Radical Decency at Work — Bob’s Story (Book Excerpt)

In my many different work environments, one thing I’ve repeatedly noticed is the presence of “that person.” My friend Bob is an excellent example. A quiet man with a world-weary air, he’s been an adjustor at the local office of a large insurance company for many years. The challenges he and his co-workers face are unrelentingunreasonable monthly quotas, oppressive documentation, and a revolving door of supervisors who, browbeaten by the demands of their higher-ups, seemed to be forever berating and threatening their subordinates.

But Bob is treated differently. Everyone in the office – even each new boss, upon his or her arrival – somehow knows not to mess with him. Why? It has something to do with his professionalism. Bob does his job well. But there’s more to it than that. Co-workers, and even bosses, readily share their complaints and frustrations with him, knowing he’ll listen with patience and respect, affirming points of legitimate frustration but never fueling the fire with his own grievances.

Not a complainer himself, Bob will nevertheless speak up when the situation requires it. When he does, he does so firmly and quietly, conveying the unspoken message that “this is serious and demands attention.” With all of Bob’s actions reflecting integrity and respect both for himself and others, his co-workers and bosses alike listen when he speaks and take his message seriously.

Many workplaces have people like Bob. But while we may notice and admire them, we seldom take the time to understand what they’re doing. But we should. These people are powerfully modeling bottom-up leadership.

What can we learn from Bob’s example? It begins with good listening. When faced with an unreasonable boss, it’s important not to give in to your natural, very human tendency to shut down or react with annoyance. Seek, instead, to reassure her that you’re on her “side” – not through placating words or behaviors, but through patient attentiveness to her emotions even as you steer the conversation in a more reasoned direction. Then, as your reputation as “that person” grows, you may even be able to offer meaningful emotional support through understanding and empathy, both verbally and via tone, body language, and other indirect cues.