Civility and Authenticity in the Workplace

Thank you, in advance, for listening to this perhaps half-baked thought – this is one of those, “No, I have way too much to say in a Facebook post,” kind of blog posts.

This article has been open in a tab in my browser at work for several days now while I stewed on it, and particularly how a call for civility meshes with a call for authenticity, something I’ve been talking abouta lotlately.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

I’ve been arguing that we have a huge untapped sea of potential in our own people that is blocked by failing to let them be authentic – not just in the sense of the way we treat LGBT or ethnic minority workers, but in a much broader sense of masks we wear, masks we force each other to wear, without reason at work. Now, I’m generally a composed, civil person at work. I get mad relatively rarely, and I don’t swear or shout when I’m mad, although I do raise my voice (very rarely*) and I occasionally do say things I regret (and for which I consistently apologize). I will also admit to being uncivil in my professional / work life at times, and it is something I want to continue working on. And I’m still fairly new to having these kinds of formal leadership responsibilities – particularly managing large teams and overseeing increasingly large budgets. Apropos of that, this paragraph is particularly striking to me:

Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their ‘role’ in the organization and ‘title’; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behavior, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help, hold back.

Certainly this is not authenticity, or anyways a kind of authenticity we should encourage (that is, we should not be making a place for people who think like this, or we should do so with great caution, in our congregate lives). So there’s a sobering question there for me with respect to how to be a good leader. Certainly, if you met me five or ten years ago, I’ve made a conscious investment in being more poised and careful about what I say, in part driven by all the times I’ve engaged with the media – although I will push hard for what I believe in, I am more considerate in many ways of others concerns and priorities, and even if I am more assertive about what I think needs to be done (whereas I might have been a pushover, ten or twenty years ago), I try to do it in an inclusive way.

Really, the problem cited above is a problem that (for me, for instance, since this behavior is inconsistent with my values) I should be avoiding during recruitment and retention. It is not evidence that I should not let people be authentic (because that authenticity is authentically dangerous!) but rather that the risk or lack of safety (apropos of my much favored Mr. Beaver quote from C. S. Lewis) associated with this is that an authentic organization can be better, but with the greater unleashing of agency as well as progress through community amongst one’s team, there is also greater risk associated with bringing on board people whose values disrupt the authenticity ecosystem. So, I also argue that, rather than opening us to these kinds of dangers, when we let people be authentic, we also give them the keys to our real mission (not just our mission statement), and that lets them take a level of ownership in the organization they’ve never had before. And if they’re the right people, who belong in our ecosystem, magic happens.

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think... besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity - personnel factors - that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think… besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity – personnel factors – that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

I also tweeted about this striking comment from the piece:

According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.

Again, expressing these feelings in this way is not authenticity. It is bullying, and bullying is not okay**. In some cases, it reflects selecting for the wrong things at the entry to the ecosystem (and there has been much discussion about how we choose people for grad school, medical school, etc., and some of the dangers inherent in our implicit value matrix). It is perhaps also a sign of creating an environment in which frustrations cannot be aired (civility and honesty are not always good friends), and in such a situation, “bottled up” frustrations may explode in unwanted ways. Finally, this situation is not authenticity-positive in the sense that, when one person is a bully, or coercive, and they are allowed to do this with impunity (a situation I’ve personally encountered / to which I have been victim) they have a chilling effect organizationally, and that chilling effect destroys value that a whole sea of talent, who could be authentic, but are not, because of fear, are not demonstrating.

This is where it gets dicey for me. I’m personally not a big fan of cell phone boxes at the door (and I’ve been in meetings with them). My experience is that, much more often, the problem is excessive meetings, without clear agendas (especially routine meetings). And it seems to be particularly those meetings that are disrespectful abuses of our time that have cell phone boxes. There is also the danger that expecting people to be instantly and perpetually available, but then disrespecting them when they make valid business decisions to prioritize other issues over talking to you, itself, is more than a little, itself, uncivil.

Another way in which I’m concerned is that I have a strong sense that I want to develop an investment in the idea of family and shared identity with my team. And I want people to be real, even if real means they have feelings, although I want to empower them to be real but focused. I’ve said very clearly, that I feel that a significant contributor to how I’ve accomplished the things I’ve accomplished is that I take things personally. I also tell my leadership team that we are precisely who and what we are, because of unique factors each of them brought to the table. We wouldn’t be where we are, for instance with the Center, if I didn’t take things personally, and if they hadn’t brought their personalities into what we built, together. And taking things personally does include leveraging not only my thoughts and rationality but also my feelings. This doesn’t mean being mean – but civility can often be a call for a certain kind of dispassionate engagement that some majority culture men engage in, particularly, and more than once, it’s been a way to gaslight women in professional life and to roadblock the development of other minority talent.

So the article gave me a lot to think about. I do think, that as we help people be assertive (which enhances authenticity), to own their perspective but recognize others disagree, much civility naturally follows – because people are generally pretty cool, in the absence of a reason to get heated up. I’m not sure that civility, in itself, though is the right goal, organizationally, to seek – I think at this point incivility is a symptom of an underlying problem.

* There is a famous-ish story, that involved perhaps mild voice raising, but not yelling or shouting, about an interaction with me and our HR people, related to arbitrary decisions that affected my operations and caused threats to our sustainability. I will admit to getting uncivil (apparently a co-worker of the HR person thought I would become violent and was ready to call the police… seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever even thrown a punch in my life, and I’m not about to start). If there was incivility, I will not say it was all my fault – I felt completely unheard, and in a situation with which any operations leadership can sympathize, others were making decisions but I, to me, seemed to have all the responsibility of their impact. The person talking to me (we’ve since had many pleasant interactions) could certainly have worked harder to understand why I was concerned, and take my business interests, particularly, and my organizational stake in the situation, much more seriously.

** In this case, the price of that bullying is ultimate for the patient, in the form of loss of life.

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