8 Ways to Improve Civility at Work

| By Terence Brake

Civility Is Not Political Correctness

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, whatever happened to civility?  By civility, I mean being polite, considerate, and respectful even when one disagrees passionately with someone (a colleague, partner or customer).  Civility is a measure of the quality of the interactions we have with others.  

Incivility can be manifested in behaviors like:

“Unprofessional behavior, rudeness, shouting or swearing, intimidation or bullying, threatening comments or behaviors/actions, unsolicited and unwelcome conduct, comment (oral or written including email communication), gestures, actions or contact that cause offense, humiliation, or physical or emotional harm to any individual.” - Workplace Civility and Respect Policy, Ryerson University

Here are a few numbers from Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey.  The third bullet in the list below should cause those in business to take a minute and reflect on lost opportunities and revenues:

  • 75% say incivility in America has risen to crisis levels
  • 56% expect civility to worsen over the next few years
  • 53% have stopped buying from a company because of uncivil representatives
  • 25% have experienced cyberbullying or incivility online, up nearly 3x from 2011 
  • 34% have experienced incivility at work

Nearly 9 in 10 of Americans (87%) who work in uncivil environments report that incivility has negative consequences on their job or at home.  More specifically:

  • Hurts my job morale – 55%
  • Makes me want to quit – 45%
  • Leads me to be less collaborative – 40%
  • Causes me to feel anger toward my coworkers or employer – 38%
  • Reduces the quality of my work – 36%
  • Causes me to discourage others from joining where I work
  • Has a negative effect on my personal time away from work – 32%
  • Leads me to be less creative – 26%
  • Leads me to call in sick – 23%

Organizations that have an uncivil environment usually experience high turnover, more absenteeism and lower productivity, as well as higher levels of workplace harassment and expensive lawsuits.

Our workplaces are reflections of the wider society, and their productivity will inevitably suffer unless we can create and maintain the conditions allowing for difficult, but civil conversations.  

When civility slips into political correctness, real issues about differences are subsumed and glossed over.  When free-speech slips into a license-to-insult, conversation enters a spiral of attack and defend.

Being civil doesn’t trample on anyone’s rights. We can still have frank, honest, and even heated conversations without insulting, demeaning, or intimidating others.  It does require, however, self-discipline and personal accountability, conscientiousness, empathy, and respect.    

What can each one of us do to support a climate of civility?

  1. Assume the best of people.  We can too easily misunderstand, misinterpret, and take offence.
  2. Be a role-model of civil communication in what you say, your body-language, and how you listen.
  3. Avoid absolutist thinking that often turns reasonable ideas into unreasonable dogmas.
  4. Before you act, think about the potential impact of what you want to communicate and how you want to communicate it.  Never engage in name-calling and personal attacks.  Stay away from social media for difficult conversations.  
  5. Understand your emotional “hot buttons” i.e. what makes you angry.  Being self-aware, you can better manage how to respond so as not to get into an ‘attack and defend spiral’ of communication.
  6. Don’t depersonalize the other person by using labels, e.g. ‘liberal’, ‘racist’, sexist.  That is a sure-fire way to spread a climate of incivility.
  7. Rely on facts rather assumptions.  
  8. Stand up for yourself and others.  Being civil doesn’t mean being passive, or worse, being passive-aggressive.  Challenge incivility in a firm, but civil way.

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