Back to School Lessons for the Workplace

This time of year brings with it a certain set of feelings and, unfortunately, not all of them are positive. For many students, starting school for the first time or starting a new grade may cause anxiety as they face new teachers and new roles and expectations. For these students, getting off to the right start can be critical for subsequent success. Nothing supports getting off on the right foot better than a teacher who focuses on providing early positive reinforcement to the student. When the teacher pairs her/himself with reinforcement to the student, anxiety is reduced and the student becomes more responsive to future teacher requests and requirements.

Once this is done, the structure of the classroom increases the student comfort and increases the readiness to learn. In the best classrooms, expectations and rules are clearly spelled out and what students can expect from teachers and other students is explicitly communicated. Although much of the structure is about classroom management – keep your hands and feet to yourself, raise your hand if you need something or want to say something, etc., I believe the most important is how we are to treat each other. Students are told by their teachers to show good manners, particularly by saying “Please,” “Excuse me,” and “Thank you.”

I suggest this is not a trivial part of defining the classroom culture, as people who have good manners are typically happier and more financially successful in later life. In school, as at home, these rules and behaviors are repeated hundreds if not thousands of times throughout the early years. (How many times do you remember hearing your mother say, “Did you say thank you?”) It should be acceptable to think that by the time you reach adulthood, you are fluent in these social skills.

Unfortunately, many of us see an absence of these important skills in our workplace today. In fact, the first day of school reminds me of what I saw in many new-hire orientations where I was brought in to make them more effective in reducing turnover and absenteeism. The focus of these admittedly ineffective orientations was not on the new hires, but on the rules and expectations of management. The policies and procedures were almost always negatively stated – If you miss more than X days a quarter… If you are late … If you are caught not wearing safety equipment, etc. Pairing the supervisor with positive reinforcement was not the object but rather to make sure that the policies and procedures had been communicated. Little was said about the importance of how the employees treated each other.

Even today as I visit client organizations, employees rarely acknowledge my presence, but rather look straight ahead, down at the floor or in another direction. It is not that they weren’t taught good social skills, but more so that they are not likely valued by the organization. I can tell you with a great deal of confidence that if you don’t have an appreciative culture, you are missing out on a lot of discretionary effort that is a characteristic of team-oriented, high-performing and highly engaged organizations.

Here are some things to look for or work to incorporate into your work environment to ensure you have an appreciative culture:

Use good manners: If your employees or co-workers don’t, be the example. When you say “Good morning,” “Please” and “Thank you,” people are more likely to reciprocate.

Listen: Unfortunately, listening has been defined as the time you plan what you are going to say when the other person finishes. As a psychotherapist I learned that the most valuable part of the therapy session was listening. I was taught how to focus on the patient rather than on my genius advice that I couldn’t wait to give them. I was taught to rephrase what they were saying as a way to check if I had heard correctly what the person was saying or feeling.

True listening is a powerful positive reinforcer. One way to know what you reinforce each day is to try to remember what you heard that day. If you only heard problems, it says that you only had time for problems, and you can expect more tomorrow. Find time to listen to what people are pleased about, what they accomplished and other good things that happened at work and at home. If will pay great dividends.

Be kind: Being kind is a two-way street. On one hand, it’s important to have good manners by showing gratitude to others who have shown kindness or extended help to you. Approach each situation by assuming that the other person was trying to do the right thing and not trying to cause trouble. If you are right in this assumption, you will likely be rewarded by the person’s subsequent response, because people who are reinforced, reinforce others more often. If you are wrong and the person was actually trying to cause trouble for someone else, was lazy or ignorant, your positive approach may cause the person to rethink his or her behavior toward you in a positive way in the future.

Help others: One of the most rewarding things that can happen in the workplace can be found in helping others to be successful. Look for opportunities to help others who may be struggling or are overburdened. When you offer a hand or make a suggestion for what may work, co-workers will come to appreciate and trust you more and help you more without being asked.

Positively reinforce all levels of the organization: It is not uncommon that employees think it is appropriate to reinforce those who work for them, and that it is not appropriate to reinforce up the chain of command. That is simply not true. It is always appropriate to positively reinforce the behavior of anyone who makes it easier for you to do your job or helps you be more successful. Remember, those who are reinforced, reinforce more often. Do your part today.

For a different look at what we can and should consider in relation to schools and the workplace, I encourage you to read this article on The Wing Institute: A Research-to-Practice Approach to Education.