A Return to Civility

So much of what is currently wrong in the workplace, government and our society can be linked to people simply not acting civil towards each other. Perhaps if we were a bit more courteous and polite it would lead to greater productivity, health and happiness.

In the workplace, this lack of civility shows up when we compete with coworkers rather than collaborate; it is seen when we act in a passive-aggressive manner to feign support for others and their ideas when, in fact, we have no intention of following up; or in stonewalling when others request something that is clearly important to them yet not to us.

As an organization development consultant and leadership coach, I find one of the most common forms of dysfunction is the inability of people to work together in a civil manner. Behaviors that diminish civility include both those that are intentional such as those mentioned above as well as unintentional. Such unintentional behaviors can include the failure to actively listen, an inability to believe that what others are doing is the best they can, and a lack of accountability that is endemic throughout many organizations.

“In America, we’ve got to learn how to disagree without demonizing each other,” says Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Though he may have been speaking metaphorically, the fundamental principle is the idea that people can still work together even if they do not always agree with each other’s point of view.

Look no further than the dysfunction in our federal government with Congress unable to even have a constructive conversation with members on the other side of the aisle in order to produce bipartisan legislation that is in the interests of the nation as a whole.

This lack of civility currently shows up in so many ways both within the workplace and elsewhere in our lives.

  • Meetings that have no clear agenda, feel like a waste of time, or have no clear action plan afterwards. Could we instead enable attendees to be interested and engaged by encouraging their passion as well as respectful conflict?
  • Talking over another instead of really listening to what the other has to say. What if we allowed the space for true give and take dialogue where people actually felt heard that could then give way to greater understanding?
  • Email messages that clutter our inboxes because they are rambling, incoherent or too long to be read quickly. What if we consistently specified our intention in the Subject line of our message and followed with a straight-forward request or statement that could be quickly read, acted upon or discarded?
  • Text messaging that attempts to communicate, but often leads to misunderstanding or confusion regardless of the number of emojis being used. Instead, what if text messages were used for simple requests and comments rather than a replacement for conversation with real emotions?
  • Tweets that attempt to communicate something simple to many people, yet often lead to sensationalism and/or obfuscation. What if we used these 128 characters only to direct attention to something meaningful where it can further illuminate or clarify?
  • Social media that in so many ways leads to anti-social behavior. Recent research suggests that social media often leads people to becoming more isolated. Rather than accumulating “likes” in the virtual world, what if we connected in the real-time, physical world with those we consider friends?
  • Turn signals are still the law of the land and yet motorists rarely use them anymore as if it is no longer important to indicate our intention to those who share the road. What if we again used this simple mechanism to specify our intention in order to reduce accidents as well as frustration on the road?
  • Eye contact with others tends to make many of us nervous, yet not making such contact only further separates and divides us. What if instead of making assumptions regarding other people, we were able to connect with them by simply smiling, making eye contact and saying hello?

None of these items acted upon individually will make our world more civil, yet if each of us chose to practice a little bit of kindness and compassion towards one another both in and out of the workplace, I suspect it would catch on and begin to make a difference.

Call me Pollyannaish, but I truly believe that the only way to combat the destructive forces that are preventing us from getting along are to choose to be more civil with each other. Let the spirit of this holiday season continue into the new year by making one of your resolutions to be more civil with other people.

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