Christine Porath Author Interview

Portrait of Christine Porath

Christine Porath is a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She’s the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Amazon, Bookshop) and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior (Amazon). Her new book, Mastering Community: The Surprising Ways Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving (Amazon, Bookshop) is available now.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Christine about happiness, habits, and community.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Christine: Well, like most people, exercising each morning has always made me happier, healthier, and more productive. It gets me off to a great start, boosts my mood, and allows me to be more focused and productive all day. 

I also folded in a new routine—a Wake Up and Pray Meditation—that my friend, Amy D’Ambra created (for a My Saint My Hero bracelet). I do it while stretching out, right after waking up. I give my day, prayer, works, joy and suffering (five beads). She explained how she pauses, breathes, and hands that over (holding the medallion in the middle). Then I ask for hope, protection, peace, wisdom, and love (five beads). I’ve found this really helpful whether I’m thinking about the pandemic, politics, war, professional struggles, or personal challenges. Just asking for wisdom each day to write the book was huge, because it felt daunting while teaching. Doing this every morning got me started in a calmer state, which improves my productivity and creativity. 

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That most young people believe success will lead to happiness. The brain seems to calibrate what success means, the more experience we gain in the world. If happiness only comes in the wake of perceived success,   you’ll never get there! If you work on increasing your levels of happiness in the midst of a challenge, research shows that your success rates rise dramatically. 

I’ve learned to enjoy the journey more, and not wait until I achieve something, hoping that it will bring me happiness. I haven’t mastered it, but believe that happiness in the journey helps drive performance and well-being.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
My colleague Tony Schwartz and I asked over twenty thousand people across diverse industries and organizations around the world about their quality of work and life. The fundamental question we sought to answer was: What stands in the way of being more satisfied and productive at work? 

One thing that surprised me was that our study found that 65 percent of people don’t feel any sense of community at work (and this was pre-pandemic). When people feel a sense of community at work, we found that they are 74 percent more engaged and 81 percent more likely to stay with the organization. They are much more likely to thrive at work.

Our need for affiliation, or connection, is one of our three most fundamental needs, along with autonomy and competence. Of these three, connection is arguably the most important.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I very rarely stretched. I knew it was good for me, but didn’t make the time. While researching for Mastering Community, I came across advice from my friend, Mark Verstegen, the founder of EXOS. He explained how our fascia, which is the majority of our body—the connective tissue in our body—has proprioceptors (which can help us balance) and input into our body’s system. He said all this fascia has 20 times more input into your system than anything in your body, and it knits down in your body when we sleep to help repair us. But if you don’t stretch it out and hydrate it in the morning it stays knitted down affects our form and movement throughout the day, and our posture over time.

After hearing his tips for how to start your day—and the importance of stretching out, even just 3 stretches for 3 minutes—I adopted this habit. Now it’s a part of my daily routine. 

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Upholder. I noticed this even more writing the book and through the pandemic. Deadlines and routines helped me focus and write each day. So did the Pandemic Writing Hour group. This was a voluntary community of people who wrote at the same time each day for 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break, then another 25 minutes. During the first week I found myself running up a big hill to get home to be on the computer on time, writing with strangers. I wasn’t obligated; there was no logging on. No accountability. I don’t think anyone knew I was even a part of this community. Yet I had committed to this routine—and I was part of this community. Somehow I felt the need to uphold this even if it meant running up a hill which is my ‘cooldown’ (a walk). I was grinning as I did it, because I recognized what I was doing—and why. I learned not to cut the timing that close… 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I’m a creature of habit. I like to maintain habits while traveling like working out, and eating healthy. A lack of sleep makes those habits more challenging.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
During my research for Mastering Community,  I found myself having a conversation with Anson Dorrance, head women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and former US women’s national soccer team coach. He invited me to come see how they build their culture during pre-season. 

It was an amazing experience. It was the message of Mastering Community in action. And, I sorely needed it. It helped move me from surviving to thriving. It’s one thing to write or teach principles, it can be more challenging to live them (I actually moved in with the team!). I accepted a lot of generosity, help, and trust from a community that welcomed me. I felt a sense of belonging and learned so much. I stayed the entire season, living out of a carry-on bag and backpack from late July until Thanksgiving week. It served as a good reminder of what’s important and what I need. Relationships matter, and the happiness I derived from being a part of this community fed me and provided meaning. I learned so much from the coaches, players, and the entire UNC community. That also helped me thrive.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“Who do you want to be?” I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it next to my computer the day I received tenure. I wanted it as a reminder to guide me. I use this motto to make decisions—large and small. I used this question to frame my other book, Mastering Civility because I found the motto useful when you need to respond to rudeness or challenging circumstances. 

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (Amazon, Bookshop) has been a great reminder during challenging times to be grateful. It’s given me perspective that my challenges pale in comparison to what others have endured. We can survive, and thrive even under very challenging circumstances. We’re stronger than we know or may feel. 

Seeing specific quotes from the book in action made me appreciate the book even more. One of the UNC Women’s Soccer program’s core values is Positivity. Players memorize a quote from Man’s Search for Meaning and rate one another on living this value. I witnessed what a difference it made for an injured player, her teammates, and anyone that came into contact with her. She had a choice, and it was remarkable how she responded despite her suffering. Years after graduating, I saw how some players use it to navigate challenges.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Not everyone thinks leaders should spend much time or energy caring about employee feelings and perceptions. I believe that caring and showing respect pays for leaders. It helps them connect with people, and by showing they care, people are more likely to trust the leader. They’re also more motivated to work harder. They’re more committed to the leader, and they’re more likely to bring their best-selves to this community (and remain a part of it). By demonstrating care (and respect) leaders create stronger, high-performing communities.

We’ve found that disregard, disrespect, and incivility erode people’s sense of belonging, fracture a sense of connection, and can leave members of a community feeling isolated, alone, betrayed and belittled. When the social fabric of the community is damaged, there are real and measurable effects on performance. 

Creating a culture of respect requires attention and care, but it pays off. You’ll unlock people’s potential by providing an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, where they know they matter and are encouraged to do their best work. Even those who witness civility feel a boost, and as positive emotions build, so too do motivation and performance. Incivility is a virus, and it spreads quickly. But the good news is that civility is contagious, too.



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