A professor at Georgetown University gave a short TED Talk in 2018 about her research on a virus that wreaked havoc across the United States in 2020. This was two years after she co-authored her second book on the cost of this virus and how to combat it.
If the timing of all that doesn’t seem quite right, you’ll be even more confused to learn that Christine Porath is not a virologist, but a professor in Georgetown’s college of business. It makes perfect sense, however, if you consider that the coronavirus isn’t the only infectious disease that plagues our country.
Porath studies incivility, and while it’s been around much longer than COVID-19, it’s been particularly troublesome the last few years. Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have done an annual survey on civil discourse since 2010, and it consistently finds that more than 95 percent of Americans say incivility is a problem and 65-68 percent classify it as a “major” problem.
Slate magazine went so far as to call 2014 “The Year of Outrage” and devoted an entire issue to essays with titles like “Identity Outrage,” “The Year in Liberal Outrage,” “The Year in Conservative Outrage,” and “Righteous Outrage.”
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like outrage only grew more outrageous in 2020, and it was spread in large part by incivility.
Porath describes incivility as a virus because she says it is contagious and goes from one person to the next whenever it gets the opportunity. Worse, a mask and social distancing offer very little protection against it. You can catch it anywhere from anyone – even during a Zoom call.
And where do we spend most of our waking hours? At work. So if you think incivility is just an issue that involves politics or social justice issues, think again.
Here’s the reality: Porath research confirms that incivility costs businesses billions of dollars each year and it can spread outward to families and communities, affecting everyone’s emotions, motivations, performance, and, of course, how we treat others.
As leaders, we can’t rid the world of incivility, but we can do the one thing all real leaders do – have a positive influence on the people we lead. We can spread civility across our organizations, modeling the type of good manners and respect that others can take home, to their communities and, who knows, maybe even into social media and politics. Miracles happen.
What’s our part in helping that miracle? In my experience, all leaders can do at least three things to promote a more civil workplace: Embrace empathy, walk the talk, and reward respect.
A framed quote hangs on the wall in my home office that says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The quote is credited to Plato, although a little research confirms the true source is John Watson, a bestselling Scottish author who wrote under the pen name Ian Maclaren. The original wording said, “be pitiful,” which at the time (1897) was used more to mean compassionate or merciful.
Here’s how Watson/Maclaren later expanded on the meaning of his aphorism: “This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle, we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him, nor help his lower self.”
Civility comes much more naturally when we empathize with others, especially those we don’t know particularly well.
Walk the Talk
There’s no better way to spread civility—and suppress incivility—than to treat people with civility. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And, yet, so often we get caught up in the aggressive conversations that quickly devolve into battle lines.
Leaders are responsible for setting an example by, among other things, listening attentively, acknowledging others, smiling, making eye contact, asking questions, and showing respect for someone’s opinions.
These are not just acts of civility, but responses that reinforce civility in others.
One of my favorite illustrations of this idea is a story Drew Dudley shares in his book This Is Day One. In fact, it was one of the things I asked him about when we did a LinkedIn Live conversation together.
Dudley was in a long line at the grocery store one day, and it hit him that no one seemed to notice, much less appreciate, that the checker was working fast and furious to scan items, bag them, and take payments. The customers were either stone faced or rude as they completed their transactions.
When it was his turn, Dudley asked her which chocolate candy in the bin by the register was the best.
“Caramels,” she snapped, hardly looking up.
He handed her a couple of the treats and she rang them up, but he stopped her as she began to put them in his bag.
“Actually,” he told her, “I got those for you.”
He explained that he just wanted to show his appreciation for how hard she was working and what a great job she was doing. The woman broke into tears, because, she said, no one had even been polite to her that entire day. But Dudley had walked the talk of civility and that changed everything.
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Reward Respect and Reap Rewards
There are many positive ways we can respond when we experience civility from others, and most of them cost us nothing.
We can make civility a quality that’s formally recognized and rewarded in our organization, of course, but we also must reward it in our daily, informal interactions with people. The words, “Thank you,” for instance, go a long way. Thank you for your opinion. Thank you for listening. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for collaborating with a diverse team. Thank you for seeking to understand before making judgments. …
Not responding with positive reinforcement, however, can cost us a great deal. This is true with co-workers and employees, and it’s also true with customers and clients. If we don’t demonstrate respect, our reward will be damage to our relationships and our business.
For instance, I was a member of a gym in Denver for 15 years when I started noticing that it was losing many of its best trainers. I asked around with employees I know, and several told me that management had become insensitive toward them. Incivility was costing them good employees.
When I got a chance to fill out a survey for the gym, I pointed out that I felt they had an issue with morale and that they needed to address it. Within an hour, I got an email from a senior leader in management, and here’s how it began: “Thank you for the feedback, though I really do not understand what you are saying about our staff, and you are wrong about our priorities. Our staff has NO reason to have low morale.”
The rest of the email was equally defensive and dismissive, so guess what I did? I found a new gym. I didn’t want to be part of a gym that treated its employees and its customers with that type of disrespect.
She could have taken issue with my comments without losing my business, just as she could have given feedback to her employees without running so many of them off. Leaders don’t have to forfeit their opinions to embrace civility. And candor, as Princeton scholar Robert George points out, isn’t the enemy of civility but “one of its preconditions.”
The trick, I believe, is to have opinions and speak candidly while still demonstrating respect for other people. It’s basic, human decency, and, as it turns out, it’s the cure for incivility.