What happened to civility? When did we lose it? Did we ever have it? How can we find it and successfully implement civility for the common good? There is no denying we live in a divided country. Strong opinions, harsh words, misrepresentation of facts, and outright lies have become commonplace. Civil discourse, discussion and debate has been replaced with name calling, hostile rhetoric and at times acts of violence.

The lack of civility is not limited to the political area. We see it every day in business. People are disengaged at work. Per a recent Gallup report, two-thirds of American workers are unhappy with their jobs and 15 percent actually hate their work. If my math is correct, that means 81 percent of workers do not enjoy their job and are not engaged toward working toward a common ground. This is a staggering number and brings with it serious problems such as: declining productivity, revenue and profit margins suffer, employee turnover increases, corporate sabotage rises, legal actions by customers and employees. Negative undergrounds, and worse yet, battle grounds, develop and gain traction.

Companies that suffer from departmental rivalries (lack of civility or common ground) are 5.82 times more likely to have systemic problems with honesty, according to a 15-year study conducted by consultant Ron Carucci. And widespread issues with honesty can pave the way to the kind of scandals that rocked Wells Fargo and Volkswagen in recent years.

While things will never be perfect, an improvement in civility can give companies a competitive edge. How do we get back to civility? While fear is the enemy of civility, education is the key to overcoming fear. The more we know about people, cultures, background, religions, races, etc., the better the chances for civil discourse.

Let’s break this down to the most basic component. Civility requires people to find a common ground to discuss, review and make decisions that affect the overall good of an organization. People are women and men. Each sees the world through very different lens. There are dozens of books that attempt to explain how men and women address nearly every imaginable issue. Let’s step back and look at some of the issues and challenges that have faced men and women over time.

Women’s issues go back to the cavemen days. The need to survive made the physically strongest individual the undisputed leader. Women were cast into subservient or secondary roles. As we left the caves there were more challenges to overcome:

  • The right to own property
  • The right to vote
  • Women’s roles, no working outside of the house
  • Entering the workforce challenges
  • Entering college
  • Wage Gap
  • Glass ceiling

Men’s issues can also be traced to the cavemen days. Since men are physically stronger, they held the position of power and privilege. Those aspects of perceived power and privilege continued for centuries which reinforced aggression, emotionlessness and other negative qualities, theorized as a component of masculine ideology, particularly in the United States. It is often validated by the statement “boys will be boys.” Adherence to traditional male gender roles restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the “alpha male”) and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger. Men continued to hold the positions of power and privilege.

As we entered the 1960s and 70s, things radically changed. More women started entering the workforce often out of economic necessity. They were putting off marriage. Women had more choices. More and more women graduated from college and were capable of supporting themselves. They didn’t need a man to be the sole provider and protector. In many cases they didn’t need a man at all.

Women were no longer willing to hold secondary roles. They were starting businesses; being elected to public office. After the 2018 election, 127 women serve in congress. 25 women (25%) serve in the U.S. Senate, and 102 women (23.4%) serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2020 women outnumber men in college, in grad schools, and in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

In the workplace, men and women issues only touch the surface. Now added to gender are the complexities of race, religion, sexual orientation, and more recently political persuasion issues. Cliques, splinter groups, and alliances start to form between those who feel left out or shut out versus those perceived to have the privileged and power. In this underground, these groups prepare for battle. One of the battles is to turn to the courts or legislation.

Each group feels they are disadvantaged or do not hold the position of privilege or power. Unfortunately, life and the world are not fair. Those who have don’t want to give it up. They feel they have earned their power and position of privilege. While the have nots claim discrimination and seek the law to “help level the playing field.” Strong social movements have led to laws whose intent were to create a “more equitable” environment going back to issue of slavery. They look to legislation for relief.

Since 1963, no less than 11 laws passed whose intent is to level the playing field against discrimination. While legislation does provide some relief, it is not a panacea. Rather, legislation provides guidelines. These guidelines produced countless regulations and mandatory compliance training. So on top of everything else business leader have to do—we now have to develop and address compliance training.

On or about 1969, in an effort to address the successful implementation of the laws, new regulations were mandated and we started the era of “mandatory compliance training.” Compliance training was often met with disdain. “Another compliance class! We don’t have time for this! These are a complete a total waste of time!”

So how successful has 56 years of mandatory compliance training been in bringing civility to the workplace? While there has been some progress, the underground is still alive and well. For example, Tamara Burke started a movement she called “Me Too” in 2006. It exploded into #METOO in 2017. Powerful, privileged people, such as Harvey Weinstein, Senator Al Franken, and TV personality Charlie Rose, lost their jobs, careers, and fortunes.

There is a renewed effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). We have daily political scandals and investigations. Old wounds are reopened and battle lines are drawn again.

Opportunities for Growth

While the majority of victims from the #METOO movement have been men, Meryl Streep’s character in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, shows us uncivil behavior is not just a masculine trait. On the positive note, the #METOO movement gives us the opportunity to discuss, explore, and address other toxins that harm both people and businesses such as:

  • Bullying
  • Intimidation
  • Retaliation
  • Closed minds
  • Friction between employee age groups

That is how we got to where we are today. Now what? How do we return to civility? We ask the hard questions.

  • How do we improve the workplace?
  • What to you enjoy about working here?
  • What goals are you trying to accomplish?
  • Finding a common ground – a point of agreement to begin
  • Agreement on the common ground creates a basis for progress

The first step is to understand the dynamics at play. My associate, Marc Porter Ph.D., research contents that every organization has three distinct environments.

  • Common ground
  • Underground
  • Battleground

What is the common ground?

In order to build a common ground there must be trust. With this trust comes the understanding that:

  • Conflict & debate have value and are constructive.
  • Confrontation and conflict in and of themselves are not toxic.
  • Productive conflict pools people and ideas toward the common goal.
  • Open dialogue
  • Conversation, debate, compromise, mutually agreed courses of action

What is the Underground?

The less people understand how their hard work adds value to bigger goals, the less engaged they are. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and frustration. – Brene Brown – Dare to Lead. This creates the underground.

  • Lack of trust
  • Festering & silence – sit on the sidelines and wait for failure.
  • Win/lose mindset
  • Parties come into dialogue with closed minds.
  • Confrontation must be defeated.
  • Personal attacks

What is the battle ground?

When confrontation/competition attacks the value of a person the battle ground is created:

  • Negative cliques and alliances develop
  • Labeling (villain, victim, there is nothing I can do)
  • Planning mass exodus
  • Misuse of confidential information
  • Water cooler and at bar dialogues dominate opinions
  • Getting ready for battle—sabotage, passive resistance, legal action, etc.

Where do you stand as an organization?

Per Gallup, two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs and 15 percent actually hate their work. 81% of people are NOT in the common ground. Your organization is or will soon be dysfunctional. The challenge is how do you move from underground and battle ground to common ground.

Four Key Components to Establish Common Ground

In the bestselling book Crucial Conversations, the author’s research states that “People will believe you are working toward a common ground in the workplace, when leadership shows they care about their goals, interest, and value.” – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler – Crucial Conversations

  1. Are we connected?
  2. Do we have a future?
  3. Do we care about each other’s goals, interests, and value?
  4. Is there trust?

Challenges to Common Ground?

The illusion of technique. Far too many managers ask the wrong questions which misplaces their focus. They become fixated with constantly changing the process or procedures. This is too often a knee jerk reaction, which is similar to a farmer constantly re-plowing the same field every day. Rather than focusing on changing the techniques consider changing the dialogue.

  • Misplaced focus.
  • Constant changing of processes and procedures.
  • Change for the sake of change.
  • Throw multiple theories against the wall.
  • Trying for the quick fix – “Give me pill to cure this.”

Getting to Common Ground

High performing cultures are more than a great product or design or strategy. They have developed a safe environment. It has less to do with design than with connecting to deeper emotions: fear, ambition, and motivation. The real power of a successful interaction is located in the two-way emotional signaling that creates an atmosphere of connection that surrounds the conversation. – Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code

Something to consider: Words matter. How we think and talk about ourselves affects our self-image. Once we change our “self-talk,” we will be better able to interact positively with others. – Don Miguel Ruiz – The Four Agreements

  • Building the groundwork – There is no quick cure.
  • Like building a garden – it is going to take time and effort.
  • You are going to get dirty.
  • It is hard work.
  • It is constant attention and nurturing.

Civility as a Competitive Advantage

One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly NOT the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. – Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code

The pool of shared meaning is the birthplace of synergy. Not only does a share pool help individuals make better choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on whatever decision they make with both unity and conviction. – Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler – Crucial Conversations

When you create an environment where people are energized and engaged, where they feel their ideas and input are valued, you will have the common ground where the civility within your organization will lead you to unprecedented success.

Call us, we’ll help you.


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