Christine Pearson: An interview by Bob Morris


PearsonPearson is a professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management and a business professional with more than 20 years experience and faculty appointments in Europe, Asia and South America. In the course of her responsibilities as a consultant and executive-development adviser, Pearson has assisted companies and organizations including ExxonMobil, PepsiCo, Dow Chemical, Clorox, Transamerica, Kraft Foods, the Los Angeles Police Department, BellSouth (now part of AT&T Inc.), Nortel Networks, and the Red Cross. Her areas of interest include crisis management, workplace incivility, enterprise leadership development, interpersonal dynamics, team building, and dysfunctional behavior in the workplace.

She is the author of five books on crisis management, most recently The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It co-authored with Christine Porath. They make a compelling business case for workplace civility. The book explores the causes and outcomes of incivility and shares strategies for resolving minor situations before they spiral into something major. Pearson contends that companies pay dearly for minor acts of rudeness that go unchecked in the workplace. She has also been published articles in Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Executive, Organization Science, Organizational Dynamics, and Human Relations. Pearson earned her Ph.D. in business from the University of Southern California, her M.S. in organizational psychology from California State University, and her B.A. in French and economics from the City University of New York.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Pearson. The complete interview is also available.

*     *     *

Morris: Opinions are divided about referring to workers as “employees” or as “associates.” What do you think?

Pearson: For me, it’s not the word chosen but the application of what’s implied here. I’ve certainly seen “associates” who are treated terribly, as what sociologists call “non-persons,” (i.e., that they are so discounted and ignored that they don’t even register to the other person as a human being) and I’ve certainly seen “employees” who are fully appreciated. For me, the term isn’t a sticking point.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Cost of Bad Behavior that you co-authored with Christine Porath. For those who have not as yet read this book, what are the nature and extent of the verifiable cost of incivility in the workplace?

Pearson: We define incivility as seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that go violate norms of workplace behavior. In essence, it’s mutual respect among co-workers, as played out in words and actions. Some examples of incivility include ignoring colleagues, passing the blame, taking credit for others’ work, not listening, failing to return phone calls, talking down to someone…The most controversial at the moment, I believe, is texting or emailing during meetings. That gets the most push-back when I talk to audiences: about 20% can’t imagine why it would be seen by others as uncivil, another 10% understand why but do it anyway and about 80% (overlapping the 10%, of course) see it as uncivil, disrespectful. The consensus among audiences is that it demonstrates more interest in your texts/emails than in the people at the meeting. I agree.

As to the verifiable costs, let me share just a few of the statistics that we’ve collected from targets of incivility for the past decade. When they have experienced workplace incivility, our respondents across studies tell us that:

• 48% intentionally decrease their work effort
• 47% intentionally decrease their time at work
• 38% intentionally decrease the quality of work they produce
• 63% lose time trying to avoid the person who has offended them
• 80% lose work time worrying about the incident
• 78% lose commitment to their organization
• 88% do something to get even with their organization in which the incivility occurred
• 94% do something to get even with their offender

Is it any wonder that so many workers are either passively engaged or actively disengaged?

Morris: Of course there are other costs that cannot be precisely measured (such as severe emotional stress) that also have a profound impact on workplace morale and productivity. How to take these costs into proper account?

Pearson: A starting place is to become familiar with what is known about these costs, for example by looking at the research that has come out on this topic. Companies we’ve worked with use that data as the basis for talking with and surveying their employees, then senior managers and other organizational leaders work together to understand and estimate what the costs could be for their organization. Even when best case scenarios are applied to best companies (i.e., some of those that are actually endorsed as “Best Places to Work” in surveys), the numbers quickly add into the millions. Once the leadership team understands that, you’ve got their attention.

* * *

If you wish to read the complete interview, please contact me at interllect@mindspring.com.

You are invited to check out the resources at these Web sites:

http://www.thunderbird.edu/faculty/christine-pearson-phd

http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/podcasts/2009/05/19/incivility/

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