comments, insults, backbiting, and other rude behavior can deflate confidence, sink trust, and erode helpfulness — even for those who aren’t the target of these behaviors.”

If we’re honest, we already know this stuff. Praise and encouragement feel good, and a little goes a long way. When our egos are stroked, even slightly, we’re more alive, more open to the world around us.

On the other hand, a belittling word or gesture makes us feel, well, littler. We instantly disconnect, maybe to the point of not seeing or hearing what’s happening outside our own turbulent head.

Even small insults mess up the chemistry. A manager pounding the keyboard while we’re talking, a “fun” little comment about our bad hair day, a sarcastic throat clearing, the meeting host muting our mic before we’ve finished.

The toxic byproduct of rude behavior can linger. As Prof Porath said, “Once incivility occurs, it’s easy for negative thoughts to seep into people’s heads and stay there, translating into negative behavior.”

We all know a thick skin is better. Sometimes, with effort, we don’t let bad manners ruin our day. But most times, incivility triggers negative reactions we can’t control.

“People who lack a sense of psychological safety — the feeling that the team environment is a trusting, respectful, and safe place to take risks — shut down, often without realizing it,” Prof Porath said.

So, if anyone wants to spoil the compliance message, it’s easy. Be rude, even just slightly, to those hearing the message. Does this happen? Probably more often than we think.

Fortunately, there’s an upside to Prof Porath’s research.

“Civility helps teams to function better in large part by helping employees feel safer, happier, and better. In my study of over 20,000 employees, those who felt respected by their leader reported 92 percent greater focus and prioritization and 55 percent more engagement,” she said.

Her final advice? Leaders, set the tone. “It all starts at the top. When leaders are civil, it increases performance and creativity, allows for early mistake detection and the initiative to take actions, and reduces emotional exhaustion.”

Reduces emotional exhaustion? After the events of 2020 (still ongoing), that’s something we could all use.

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