Have We Forgotten How to “Play Nice” at Work?
When we were children, we were always admonished to “play nice.” In other words, we should share our toys, be nice to other people, and help our friends. In this way, we could enjoy our time together – and maybe even learn some valuable lessons about human behavior.
As adults, the equivalent to “playing nice” with playmates is to be respectful and helpful to our coworkers. We should share our resources, respect our differences, and assist our colleagues when they run behind schedule or need a hand.
Like when we were children, we expect that there will be reciprocity: if I “play nice” with you, then you will “play nice” with me.
While childhood was a much simpler time, these life lessons still ring true in the modern workplace.
However, I often wonder if we’ve really learned how to apply these childhood lessons of “playing nice.” I have to ask: have we forgotten how to “play nice” at work?
“Playing Nice” Is Inherently Reciprocal…or Is It?
Just like no man is an island, no employee works alone. We need to work with others in order to get the job done.
Ideally, teamwork enables us to get things done as the result of synergies arising from applying our individual KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) to the task at hand. The whole of our efforts, therefore, is much greater than the sum of our individual parts. By helping one another, no one is overburdened or stressed out.
The ability to effectively work in teams also reflects (to a large degree) our mastery of interpersonal communication skills. The logic is that teams understand how to communicate, embrace differences, and share a single-minded focus on an ultimate, unifying goal. By being on “the same page,” conflict is reduced or averted.
All of these mantras on teamwork reflect the idea of “playing nice.”
However, problems occur when some team members “play nice,”…but others don’t. When this occurs, there are inevitable feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal – feelings that ultimately affect organizational productivity and performance.
Consider these examples:
- Stanley is an extroverted, dedicated employee who makes the time to lend a helping hand to his colleagues. During his 360° performance review, he is shocked to learn that his coworkers said that he was difficult to work with and actually prevented them from doing their own work.
- Samantha is a highly creative employee to whom colleagues frequently turn when “stuck” on problems that require outside the box thinking. As a key partner in the development of a new program, she is startled to discover that her coworkers “forgot” to mention her as a crucial part of the development team when they were interviewed for an article.
How would you respond in these situations?
Stanley chose to become more “cool” or aloof in his interactions with the coworkers who he believed “threw him under the bus” – a behavior that is incongruent with what he believes is required to have a productive workplace.
In contrast, Samantha decided to begin asking for the recognition that she deserves – but fears that she will be labeled as “difficult” and not a “team player.”
In both instances, the employees were surprised by the action or inaction of their team members. According to them, they had “no warning” that anything was wrong with their relationships. They felt confused, angry, and betrayed.
They also believed that the best way to respond was to change their behaviors in order to better navigate the politics within their workplaces.
But perhaps more importantly, both workers changed their perceptions about the nature of their work environments. In fact, both are considering leaving their companies.
The question, of course, is: could these situations have been averted if all team members “played nice?”
Puleo’s Pointers: How to “Play Nice” at Work
Even though a worker believes in sharing resources, respecting differences, and lending a hand, it is impossible to “play nice” in a vacuum. A workplace in which all employees “play nice” requires a culture of trust.
To “play nice” in a corporate culture where workers don’t believe that their colleagues consider others’ best interests would be masochistic. Adults will never “play nice” when “playing nice” ultimately hurts them professionally and emotionally.
- If you want employees to “play nice” at work, then you need to establish an organizational foundation built on respect, transparency, leadership, support, and empathy.
- Recruitment, selection, retention, performance appraisals, and development practices should be based upon and incorporate these fundamental values.
- Corporate managers and senior leaders must also be appraised on whether their actions support or undermine a culture of trust.
- “Playing nice” does not mean that there will be no disagreements between employees – accept that they are inevitable. Remember: it’s not the number of disagreements that indicates whether trust exists in an organization; rather it’s how you as a manager and/or an employee respond to conflict that reveals whether the culture is trusting or distrustful.
“Playing nice” is not an admonishment that should be given solely to children. Given today’s chaotic, high stress workplaces, it may be the only way to achieve the natural synergies, enthusiasm, and innovation that result from people trusting each other.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.