HR Management & Compliance

Expert Shares Ideas for Improving Workplace Civility

In a recent episode of HR Works Podcast, I discussed the current state of workplace civility with expert Colleen Passard.

Source: Photographee.eu / shutterstock

Jim: Hello, everyone, and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I am the host of HR Works, Jim Davis, and the editor of the HR Daily Advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of you, the HR professional. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent.

The workplace is made habitable by the quality of its culture. There are many aspects of that culture that need to be in alignment for that culture to succeed. One aspect involves civility. When a workplace lacks civility, it creates fear, anxiety, and a lack of transparency, and the whole place descends into a dark place.

Today’s guest specializes in workplace civility training. Colleen Passard is a writer, mediator, and coach. She has a master’s in humanistic counseling psychology and is certified in many areas of conflict resolution, circle processes, and restorative justice. Colleen has facilitated empowerment workshops and conflict resolution trainings to a wide variety of audiences and organizations, from CEOs to prison inmates. She currently serves on a mediation panel for the Department of Homeland Security. Colleen’s work focuses on helping her clients actuate new ways of relating and behaving that bring their inner and outer conflicts in harmony and balance.

If you want to learn more about this topic from Colleen, please join us on November 14 in Nashville, Tennessee, at our event Workforce L&D. She will be cohosting a session titled “Management Training to Foster Civility and Respect and Banish Cultural Negativity.” I will provide more information about the event in the description. Colleen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Colleen: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Jim. Thank you for having me.

Jim: You’re most welcome. Let’s jump right in. Can you just define civility and then its opposite incivility and perhaps answer if it’s similar or related to workplace harassment or bullying?

Colleen: OK. Well, first of all, let me just say hello to the listeners, and it is my hope today that something in this conversation animates a question for anyone listening that leads them in the direction of their highest potential and into the future that they imagined for themselves. I work with the definition of civility by the research and author Lars Anderson, who defined civility as behaviors that help to preserve the norms for mutual respect in the workplace. Civility reflects concerns for others, and so incivility is disrespect. It includes a lot of different behaviors, from mocking to belittling people to teasing them to telling offensive jokes to texting in meetings, interrupting when other people are speaking.

Incivility and civility are not static events, but they’re ongoing, interactive processes among individuals within a situational context. What is in the one is in the whole. If you have a culture of incivility … Incivility is like a gateway drug; it does lead to harassing and bullying behaviors if there’s no accountability or checks and balances on that kind of behavior. Does that make sense?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. It’s good. I’m glad you answered that way. We have covered workplace harassment and bullying, and it sounds like what you’re saying is that those are not just results of it but almost more extreme versions of what you’re talking about here. Is that the case?

Colleen: Well, yes, because I think the word “culture” is synonymous with “environment.” We’re in a very complex communication environment. Part of my work is, when I go into an organization, I make sure that they hire for civility, that they make civility the norm of the workplace environment, and they also have programs and systems in place that when that civility or that behavior is not lived into, that then they red flag it and then have a process that addresses it and corrects it. If that isn’t corrected or addressed, it escalates, and it becomes culture.

Jim: Right. That makes a lot of sense. It seems like, really, a lot of harassment training and even bullying training often is very reactionary. Too often, it’s because there was an incident or an ongoing incident, and now a company has realized they need to do something. I mean, there are those who are proactive, and good for them because that’s really important.

Colleen: Well, on that point, most of the companies and organizations that I go into have what I call a very flashy Instagram culture deck. Diversity, collaboration, communication, and then you actually go into the organization and interview the employees and find out that their lived experience is not in an environment that advertises or says publicly that that’s who they are. There’s a disconnect between who the organizations say they are and the actual behaviors.

What I do in a company is, I like to create, along with the policy … Because I’m an EEO counselor, so I’m very skilled in the rights and obligations of equal opportunity law. I think companies that are really actually creating a correlation between their Instagram culture deck and who they actually are have a code of civility. They actually write down the norms that everybody agrees to, and they hire people that are committed and aligned to acting and being in alignment with that code of civility. Also, management and leadership—leadership is a behavior; it’s not a title. Leadership and management have to be modeling that behavior.

Jim: It’s a very good point. Something we talk about a lot on this show, especially when we’re talking about culture, is that it starts at the top, and I think it’s very interesting to look at it as not just a person, but as a … How did you put it exactly?

Colleen: Oh, leadership is a behavior. It’s not a title. Again, in my work, I use ontology and phenomenology—the ontology of phenomenology. Ontology is the science of being and acting, and our way of being and acting is always in a dance with what is happening. What is happening is the phenomenology. Our way of being and acting, your way of being and acting, and my way of being and acting are always in a dance with what is happening, and what happens occurs differently for you than it occurs for me. What occurs arises out of the language and the communication that gets used. In my training and my work, I always, always start with communication.

If we go back to the Mehrabian model in the 1960s where the scientists did the work of decoding mixed messages in communication where the receiver of the communication receives the most dominant element in the communication—what he determined was communication was 55% body language gesture, 38% was tone, and only 7% was what people were actually saying. You plug that model into the absence of body language and the absence of tone when you’re dealing with text and e-mail; then, you’re opening yourself up for a great deal of misinterpretation between the sender and the receiver. The understanding between the sender and the receiver correlates to performance and productivity. Does that make sense?

Jim: It does. I think we’ve all been in an experience where we’ve received an e-mail and thought negative thoughts: “I can’t believe that person was so short with me or was so curt.” It’s so easy to just add whatever emotions you’re happening to be having yourself or to be perceiving or based on your last interaction with that person; maybe you said hi to them and they didn’t hear you, and you think, “Oh, they’re mad at me.” These words are filled with that, but that is very likely not what they are thinking when they send the e-mail. Maybe they were just busy, or maybe that’s just their style. I could definitely see this being an issue with electronic communication, but even just in person-to-person communication, there’s always a certain subjectivity in trying to understand what the other person’s saying.

Colleen: Oh, absolutely. We’re in a selfie-generated reality. Because again, what is occurring for me occurs differently for you than it occurs for me because we have different contextual frameworks. I always like to use this quote in my work because … What happens when we’re in the squish of that moment? I mean, chairs and tables—we don’t have an issue with them because we’re not in opposition with them. What happens in the squish of the moment when we’re reading that text, or somebody is talking to us, and we perceive disrespect in their tone?

Respect is like air when it’s there, and we feel it, and we sense it—we feel respect. It’s a felt feeling when we feel respect in the presence of someone. When it’s not there, if we perceive that it’s not there, then the interaction is no longer about the original purpose; it’s about defending dignity. Respect is just elemental. We’re a narrative by nature. We make up stories in a text or an e-mail. Then, we can interpret it however we’re standing and looking at it through the lens of our own experience.

I always like to use this quote in my work. It’s by Robert Sapolsky, who’s a neurobiologist, and he wrote a book called Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. He says, “Human behavior is a subject involving brain chemistry, hormones, sensory cues, prenatal environment, early experiences, genes, both biological and cultural evolution, and ecological pressures, among other things.” In the squish of that moment, what is happening for you is happening differently for me; we have two experiences, two points of views, two contexts—basically, my lens and your lens—and all of that’s going on. You have to have agreements and givens within the culture of your organization of how you deal with conflict, and what’s the processes in place that you actuate when conflict arises?

Jim: With what we’re talking about here, you can easily see how somebody might be uncivil and not even know that they did it. Indeed—

Colleen: Oh, absolutely.

Jim: I mean, you hear that all the time in sexual harassment cases and in bullying cases. [inaudible] said, “Oh, I didn’t intend to, or I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing.” That stuff, from the outside looking in, is very, very clear and obvious when it’s happening. I could see something that’s a little bit more subtle, like you mentioned checking your phone in a meeting. That’s something that I think we’ve probably all done. I’m guilty of it myself, and I’m not thinking, “Well, I’m going to disrespect the person leading the meeting.” I think, “I just need to do this thing really quick and then push it away.”

Colleen: Yes, and that is why I always think it’s important in terms of really concretizing a code of civility, and I usually limit it to 10 things because you don’t want to overload people. We do not text and e-mail while we’re in a meeting. We agree to. I work with the three circles of energy because human energy moves in three circles. You’re either in the first circle, which is withdrawn from the present moment, and it’s the circle of disengaged leadership. It’s the kind of leadership where it’s like, “Yeah, whatever. Do what you want or whatever.” People are on their phones or whatever. They’re withdrawn from the present moment. The body language is closed down.

If we move to the third circle, it’s the circle of bluff and force. It’s pushed out. It’s people who take up the oxygen in the room. They’re working through force. Then, if you move into the second circle, the second circle is the circle of presence. It’s the circle of full attention and focus. In the second circle, communication and energy—no one assumes superiority or inferiority. It’s equal. Within that space, you have creativity, collaboration, and productivity. But what’s inherent in every communication is safety. People need to be seen, heard, and valued.

When in the moment of conflict—when conflict arises—something is triggered in people. They have a hot button, and it gets triggered. Between the stimuli and response or react—that’s the moment of power. That’s the choice point where we want to animate and actuate and come from a peace-building mind-set. It’s a mind-set. You’re aware you’re animated in that moment, but you have the self-awareness to go, “OK, something’s going on here.” Because what happens if you don’t take that pause, if you don’t take that moment? Then, you conflate your internal anxiety with an external threat, and you actually animate the primal fight, flight, freeze response. Then you’re not in any kind of resolved mind-set; you’re just in reactivity, and we all know how that ends.

Jim: Yeah. It’s a terrible feeling to have. Yeah, it’s not very productive, among other things. It’s not very productive.

Colleen: Yes, and even though it’s not very productive, I do think it is important that we know that conflict is a normative part of life. We are individuals. As you said, we’re coming from subjective experience, so we’re going to have opposition. We’re going to have differences. Conflict is going to arise. It’s how we stand in that conflict and how we rumble in it, and if we start with civility, then there’s a good chance. Sometimes, within that conflict, it’s the beginning of consciousness; it’s the beginning of growth; it’s the beginning of evolving forward in a way that we need to, but we have to be mindful that it’s a revolution. When we start othering the other party in the conflict and we start othering them, then we’ve made them separate, and we’re not in the mind-set of the peacemaker.

Listen to the full podcast episode here. If you want to learn more about this topic from Colleen, please join us on November 14 in Nashville, Tennessee, at our event Workforce L&D.

In part two of this article series we’ll explore how workplace civility has changed over the last 10 or 15 years as well as some strategies for creating and maintain a civil workplace.