Four Reasons For Insisting on Civility at Work

A story in The National Post recently caught my eye, about Karen Klein, a woman in Greece New York who, while doing her job as a school bus monitor, was cruelly bullied by a group of seventh grade boys.  To me, this story highlighted, once again, the destructive nature of incivility.

So, what does this story have to do with leadership?  Well, for one thing, if children are not taught the importance of kindness, good manners and respect for others, they grow up and then rudely impose themselves on unsuspecting and undeserving co-workers.  The problem of incivility and bullying simply transfers from the school bus to the workplace. So it could be said that leadership begins at home.

While we all seem to decry bullying, some may believe that civility is a minor consideration at work, especially now when we are pressured by time, having to do more with less and plagued by looming deadlines and demands.   Who has time to be polite?  Who has time to say please and thank you? And, who has time to think about how our behaviour is affecting those around us as long as we’re getting the job done?

Well, I think we have to make time.  In fact, to me, good manners and consideration for others should be embedded in the culture of every organization. Here are at least four reasons why:

Successful collaboration is not possible without it.

Collaboration is a key word in today’s workplace.  When we work together to achieve a common, mutually beneficial goal, it is often the case that impatience will raise its’ ugly head and start goading us into saying things we might not otherwise entertain.  It is at these times when a good dose of civility is required.  Rude and self-indulgent remarks simply get in the way of achieving a satisfactory outcome.  In this context, I like what Wikipedia has to say about civility.  “Civility gives us the means to disagree without being disagreeable” That kind of says it all doesn’t it?

How people treat each other inside the organization will reflect, for good or ill, outside the organization

This just makes good sense.  Those who work in an atmosphere where good manners are the norm will, for the most part respond to their customers and others, in kind.  There’s nothing complicated about that.  And, for some reason it is my guess that customers are more willing to part with their money if they feel they are being treated with respect.

People make their best effort when they feel acknowledged and important

I started my work life in the mailroom of a bank.  My job was to open mail and deliver it to its intended recipients in a department of approximately three hundred people. Many department managers either completely ignored me or made me the unfortunate recipient of rude, bad tempered remarks.   A few however, received their mail with good grace, responding with a well-placed thank you and a smile.  When this happened, I actually felt I was doing something of value.   It was a small gesture but always with a big result and a willingness on my part to do more for those managers who had taken the time to acknowledge my existence, despite my lowly placement on the hierarchical ladder.

Civility is key to building relationships and reputations through Social Media

Today, workplaces extend beyond our walls and borders through technology.  Every day, we send e-mails, text messages and tweets to people, some of whom we have never met face-to-face.  To me, civility is an important part of communicating through this media.   After all, when we say something on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter it is captured forever.  We can’t take it back.  And, it shapes the image we create of ourselves which can either reflect who we really are or cast a shadow over us that is difficult to overcome

Some people might pride themselves in their ability to rattle others with rude behaviour.  They say things like, “This is who I am.  Get used to it”.

But civility is not about who we are.  It is about what we choose to do. And, embedding good manners into an organization’s modus operandi simply makes sense.  It matters.  I think Karen Klein would agree.

What do you think?



Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

18 responses to “Four Reasons For Insisting on Civility at Work

  1. So nice posting and compelling subject.I don’t think I have ever read such a fantastic blog.Civility and common sense are a crying need for today’s world.Thanx for such holistic article:-)

  2. Alex Jones

    Good article. No easy solution to this problem.

  3. Society,overall, seems to be increasingly hostile and angry as well as being increasingly intolerant of those who are aging. We don’t fit in with a society that is overly focused on youth. The wisdom that comes to us as we contribute in this world is lost on the youth…they need to experience it to know it. Media plays a huge role here. I despair at the images of the elderly being portrayed as slow, weak and incontinent in order to sell products. People are shocked by this story, and hopefully it will assist all of us at work and elsewhere to implement zero tolerance for Incivility and acts of intolerance and hate.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Diane ~ The rest of the story in the paper was about a Toronto man who raised a surprising amount of money so that Mrs Klein could go on a holiday. It was a lovely gesture and illustrated, to me at least, that despite a general feeling that hostile, threatening and rude behaviour is on the rise, there are many people who, like us, abhor it. Having said that, sending Mrs Klein on holiday or funding her retirement is not going to fix the problem. It seems to me that at home, it is the job of parents to ensure their children learn good manners and develop compassion for others. At work it is the job of organizational leaders to ensure that civility is a cornerstone on which their companies are built. To me, that means including it in everything they do, including their hiring practices.
      As for the media’s take on its approach to an aging citizenry, I very much agree with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. It is greatly appreciated.

  4. Deb

    Thank you! We (our ED) have “inherited” a hostile work place and we are both striving to make our local YWCA a great place to work. Material such as this that is timely and right on target are helping us to create the culture people look forward to coming to everyday. So thank you!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Deb ~ Changing the culture of a well established organization is one of the toughest jobs going. If this post has helped you in even a small way, it was well worth writing it. Thank you for letting me know. And, by the way, anyone who strives to create a workplace that people look forward to going to every day gets a huge round of applause from me. Thank you!

  5. I love this post, Gwyn! I especially liked your mailroom example. I would want to work for an organization where everyone acknowledged the mail delivery person with kindness and gratitude. I wonder, in your bank, how did the CEO accept his/her mail delivery?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ The Bank had, at that time, approximately 33,000 employees World-wide so my chances, as a lowly mail girl, employed in the International Department, of even coming within a thousand feet of the CEO were pretty slim. And, there were Executive Assistants (then called secretaries) to get through first! 🙂
      Thank you for your kind words and for coming by again. It’s always a pleasure when you do.

  6. Hi Gwyn – years ago when my kids were in school and I had to take my rotation on the concession stand, one mother refused to serve kids who didn’t say please. In a private international school in Brussels you would be surprised how many kids were turned away. The rest of us quickly followed suit.
    There is no substitute for civility and it moves from family, to school, to the workplace. All responsible adults should be mindful of it. Sadly a huge number aren’t.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Dorothy ~ Agree! It seems to me the world could use a few more mothers, and fathers, like the one you describe. I remember once having my mother frog-march me to our neighbour’s house to apologize to her for sticking my tongue out. It wasn’t pleasant for either of us but it had to be done. (I don’t do it nearly as often now). More seriously, I dread to think what our workplaces will be like if we are not mindful of the need to conduct ourselves with good grace. It really doesn’t take that much effort. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to take for granted.

  7. Excellent article, to the heart of concepts discussed at Today’s Gentleman – (also see Facebook and LinkedIn for the group).

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Pete ~ Thank you for your kind acknowledgement. Today’s Gentleman is a great concept and a refreshing reminder that there are still people, both men and women, who value civility enough to stand up for it.

  8. Hi Gwyn,

    Your piece reminds me of one I wrote a few years back which also addressed a very public and controversial example of rude behaviour in public. As I wrote in that piece, while it\’s upsetting to see that some people, in this case kids, can be so rude and disrespectful to others, perhaps the more important message is how many of us are outraged by it; that while civility in general might be under duress, there\’s still enough of us out there who demand that whether it\’s in public, in our workplaces, our schools or in our homes, everyone is treated with civility and respect in the same way we\’d want to.

    Granted, I do get discouraged by how self-absorbed people can be in public, I do try to hold onto my optimism that there\’s more people out there who value the importance of saying \”thank you\”, \”please\” and even smiling at others than those who prefer to walk through life with a scowl on their face.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Tanveer ~ You make a good point. That old saying, “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease” comes to mind. For most people, it is very upsetting to see someone, (or someone’s grandmother), being treated so badly. I, like you though, prefer to believe the possibility that those who behave badly are largely outnumbered by those who treat others with civility and consideration. It has to be said though that at times, the media puts some strain on that perspective.
      Thank you for coming by! It’s always a pleasure when you do 🙂

  9. Hi Gwyn,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this piece. We all need to think about it.

    I think incivility is a growing problem, partly because of the positive press received by cynicism. Being cynical is almost like a badge of honour.

    When I interview management candidates, I often take them to a coffee shop or restaurant and I watch how they treat the wait staff and other customers. Boy, you sure learn a lot! A candidate who is dismissive with wait staff gets removed from my shortlist.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ Watching how people behave in familiar surroundings is a great litmus test for gauging how, and who, they really are. And, in that regard, life can be full of surprises! And, yes, I’m not sure when ‘cynical’ became synonymous with ‘smart’. What I do know is that I am quite capable of being cynical at times but the consequences of my being so have always shown me up as being not as smart as I thought 🙂
      Thanks for your thoughts and for taking the time to share them here.

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