Quoting that famous cartoon philosopher, Pogo, “We have met the enemy…and he is us.” When it comes to workplace culture, there has been a marked increase in rudeness and incivility over the past two decades. Blame it on a number of factors. Our increasingly polarized political climate, the pandemic and resulting years of social isolation, the digital blindness created by our social media platforms, and stress from overwork have all converged with other forces to create work environments that can be uncivil at best and, at worst, downright toxic.

Now do not get me wrong. Not all workplaces are like this. In fact, some high-profile organizations regularly invest in making sure they don’t fall into this mold. Fortune Magazine’s 2023 100 Best Places to Work For list includes well-known companies such as Cisco, Hilton, American Express, and Progressive Insurance (one of our past clients), who all regularly monitor, measure, and intentionally invest in efforts to create workplace cultures that are not only employee-friendly, but also employee-healthy. And given the extremely competitive market for recruiting and hiring top talent, companies like these are playing the long game to make sure they have the very best employees and managers well into an unpredictable future.

The challenge is that creating a “best in class” workplace is not easy. It takes time, money, and a certain degree of humility to assess your current strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, it takes a leadership temperament that puts as much emphasis on the emotional health and well-being of its workers as it does the bottom line (or other performance metrics). Regretfully, not all organizations have this leadership temperament, at least not consistently. There will almost always be some good (and even great) leaders and managers in most companies, but even one or two who don’t get (or care about) the “people thing” can lead to low morale, waning engagement, excessive turnover, unhappy customers, and even lawsuits. This is why sensitivity training is as important today as at any point in our recent history.

I wrote a few months ago about how sensitivity training is making a comeback generally, and why it can be so helpful in many organizations. Our Connecting with Respect training program, for example, has been used by hundreds of employers over the past 20 years as a powerful vehicle for communicating both the “why” and the “how” for proactively creating a workplace culture anchored in civility, esteem, respect, and feeling valued. What I didn’t cover then is why this is not just advantageous, but especially critical for leaders, managers, and supervisors.

Notwithstanding its obvious strategic fit in supporting DEIB efforts, consider the following 5 business arguments for a robust sensitivity training program focused on leaders and managers:

1. People leaders must role-model respect and civility for their teams

If the work being done in your organization requires that people collaborate with each other to make and/or deliver your final “product,” then teamwork is essential. Helping individuals to work together as a team doesn’t just require that they have the right skills and knowledge, it also requires that they have the right attitudinal blueprint to work from. A blueprint that includes curiosity, empathy, compassion, trust, and respect. These intrinsic qualities naturally lead to pro-social behaviors; behaviors like sharing, supporting, looking out for, and cheering on one another. Being a part of a well-oiled work team is not just good for business, it’s good for our physical health. Managers and supervisors who consistently role-model these qualities and behaviors themselves send the message that we expect the same from everyone else on the team.

2. Younger employees may need extra “hand-holding”

According to a new poll released by the American Psychological Association (APA), younger workers are having a hard time finding their groove at work. More specifically, 48% of workers between the ages of 18-25 “struggle with feelings of loneliness and a lack of appreciation at work.” This is far higher than for other age groups and represents an extraordinary opportunity for managers and leaders willing to spend a bit more time checking in with, supporting, and showing appreciation for the contributions of their younger employees. The race to attract, retain, and engage top talent is not slowing down (and won’t anytime soon due to shifting demographic factors). As more Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers retire, those organizations that excel at helping their youngest employees feel valued and appreciated will have a distinct talent advantage 5 and 10 years from now.

3. Harassment complaints can be a real [expensive] headache

The old saying that, “an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure” could not be more relevant when it comes to sensitivity training. Just in the past month, we’ve received 13 inquiries from both existing and prospective new clients about “sensitivity coaching” …not for individual contributors (who are more often terminated for legitimate harassment complaints), but for managers and senior leaders accused of poor behavior themselves. So pervasive is this problem overall that, according to a 2021 Forbes report, the costs to U.S. businesses were over $20 Billion a year. And that does not reflect the emotional toll on HR professionals who typically are tasked with leading the requisite investigations associated with harassment claims. Proactively working with managers and leaders to create a culture of respect, civility, and psychological safety for all employees can serve as a potent inoculation (or booster shot) against problematic and/or illegal behaviors in the future.

4. Character is the “secret ingredient” for current and emerging leaders

Even before assessing their business acumen, the VERY first quality we should be looking for in our emerging leaders are character traits. According to a 2024 Harvard Business report titled The Case for Leadership Character, there are 7 character traits we should be looking (and training) for in current and future leaders:  Integrity, Self-awareness, Determination, Empathy, Courage, Optimism, and Curiosity/open-mindedness. With the exception of Optimism, the rest are (or should be) included in manager sensitivity training courses because they all impact the quality of the relationships that managers and leaders forge with their team members.Fortunately, they are also qualities that can also be taught and improved upon if the business case for doing so is clear. Brain science increasingly suggests that mindsets and behaviors are not set in stone; they are “plastic” and can improve over time when employers provide the training, support, and encouragement to facilitate the process. None of us are human beings as much as we are human becomings and our workplace training can be a powerful vehicle for all sorts of positive transformations.

5. Great leaders and managers make great neighbors

Decades ago, one of my mentors used to say, “Good companies help their workers become better employees. The best companies help their employees become better people.” Lest we forget, when managers, leaders, and supervisors go home at the end of the day (or log off their home office computers), they magically transform back into mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends, and neighbors. We see them at the grocery store, at our kids’ baseball and soccer games, walking our dogs, on the pickleball court, and the occasional backyard barbecue.Usually, we can tell the ones who work for companies we’d like to work for ourselves. They’re courteous, friendly, quick to ask how we’re doing, and, on occasion, ask if we’d like to come over sometime for wine or a beer. The point is that the same prosocial attitudes and behaviors that are so important to helping lead our companies, agencies, and nonprofit organizations successfully into the future are the very same ones that allow us to enjoy the benefits of civil neighborhoods and communities when we’re not working.

Legacy Business Cultures has been in business for almost 30 years delivering some of the most comprehensive sensitivity training programs on the market to some of the most recognized employers in the world. While a good part of our success has come from having outstanding instructors delivering well-designed training, the other part is mostly human nature. Not everyone knows how (or is wired) to play nicely in the sandbox with their co-workers. When “that person” happens to also be a leader or manager and their team is struggling, our phones ring to see if we can help them course correct. In most cases, we can (if the manager wants to improve). But I can tell you from experience that a proactive approach that instills (or reinforces) the appropriate attitudes and behaviors ahead of time is a lot easier on everyone.

ABOUT PAUL MESHANKO

Paul Meshanko is an author, professional speaker and business leader with over 20 years of experience in leadership development and organizational culture change.
After a 12-year career with AlliedSignal, he opened Legacy Business Cultures in 1997 to serve the Nation’s growing demand for innovative and proven strategies for creating best in class workplace cultures. Paul specializes in change management and employee engagement training, diversity and inclusion training, executive coaching and organizational assessments. Under his leadership, the business has grown to become one of the most successful boutique talent and development providers in the country.