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New Year Confessions

I have a confession to make: I’ve never quite bought into the value of New Year’s resolutions. Seems that much of the time they serve as a predictable path to failure and self-blame: start grand and starry-eyed, then invariably feel lousy about not having lived up to your goals.

But last week, as we were trying to fix a techno glitch that made most of my blog posts over the past ten years disappear from our website, I came across an old one from 2007, titled ”The Art of Apologizing.” Reading it made me ponder: Why do we have such difficult apologizing? I mean, it should be really straightforward to just go to someone and offer a sincere and effective apology, right? It sure would help us enter the new year light-hearted and feeling good about ourselves!

But life is a tad more complicated than that, and we don’t always do what needs to be done. Perhaps the new year is a good time to reflect on this kind of stuff after all. So here are my top seven observations as to why we don’t offer an apology when one is in order:

  1. You don’t recognize that there was a problem in the first place
  2. You realize you weren’t perfect but don’t grasp the impact on the other person
  3. You’re held back by a sense of shame that makes you try to forget the whole thing
  4. You truly intend to apologize but when other things hog your time and attention, you forget
  5. You’re concerned that if you apologize you’ll make it worse
  6. You’re afraid that the other person will get defensive and/or aggressive
  7. Your good ol’ pride is getting the upper hand!

Allow me to ask: As you scan your relationships at work or home and realize that maybe you messed up somewhere (yup, you’re human), which of these reasons is currently holding you back from fixing something that should be fixed? And what could and should you do next?

Fee free to contact me anytime. 

 

 

When Reality Trumps Civility

In a recent workplace civility training workshops, as we were reviewing the list of behaviours that are considered workplace incivility, a manager exclaimed, “Are we now teaching people in the workplace basic manners? Is this what we have come to?!”

Great question, especially as the holiday season and new year are about to descend upon us.

So many of our training sessions’ participants lament the seeming loss of basic decorum in the workplace. Truth is, nothing really changed—people are not much different than they used to be. By and large, they do have basic manners. Yes, there are some variations in how these manners are expressed, as anyone who’s ever set foot in a multicultural or multi-generational workplace can attest. And yes, there are the few who are uncivil on a persistent basis. However the vast majority of people come to work and practice what they perceive to be essential decorum and civility.

But here’s what sometimes happens: you arrive at work and you truly, authentically intend to be a positive player. You sincerely mean to live up to your core values—decency and dignity, consideration and kindness.

But then reality hits. And it’s fast and furious. You get sucked into a powerful vortex of incredible demands, lethal deadlines, people who seem unreasonable, faster-than-lightning change, difficult clients, demanding bosses, stubborn room thermostats, budget cuts, doing “more with less”…you name it. (And did I mention personal pressures and even global stressors, all humming in the background?)

So you forget. You forget to be nice. You forget to keep your judgmental thoughts to yourself. You neglect the little niceties. Instead, you become tunnel-visioned—focused on getting through your day and coming out the other end in one piece. You’re a tad curt, dismissive or impatient. You’re not as good with your hellos and thank-yous and a juicy swear word might sneak out here and there. You don’t show the regard for others that you otherwise would have demonstrated.

An observer who doesn’t know the “real you” might say that you are, well, uncivil.

So it’s not about not having manners. It’s about remembering who we are and living up to our values and higher self even when we are pushed, squeezed, stretched, and compressed.

As the year 2016 is about to come to an end, my heartfelt wish for us all is that we become more resilient in navigating our complex lives, so that we can fully and truly be the person we aspire to be, day in and day out.

Best of the holiday season and happy new year!

Please drop a line, anytime.

Do You Too Strike Back in the Afternoon?

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Does experiencing incivility from a co-worker in the morning lead to you behaving in an uncivil fashion in the afternoon? New research suggests that this is exactly the case.

The researchers asked a group of employees to fill in a questionnaire three times during their workday over a period of ten consecutive days. In each questionnaire they were asked to rate the extent to which they experienced incivility from co-workers and the extent to which they themselves engaged in incivility towards coworkers. They were asked things such as, “In the time since I completed the last survey, one or more of my coworkers has put me down or been condescending to me,” and “In the time since I completed the last survey, I have put one or more of my coworkers down or acted condescendingly toward them.” The researchers (Christopher Rosen, Allison Gabriel, and Joel Koopman) also measured participants’ self-control levels.

The results? The research found that “experiencing incivility earlier in the day reduced people’s self-control, which in turn resulted in increased instigated incivility later in the day.” In short, when someone is uncivil to you in the morning, you are more likely to be uncivil in the afternoon.

This latest study adds an interesting layer to current knowledge about the dynamics of incivility. I’ve already shared previously how the “spiral effect” plays out: someone is uncivil towards you and in your frustration or upset you too engage in incivility. For example, a co-worker makes a dismissive comment about your work in a meeting and you in turn vent to others about it (=gossip), or give the instigator the silent treatment for a day or two, or perhaps you knock down their idea during a subsequent meeting in an effort to exact justice and balance the ledger.

What this study highlights is yet another way in which the spiral effect manifests: experiencing incivility from person A might lead us to be uncivil to a totally unsuspecting and innocent person B.

With this in mind, I would like to offer a personal exploration question: When we (you, me) experience incivility, how can we manage the potent cocktail of emotions that is likely to emerge in such a way that we do not resort to retaliation, or to being uncivil later toward an innocent third party? What do we need to do or think right then and there so that we can hold on to our own civility, equanimity and resilience?

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On a different note: due to a technical glitch at our end, many of you experienced difficulties in accessing the previous blog post, How to Look for Civility in Job Interviews. So here’s the proper link. Enjoy!

And as always, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly to discuss our workplace civility training workshops or how to help an abrasive leader, anytime.

How to Look for Civility in Job Interviews

How do you make sure that you are hiring people who will not only be civil themselves, but also contribute to the work unit’s overall civility? And what questions might you expect in future if you are on the interviewee side of the table.

Last week I delivered a webinar for the US-based HRDQ—a great organization offering learning and training resources that now distributes our Respect on the Go toolkits. (You can watch the webinar here for free.) One of the participants inquired about civility-focused guidance for the hiring process. Since this is a question I get asked from time to time, I thought I’d share some tips.

  1. Describe a scenario where the interviewee would be on the receiving end of incivility. Ask how they would respond. A desirable candidate is one who would address things constructively—directly, professionally and respectfully.
  2. Ask for an example where the person was treated in a rude or discourteous manner by a manager or colleague. What was his or her internal reaction? What was his or her response on the ground? What transpired—did it go well or perhaps not—and why? What did they learn and how did they apply it? Explore the details. You’re looking for candor, and for an ability to reflect on their own reactivity and take mature action.
  3. Ask for an example of when the person had been themselves uncivil (you may want to provide a loose definition of the term, and emphasize that anyone can be unintentionally uncivil—let the interviewee feel it’s okay to “admit” his or her own flaws.). If they can’t come up with an example then they are either not human or not truthful. If they do describe a situation, explore the details and learning, and how they would apply that in your workplace.
  4. Did they ever work in an uncivil environment or team? What did they observe and experience? In hindsight, what part did they play in contributing to this environment either positively or negatively? You’re looking here for a capacity for insight about the effect that the incivility had on them personally, on the team, on collaboration, and of course on clients and stakeholders.
  5. Describe a situation where the interviewee would be a bystander, observing a colleague being uncivil toward another colleague. How would they respond? How would they analyze the situation? A desirable candidate is one who is able to listen to his or her inner canary, demonstrate insight into the complexities of the dynamics of incivility, and a capacity to move beyond their internal mental barriers to step up to the plate.
  6. If your organizational values include a “respect” value or the like, share that with the candidate and ask them to describe what “respect” would mean to them: Why is it important to them? How specifically would they live that out if they were to get the job? What would they do if they encountered behaviours that are not in line with this value? What have they done in the past?

There are numerous advantages to a civil work environment. Hiring the right people will save you lots of future headaches and challenging experiences.

As always, contact me directly, anytime.

Micro-Inequities, Bias, and Incivility

I sometimes get asked about the relationship between micro-inequity and workplace incivility. With current racial tensions and police bias in the USA in the background, let’s take a look at this question.

Micro-inequity refers to the subtle, often unconscious ways in which individuals are devalued, overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender—through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, choice of words, nuance, and syntax (Wikipedia). Workplace incivility, for its part, refers to low-intensity, seemingly insignificant behaviour that is rude, inconsiderate, discourteous, or insensitive with ambiguous or unclear intent to harm.

Clearly, there is a significant chunk of workplace interactions that would readily qualify as both uncivil and micro-inequitable. Think, for example, about a person affected by Asperger’s or one with a strong accent whose contribution in a team meeting is overlooked or ignored as people move impatiently to the next person’s idea. Or consider the young female whose work is continuously dismissed by a middle-aged male colleague. Do these comprise plain old incivility activities or are these actions propelled by (conscious or unconscious) bias that is based on the group to which they belong?

Well, we will probably never know. In fact, the perpetrator might not be aware of his or her own bias. We don’t always know our own heart, particularly the darker parts of our hearts. And there are so many variables in a situation that it is close to impossible to decipher the extent to which prejudice and bias are at play. This is especially true when based on a single interaction.

I consider incivility an “equal-opportunity offender.” That is, we can be uncivil to people anytime, anywhere, and regardless of who they are or what they did (or didn’t do) that may have triggered our uncivil conduct. However, incivility certainly can be rooted in some ingrained bias related to particular groups. And it is precisely in that junction that it converges with the concept of micro-inequity.

We humans have a tendency to feel more at home with those who are like us, and less comfortable and possibly suspicious or even fearful of the “other.” We possess an inclination for bias, even if we truly and wholeheartedly want to be unprejudiced and enlightened and treat everyone as equal. The true challenge is: How do we deal with these internal biases within ourselves, and, more importantly, how do we make sure that we do not act on them, even if only in subtle ways that might show up as micro-inequities?

(Before going further, I feel compelled to comment briefly on the impact to the person on the receiving end of these micro-inequities. They might seem minute to an observer, but for those being affected, there is nothing “micro” about these seemingly insignificant behaviours. They hurt and sting and upset and humiliate in ways that cut to the core of one’s emotional and physical being.)

So let’s assume for a moment that you and I want to do better and avoid acting on our bias through micro-inequities.

The place to start is by knowing thyself. Below are some questions to ask yourself when you are working with someone who is different from you by virtue of them belonging to a group whose characteristics are unchangeable. These questions offer you ways to recognize that you are possibly under the influence of bias.

Are you…

  • Making judgments about the person based on preconceived ideas?
  • Feeling a bit uncomfortable in their presence for reasons you cannot pinpoint?
  • Avoiding that person?
  • Experiencing inexplicable unpleasant feelings?
  • Having irrational thoughts? What are they?

If you answered yes to any of these, what a gift! You now have the beginning of a thread to work with and grow from. Embracing our fallibility and moving beyond it to true awareness and enlightened action is a lifelong journey. At least for me.

This is the last blog post before the summer holidays. Happy summer!

As always, contact me directly, anytime.

Hop, Skip, and Leap to Conclusions!

Do people really intend to be dismissive, belittling or inconsiderate when they engage in those seemingly insignificant behaviours that we refer to as workplace incivility? (The eye roll, sarcastic comment, little put down, harsh tone, a dash of juicy gossip etc.)

Truth is, we’ll never know.

If asked what they were thinking or intending, the person who engaged in the behaviour will say things like, “I wasn’t aware I did that,” or “I was simply frustrated,” or “I was stressed out,” or “that’s just how I speak,” or perhaps “sometimes the only way a person will hear you is if you use a tone or words that spell it out for them,” or “it was nothing—why make a big deal about something so minor?”

In short, when we are on the offender side, we:

  1. Aren’t aware that we did it in the first place, or
  2. Don’t realize the impact we’re having on the other person/s, or
  3. We find ways to justify our conduct, both in our minds and out loud

Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end is busy doing his or her own mental gymnastics. Instead of giving the person who initiated the behaviour the benefit of the doubt (“she didn’t really mean it,” or “he’s under a lot of stress”), they jump to the conclusion that the behaviour was intentional—it was an outright attack on them. When on the receiving side, stressful thoughts set in swiftly and aggressively.

We humans are meaning-making machines. All too often we leap to assumptions and explanations that are imbued with rich drama (“she humiliated me on purpose!,” “he drove right over me with a bulldozer!”) and from there, with a quick hop and without ever pausing for a deep breath or a moment of rational evaluation, we land ourselves in one or all of:

  1. Self-doubt, insecurity, anxiety and humiliation (within a nanosecond we’re back in grade three when we were not selected for the team)—we experience withdrawal and discouragement, and/or
  2. Retaliation—we plot schemes for getting even, because hey why not give that person a bit of their own medicine (after all, they deserve it), and/or
  3. Exaggerated negative conclusions about the larger environment and our place within it—“my useless manager does nothing to stop this behaviour,” or “nobody cares about me here so I should lower my work effort in return”

Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend why we let ourselves fall into these dark labyrinths of the mind in reaction to low-intensity uncivil, unwanted behaviours. Being in Velcro mode can lead us to lots of unnecessary self-inflicted pain. My question for you is: The next time you’re on the receiving end of a behaviour that is not as courteous you had hoped, what might you do differently?

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As a reminder, for those of you want to join my July 7 Conference Board of Canada webinar (Demystifying the Abrasive Leader: Finding the Path to Change), contact me to benefit from the 50 per cent discount the Conference Board is extending to anyone in my network.

As always, contact me directly anytime, to talk about anything, including our workplace civility training workshops or how to help change an abrasive leader anytime.

Three More No-Nos for New Leaders

iStock Woman's Eye 000077538133_MediumI’ve been thinking lately about the unique trials and tribulations of taking on a leadership role for the first time, or taking on a new team, and decided to add three more no-nos to my original three, and the fourth I added later. So here goes—would love to hear your own reflections on this too.

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No-No #1: Don’t buy into the “you can’t change someone’s personality” myth.

Many of the leaders I’ve worked with have fallen into the trap of thinking that there’s nothing you can do to change a person’s disagreeable or difficult personality, no matter how damaging it is to teamwork and culture. I call this the George Will Be George tale—thinking that as a manager you can’t change George’s behaviour because that’s just who he is, like an old dog that supposedly can’t learn new tricks. This line of thought leads to tolerating uncivil or otherwise unacceptable behaviours.

My take: true, you can’t change someone’s personality but you certainly have the responsibility (and privilege) to require them to check the disagreeable parts of their character at the front door when they enter the workplace, and bring in with them only those elements that are cordial, collaborative, professional, and civil. Attitude—of the right kind—is an integral part of the job.

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No-No #2: Don’t lose your eyesight.

When you enter your new role as leader, you bring a fresh set of eyes and unobstructed observation skills. You can see dynamics, entanglements, incivilities, weaknesses and strengths with great clarity. Your inner canary too will be acutely attuned and sensitive. But as you get inducted into the culture, your eyesight is at risk of becoming foggy and your canary’s alerts might get muffled. My advice: try maintaining that original lucidity for as long as possible.

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No-No #3: Don’t let your newness lead you to accept bad behaviour.

With the clarity of your vision and that active canary by your side, take action to address uncivil, unprofessional or non-collaborative behaviour early on. In my training and coaching sessions I often hear about perceived obstacles to taking action (“I need to pick my battles,” “I need to first get the full picture,” “these are engrained problems that will take a long time to resolve”). But if you don’t take at least some steps that demonstrate the type of culture you are striving to create, you will generate the impression that it’s business as usual, which will make it even more difficult to initiate change later.

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On a different note, I am thrilled to share the following discount opportunity: On July 7th I will be presenting a webinar on abrasive leaders for the Conference Board of Canada (Demystifying the Abrasive Leader: Finding the Path to Change). The Conference Board has graciously extended a 50 per cent discount off the $199 webinar fee to people in my network. If you or a colleague are interested in attending, just let me know and we will provide you with the details ASAP.

As always, contact me directly, anytime.

 

Ah, Those Juicy Swear Words

Recently my work took me to several organizations in different industries that had one notable thing in common: the accepted use of swear words at work. Here are some of the reasons people used to explain this habit:

  1. Our work is stressful—it’s a natural outlet.
  2. We act professionally with our clients, but can let loose with one another.
  3. We need to vent.
  4. It’s an expression of my authentic self. Those who don’t like it should get thicker skins.
  5. It’s just how we do things around here—it’s embedded in our workplace culture.
  6. I do it only with people whom I know are okay with it.
  7. After a frustrating interaction with a customer where I was patient and kind, I have to release steam.
  8. I know which lines not to cross. For example, I would never swear at someone.
  9. It’s always been like this in our industry.
  10. Management does it too.

True, organizations vary, customers can be utterly frustrating, and some jobs are especially stressful. And yes, in some industries swearing is practically a rite of passage.

Using swear words can feel really good. They’re juicy, colourful, and provide a satisfying outlet. In fact, research even shows that they help alleviate physical pain—people who used an expletive were able to immerse their hands in ice water twice as long as folks who hadn’t used a profanity. (But wait! Later findings indicate that those who swear on a daily basis show no such improvement in pain tolerance.)

Even the best of us will occasionally blurt out the wrong word at the wrong time. I have fond childhood memories of my father using every morsel of self-control at his disposal to avoid using foul language, and then on occasion despite himself blurting out a colourful curse in his Dutch mother tongue, much to our delight.

But what about the use of ongoing, habitual bad language at work?

Well, at the risk of alienating those of you who work in (and are comfortable with) workplace cultures like those I described above and who might think that my Pollyannaish views will destroy all the fun and authenticity, and at the risk of  boring those of you who work in non-swear environments, I decided to share my view on this matter.

So let’s call a spade a spade: swearing is uncivil. It is considered bad manners in cultures and religions worldwide.

With this in mind, here’s my recommendation: cut it out. Chances are that if your clients (customers, patients, stakeholders, funders, you name it) were to see what really goes on behind closed doors, they would lose faith in your company’s professionalism and integrity, with all that that implies. (Plus, would you feel proud for them to see it in the first place?)

And chances are that if you took a closer look at your organizational values you would see that using profanities contradicts or at least erodes each and every one of them.

To boot, swearing looks bad on the person who is doing it. It doesn’t make you appear smarter, funnier, measured or emotionally intelligent. And you are likely inadvertently offending or engendering fear in some of those around you without even knowing it.

Shaking off a profanities habit is difficult—for individuals, for managers, and for organizations who strive to align the culture with values and superb customer service. It may take time, gumption, and lots of effort, but it’s worth it.

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P.S. Language is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Check our previous blog posts on the effects of speaking a second language on the job, the ways the language we choose shape our thinking, and the use of sarcasm.

And, as always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or to ask about our services.

Incivility, Creativity, Innovation

If your organization or team relies on innovation or creative problem solving for its success, then you have a vested interest in ensuring that civility levels on your team are high.

Research by Christine Porath and Amir Erez shows that study participants who were exposed to rudeness from a person of authority or from a peer performed more poorly on creativity tasks than did those who were treated in a civil fashion.

For example, they report that participants who had been treated badly and then asked what to do with a brick proposed solid yet uncreative ideas such as “build a house,” “build a wall,” and “build a school.” On the other hand, participants who were dealt with in a civil manner and then asked the same question, came up with much more imaginative ideas for things to do with a good old brick. Their suggestions included “sell the brick on eBay,” “use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,” “hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art,” and “decorate it like a pet and give it to a kid as a present.

When people feel that their ideas might be belittled or their input rudely dismissed, they become risk averse. They shift into survival-and-safety mode. In this mode, creative problem solving is inhibited and conformity reigns. After all, why would you take a risk if you anticipate that a colleague or manager will roll their eyes at your idea or make a dismissive comment?

Civility means that everyone’s expertise and input is respected. People feel safe to contribute, each in their own way. When one person dominates a discussion or displays uncivil behaviour toward others, this will affect the group’s ability to think creatively. In fact, research from Carnegie Melon University suggests that the presence of a dominant person on a team can make that group stupid. These researchers compared the collective intelligence of groups where one person dominated the discussion with the groups where the conversational turns were distributed more evenly. (The good news: You can do something about it and if the person happens to be a manager who is persistently abrasive, there are things that your organization can and should do to prevent or address it.) According to Anita Williams-Woolley, the lead researcher on this paper, teams where more people participated in an even way in performing tasks such as visual puzzles, negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex design assignments did better than those who had a dominant member.

Bottom line: the case for civility is clear. The challenge, as always, is how to lead by example and, conversely, how to respond constructively when someone is not as civil or professional as you’d like them to be.

(The above is a modified excerpt from Trust Your Canary: Every Leader’s Guide to Taming Workplace Incivility.)


Want to learn more? Have challenges to solve?  
 Contact me directly, anytime. 

Will Civility Destroy All the Fun?

“This is one of those emails that you type to blow off steam and then erase as a ‘boy I better not say this’ moment.” So began a spirited email I received from a man who recently participated in one of my workplace incivility training sessions.

He continued: “I am giving serious thought to writing my own book called The Case for Incivility. In our efforts to achieve civility in the workplace, we will remove common sense. Our halls will run silent. Our conversations will be contrite and disturbingly stale. Far worse, no one will know how to express their dissatisfaction for fear of reprisal because ‘how can anyone argue against civility?’ People will live in fear that what they say or do will make someone complain about them. Is this the civil workplace you envision?”

Wow, what a great email—I love it!

And no, that is not at all the workplace I envision.

I have at times seen people react with visceral fear to the notion of a civil and respectful workplace. They are concerned about the death of fun, spontaneity and camaraderie. They are worried that political correctness will sanitize the workplace and bring all these to their fatal demise, leaving behind robotic (and boring) semi-human clones. Or that minor mortal mistakes will turn everyone into what a workshop participant once called “a walking HR bomb.”

You may have experienced this reaction yourself, even if only for a fleeting moment, perhaps accompanied by a longing for the good old times. I, too, had wondered about this matter on occasion. But with time, the countless stories people shared with me about being impacted negatively by incivility or harassment changed me. As I delved deeper into the field of civility and respect, I became a convert.

So, here’s my take.

Civility does not and should not mean that corridors fall silent. On the contrary: it means that there should be more laughter, solidarity, and participation by all (rather than just, say, those who possess more social power or are crusty and sarcastic such that their colleagues are afraid to ever say anything that could spark their wrath). Surely we can have a fun and lively workplace that is still civil. Humour does not have to be at someone’s expense, friendships can thrive without excluding others, dissenting opinions can be shared without belittling or dismissing, and frustration can be expressed constructively without resorting to eye rolling.

The civility and respect message is more about dos and less about don’ts: treat others as you would like to be treated. Play nice in the sandbox. Show regard. Be considerate in words and actions. Be open to feedback. Explore your blind spots to learn how you can do better. Apologize when you screw up. Develop your Teflon shield. Have a generous spirit and give people the benefit of the doubt. And above all, strive to be a Real Human Being—someone who steps up, lifts up, speaks up and yes, shuts up too.

The civil workplace is one that maintains a Healthy Body state, as opposed to one with a persistent allergy, chronic infection or acute disease. It is a place not entirely void of incivility—after all, how could it be if it is filled with living human beings who, like you and me, inadvertently say or do the wrong thing from time to time? Rather, it is a space where everyone does their best to be respectful, take responsibility for their mishaps and is open to feedback. It is an environment where people feel comfortable calling out others on their behaviour (constructively!), where sticky situations are dealt with and people move on. It is an environment in which everyone strives to be a decent and conscientious corporate citizen.

The case for a civil workplace is strong and compelling. True, we have to be careful that the pendulum does not move into the realm of paralyzing political correctness. But from what I see, we have a far way to go before there’s a real danger of that happening. For now, let’s focus on kicking civility and inclusion up a notch, so that everyone in our work environment can perform at their best because they feel safe and respected.

 

As always, contact me anytime to explore whether and how we can help your team or organization.

 

 

 

 

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