A Return to Civility

By Danita Johnson Hughes

Sometimes you might wonder if we truly live in a civilized society. It seems that rude and discourteous behavior is on the rise. The modern workplace can be an incubator for such incivility if left unchecked.

Inside and outside the workplace – including the healthcare industry in which I work – we see a rash of disrespectful, discourteous, and rude behavior. Angry commuters use their vehicles to take out their aggressions and deliberately cut others off in traffic. Customer service has diminished to the point where most would prefer to use the impersonal ATM machine than face an unhappy bank teller. Malicious political campaigns and tactics draw out the worst in even the most respected individuals. Children face tremendous fear and stress from bullies at school. The examples of an uncivilized society are too numerous to recount, and the workplace is a microcosm of society.

The effect of such destructive behavior can be more psychologically damaging than open forms of abuse, such as harassment and violence. From a business and leadership perspective, the negative behavior happening outside of the workplace is trickling in – affecting employee loyalty, organizational commitment, and overall productivity. The pressures of everyday life can take their toll on employees who are already working under a great deal of stress. Consequently, tempers get frayed, and patience and tolerance are thrown out the window.

It’s time for a change. But, understanding precedes change. What typically leads to uncivil behavior is a disagreement. Someone wants to be right, better, or stronger. Someone wants to be heard. Sadly, that attitude often leads to a win-lose outcome.

As a leader, the best first step is to realize that conflict is a vital and necessary part of organizational success. Properly facilitated, disagreements lead to healthy, constructive conversations that translate into creativity, innovation, and a shared sense of accomplishment.

Encouraging civility in the workplace promotes a low stress work environment and improves employee morale. It also helps to mitigate employee dissatisfaction that often results in such things as civil rights complaints and lawsuits. The economic impact related to litigation, turnover, productivity, and customer dissatisfaction can be devastating to an organization.

Some signs of an organization infected with incivility include:

  • Higher than normal employee turnover
  • A large number of employee grievances and complaints
  • Lost work time by employees calling in sick
  • Increased consumer complaints
  • Diminished productivity in terms of quality and quantity of work
  • Cultural and communications barriers
  • Lack of confidence in leadership
  • Inability to adapt effectively to change
  • Lack of individual accountability

Civility is essential to defining the culture and establishing a foundation of proper business behavior. It is a value that successful organizations strive to achieve.

To be able to build and maintain itself as a viable entity capable of reaching its full potential, an organization must be able to manage its interpersonal relationships in a manner that promotes positive interactions that are civil and respectful. This is not an easy task considering the myriad personalities and individual circumstance that affect workplace interactions. However, it can be accomplished with leadership commitment to fostering positive and meaningful interactions among employees.

Creating a civil workplace boils down to three basic principles: respect, restraint, and refinement.

  • Respect is inherent in the belief that although another person’s beliefs may be different from yours, you should still honor their viewpoint and accord the other person due consideration. Taking someone’s feelings, ideas, and preferences into consideration indicates that you take them seriously and that their position has worth and value, even if contrary to your own. In so doing, you validate the other person’s individuality and right to a differing opinion. Respect is the most important step in building a relationship and reducing the potential for conflict. In an atmosphere of mutual respect, goals and concessions become easier to attain.
  • Restraint is simply a matter of exercising personal self-control at all times. Therefore, you should know your triggers. Be aware of how your words and actions affect other people. Being aware of the things that make you angry or upset helps you to monitor and manage your reaction. Think before you act. Remember, you may not be able to control the things others say or do, but you can control your response.
  • Refinement is the quest for continual cultivation and improvement of relationships in the workplace. Just as the process of continual quality improvement (CQI) has come to be known as a means to improve performance and increase efficiency in an organization, refinement of thought, ways of expressing those thoughts, and the practice of continuously exercising appropriate decorum when relating to others can go a long way towards enhancing workplace civility. Improving and strengthening relationships requires effort and commitment.

Achieving civility in the workplace requires the involvement of every employee from the top down. Going to work in an environment with backbiting, rude employee behavior, and the constant complaining that many are subjected to everyday is certainly not ideal. However, making the commitment to achieving and sustaining civility can be the key to a successful and thriving organization with high employee morale.

As a leader, you can and should make workplace civility a priority in your business by insisting that all employees exercise these practical ideas:

  • Pursue understanding first.
  • Listen and respect other opinions.
  • Seek common ground, even if it’s to agree to disagree.
  • Tune into what’s happening around you; observe the climate.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and the consequences of those actions.
  • Offer and willingly accept constructive feedback.

Leaders are called to promote a safe and respectful workplace. That means insisting on the practice of civility and common courtesy. It starts with you. Take time to assess your own behaviors. Do you gossip or spread rumors? Have you ever raised your voice to make a point? Are you communicating important information to your team or withholding information they need? Set an expectation of workplace civility by “walking the talk” and being the change you want to see.

Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D. is a healthcare industry executive, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming Turnaround. Through her work, she inspires people to dream big and understand the role of personal responsibility in personal and professional success. In her first book, Power from Within, Danita shares her “Power Principles for Success” that helped her overcome meager beginnings and achieve professional, community, and personal success.

[From the February/March 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]