If you’ve ever spent the better part of a day playing defense against your colleagues instead of getting actual work done, you know how much happier the workplace could be if we all acted like decent human beings. Rex Huppke, workplace columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently asked “Why is it so difficult for workplaces to achieve widespread kindness and the efficiency that would logically follow?”
As a psychologist, I can think of two reasons. First, even with our best efforts, we sometimes inadvertently offend or hurt the people around us. Intention does not always equal impact. I know I have been perceived as a total jerk when I was trying to be a decent human being, but was somehow clumsy. It’s these slights, the ones we don’t intend, that can hurt the hardest. Because we’re unaware they’re happening, we end up repeating the offense without apology, allowing a small slight to snowball into unbearable working conditions.
The second reason is perhaps the most universal. Being a decent human being is hard work, and sometimes we get tired. Acting thoughtful and pleasant all the time requires us to be aware of and stifle all kinds of angry, frustrated, insulting responses which it might feel very good to say. Even when we try to be vigilant, sometimes we just reach our limit and let our inner jerk leak out, often onto someone who least deserves it. A brilliant cartoonist, Abner Dean, captured how hard it is to be human in an amazing picture from his book “And on the Eighth Day.” The book was published in 1949, proving that the struggle to be kind is not a recent problem.
Does all of this mean we should just give up and be obnoxious to each other? Of course not. I work every day with companies to successfully design workplaces that promote kind and civil interactions and limit jerk behavior.
Even with all the right tools and the best intentions though, we’re occasionally going to miss the mark. When someone acts in an immature or thoughtless manner, we need to be willing to cut them some slack. After all, this human skin of ours can get mighty itchy.