Workplace Success Starts With Civility

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mary Bomar believes in civility and kindness on the job -- and she believes it works for the success of herself and others.

Bomar, director of the National Park Service, sees kindness easing the way through tough moments in her career, from dealing with questions about George Washington's slaves to moving employees into new positions. She sees it as a strategic asset in a job hunt or promotion, too, especially when candidates highlight how it helps them achieve.

"Kindness means taking action and solving problems, and having the best interests of the employee in mind," said Bomar, who has led the 20,000-employee park agency for two years.

Just don't confuse kindness with being soft or unmotivated in managing a team or your career. Kind managers take credit for accomplishments. They hold staff accountable. They apply the Golden Rule, and "do unto others" and work for mutual successes, said William Baker, co-author of "Leading with Kindness."

He and his co-author, psychologist and Yale University Press editor Michael O'Malley, list six key ingredients to workplace kindness -- compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor. Kind leaders recruit others who share their values, they note.

"By being a kind leader, you're going to be massively successful," said Baker, who says kindness and ethical behavior are related.

Kindness fosters resilience, problem-solving and a place where growth and creativity flourish. By contrast, bully bosses who use fear do not win followers and do not build a network of supporters.

When tons of résumés flood in for a job opening, "Why not pick the person who feels good?" Baker said.

O'Malley noted that treating people better during a layoff lays the groundwork for more productivity from those left on the job.

Bomar recalls workers she transferred in the park service, hoping a change of scenery would improve their work. "It was kindness not to allow them to fail," she said. Although the workers initially resented the change, many later told her the move was right for them.

Kindness may yield stronger results in other ways, especially in managing people. People who work for kind bosses are more likely to put out "maximum effort at work" than those with mean managers, research by the American Management Association indicates. Using that effort to drive results will impress the brass when you're looking for a promotion -- or a new job.

Knowing workers' names, families and interests may pay when you need someone who speaks Hindi or who's knowledgeable about bats. It also helps build trust and good relationships, Bomar said. "People want to feel valued," she said. "Wherever I go, I make the effort to have an all-employee meeting."

So highlight on your résumé or in interviews how your management style enhanced collaboration and developed the staff. Focus on the results, and be confident that your kindness is an asset, O'Malley said.

Kindness can also set you apart -- especially in tough times and in fields known for their take-no-prisoners approach.

Steven Michael Selzer, a Rockville lawyer, often speaks to bar associations and others on the importance of civility and decency. Selzer said his career has been built on kindness and courtesy, whether to someone on the witness stand or to a corporation that owes his client money. "Civility and professionalism go together," he said.

And it has paid off, although he said that is not the point. He remembers a morning at the gym when a woman was in pain. He ran out to his car and fetched her some aspirin. "I consider it what any decent person would do . . . She and her family became clients of mine," he said.

"People are attracted to others because they do the right thing," said Selzer, author of the book, "By George! Mr. Washington's Guide to Civility Today."

"Everybody's got education and degrees, but what's in the heart?"


© 2008 The Washington Post Company