HR Management & Compliance

Workplaces Function Better When They Are Civil

In part one of this article series I was discussing workplace civility with expert Colleen Passard. Here we will discuss how civility has changed over the last 10 to 15 years as well as some tips for improving workplace civility.


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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.

Jim: I want to ask you what your thoughts are on the state of civility in the workplaces compared to, say, 10/15 years ago or whenever you got started. Do you think the need for civility training has increased, decreased, or stayed the same?

Colleen: Absolutely increased. As I said, we’re in a very, very complex communication environment. We can’t separate out from the world. First of all, the digital revolution has affected, just as we were saying earlier, communication. I mean, we are literally in a … we’re finding our way within this very, very fast-moving digital dissonance. Scientists have discovered that there’s actually a channel in the brain that recalibrates to trust. They discovered that what recalibrates the brain to trust—and trust is inherent in teambuilding and productivity and having a felt sense of shared dignity in the workplace—the digital dissonance is actually recalibrated by face-to-face, real-time communication.

If you’ve had a text, and you’re all triggered or whatever, and your emotionality is very high, if you can just jump on a phone call … Because at least to have the 38% tone in a phone call. But if at all possible, if you can have a face-to-face phone call, you can really reset a relationship with face-to-face communication.

Jim: It’s very interesting. It makes me think of, I’m old enough to remember when phone calls were the norm and when texting became a big thing. I held myself to a standard, once upon a time, that I don’t anymore, which is that if I said something to somebody in text, particularly if it was emotional, I like to then, next time I saw them in person, talk about the same thing. I sensed that there is a big difference. Then, of course, that’s preposterous. I can never keep up with that now. But it just is very interesting that you have such a breakdown in communication. Part of me wonders if we’ll get better at understanding the context of text-based communication and filling in some of that missing information.

Colleen: Well, I mean, we are by nature narrative as human beings. I think that within organizations, again, if you have a code of civility—like what you’re talking about is a code of civility. What you’re talking about is a way of being and acting in communication that is aligned with an intentionality of civility. The more an organization can have givens of civility and everybody is in agreement, and then you have processes where if someone’s out of alignment, then those become the norm of the culture. Getting better has to do with a collective agreement on a set of behaviors and then a commitment, an alignment, to live in those behaviors. I think it’s really up to individual cultures and organizations to actuate and animate accountability in terms of living into these ideals.

Jim: You said earlier that you try and keep it to 10 points. Do you mind just going over some of the things at the top of that list of what would be this code that you’re speaking of?

Colleen: Well, one of them would be … Now, every environment and culture obviously is a physical space that determines different things, but usually, we greet and acknowledge each other when we see each other. Because I’ve been in organizations where they go, “Yeah, they just walk by me, and they don’t say hello.” Now, remember what we said: We’re in a subjective reality. You can internalize that as “Oh my God, they don’t like me” or “Did I say something wrong?” or whatever. We greet and acknowledge each other. We say please and thank you. We treat each other equally with respect, no matter the conditions. Whatever that situation is, there is just an agreement to treat people with respect.

Respect is a felt energy. You feel when someone’s respecting you. Regardless of the conditions, regardless if we’re in the crunch of the moment—we’re in the edge of the moment—we agreed to treat each other with respect. It goes back to nature. In nature, there’s something called mutualism, and it’s a symbiotic relationship of cooperation that creates results and productivity. In other words, we’re stronger when we’re aligned than when we’re separated. Another one would be we acknowledge the impact of our behavior on others. If you’re always late, you acknowledge and realize that that behavior has an impact on other people. These are actually some things that people are like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that.”

We welcome motivational feedback from each other. Well, the word “motivation” is in there because people need to be mindful, and they need to be taught the distinction between criticism and feedback. Wrong-spotting and criticism is something that can have an impact. People need to learn what it is to give feedback that’s motivational and inspires rather than attacks and wrong-spots.

We are approachable. Have you ever worked with someone where it’s like, “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t ask them that,” whatever. We make a commitment. One of our givens, one of our codes, is that we’re approachable. You can use your own language in an organization, but these are just some basic codes of civility that cultures that I’ve worked with, they call them the givens of the culture. Another one is, we are direct and honest. Another one is, we listen.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, that really folds into the concept of transparency. I think we talked a little bit about this once, but it’s so critically important, and so many organizations get it dead wrong, usually because they’re afraid that … Let’s say a team of executives is planning to make some major changes in the organization. Maybe that means layoffs; maybe that means readjusting people’s jobs. They’re afraid that if that gets out, everyone’s going to abandon ship or that they’re going to start working against it, whatever it is. In my experience, you can take that same information and come out and say, “We can’t tell you everything, but this is what we do know we can tell you,” and be open and honest with people, and people respect that. I think that there’s the instinct, really, in any kind of communication, especially if you’ve been burned, is to hold things close to the vest and not share them.

Colleen: Well, what you’re speaking to is extremely important. I do a workshop called the Alchemy of Successful Change. When there’s a change in an organization and the messaging isn’t clear, and management or leadership is not clear, and the messaging is confused, if you confuse, you lose, you animate, once again, that place in people that interprets and makes up a story. People know when they’re just getting the sanitized message or that things are being withheld or … We’re in a multisensory environment, so messaging is very, very important. Also, respecting people enough and respecting the team enough to allow them to go through the transition of change, to recalibrate to the new future—not like, “Wow, this is happening. That’s happening,” and not respecting and holding space for questions.

You’ve just given them this information and to allow them the opportunity for it to land how does it impact me? What’s my new role in this change? To allow space for your team and for your coworkers to transition and calibrate the change, and it’s all in the messaging. You’re exactly right. I am a great scholar of cybernetics, which is the science of systems. If you look at any system, it’s an ecological system. Like the body, for instance. If the liver is sluggish, if the spleen’s not working, it affects the whole, and I said it earlier: What is in the one is in the whole. Here, you have a team that’s cohesive, that’s working toward a mutual purpose. Then, from a higher-up level, you have unclear messaging—then that’s going to affect the whole.

Cohesively, your organization has to be operating in clarity and transparency. However, you have to define what that means because for them, transparency might be “Just tell them this.” But people are mopping up what you’re pouring down. It’s like, all people want to be seen, heard, and valued, and if the messaging isn’t valuing them and their role, then that’s going to affect productivity, it’s going to affect performance, it’s going to affect morale. If you’re a command control leader, when you really need your team to have your back, they won’t because you didn’t tell the truth, and you weren’t honest with them.

Jim: Yeah. I mean, I like the idea. Just conceptually, I find it interesting the concept that you can pick and choose what you’re going to tell your employees and that’s going to be fine because my 2-year-old knows when I’m withholding something. I mean, it took her … I play video games, and there’s this famous thing where you give your little sister a remote control that doesn’t work so that they think they’re playing. I tried that with her. One time, it worked. Never again—I mean immediately, and she’s 2—she doesn’t know practically anything compared to, supposedly, employees. We know. We all know exactly when something’s not being told. Then, in my opinion, that’s the worst-case scenario because then we have to guess.

I’ve talked about this before on the show, so I apologize to my listeners for bringing up Beowulf again. But in Beowulf, there’s Grendel—he’s this monster; I’m sure you’re familiar with it—and he’s undescribed. He is basically an imagination monster. They describe plenty of things in that text but not him because the whole idea is that if he did, he would become real and then not as scary. It’s much worse if you fill him with all of your fears. I call it the Grendel effect. If you don’t tell your employees what’s going on, they’re going to start guessing, and their guesses are going to be much worse than what’s happening. Then that’s going to be the reality that they’re taking forward and that they’re making decisions with. I have trouble understanding, even allowing that to happen, but I think I get why people feel like they have to be careful with the information that they share.

Colleen: Well, yes. In Buddhism, there’s right action, right speech. Management and leadership have to be aware there are some things. However, if their intentionality and their commitment is to make sure that within those changes, their messaging is respectful and allows for a space of query of what is happening. Otherwise, you’re absolutely right: They will monster the change. That’s one way of looking at it. Because in mediation, we have a saying, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Depending on a person’s contextual frameworks, they will give things meaning that may not be there. Like you said, they will monster that change. We have to bring all of our consciousness to our speaking and our acting within the workplace, especially in leadership. We really, really, really have to be mindful of what we say, how we say it, and the impact of what we’re saying.

Jim: I just have a few more questions, and they both revolve around how does HR get started? For those HR managers out there that have identified workplace civility as an issue, where do they get started?

Colleen: It depends on the size of the organization. I think that my experience both in America and Canada is that, because of the complexity of the communication environment, HR has to be an employee advocacy arena where employees feel seen, heard, and valued, and there are HR policies in place that give them a forward direction if they have a grievance and a complaint. I also think that HR has to bring in training when they see something in the culture and leadership. Brave leadership is never silenced in the face of incivility. Oftentimes, it’s the employees that bring to HR when a manager or leadership is actually operating in that kind of behavior.

The skill sets of HR personnel need to be developed in the fields of conflict resolution and effective communication within just their being able to facilitate dialogues to bring more teambuilding to the organization because they’re usually bogged down with so much practical HR responsibilities. I just always think it’s good to bring in outside trainers because they also don’t have the same … they’re really operating from a neutral place of animating best practice and behavior because they’re not stakeholders in the organization the way HR people are, and they’re actually in a relationship with the people. I think bringing outside people also helps to animate something provocative and necessary within the context of learning, and it becomes a mutual learning. Does that make sense?

Jim: Yeah, those are great tips. My final question would be if you have any advice for employees and anyone listening that might be the victim of incivility.

Colleen: Well, let me just say that because of the subjectivity of our experiences, our way of being and acting, always in a dance with what is happening, the number one skill and quality—really, it’s a competency that I would encourage people to animate and actuate and champion—is their self-awareness. The more self-aware you are about what triggers me, what are my hot buttons, where do I not stand in response, but where do I stand in reactivity? First and foremost, within the workplace, we have a responsibility to be aware of our own behavior rather than jumping into what the other is doing. I would start there.

When you have a keen self-awareness and you’re able to look at the situation and say “Well” and look at your responsibility within it, then you’re very clear that your way of being and acting was in alignment with the codes of civility and that it really was behavior that was inappropriate and not in alignment, then to follow the proper processes and act according to the policies that are in place that deal with those grievances. I would always, always, always encourage people to initially, with the mind-set of peacemaking, reach out to the other party and open up the possibility of a dialogue.

Jim: That’s really great advice. We always take things from the perspective of HR, but sometimes, the people in HR are also the ones that are having to deal with these kinds of challenges on a more personal level.

Colleen: Yes. Can you think of words that are analogous to civility?

Jim: As an English master’s, I should be able to do this. I guess decency would be one. Being decent.

Colleen: Do you see, Jim, that because we’re always in a subjective reality, that your definition of decency and my definition of decency might be different? That what’s offendable to you might not be offendable to me? That’s why policy is important. To really, really, in teambuilding, get these codes of civility down. Really, I love to rumble with the team and get that in place because then you have a North Star, you have a compass, you have an orientation, and you have agreements. You see how important that is given … Again, we’re just open to interpretation. There is what is, and then there’s our interpretation of what is. Clarity is really important in the realm of communication, civility, and conflict resolution.

Jim: That makes a lot of sense.

Colleen: Fundamentally, just from a get-go, to define that we are on team human—we’re on team human. We all struggle with being human. Sometimes, we make mistakes. It’s not about perfection; it’s about progress. We move into a mind-set of revolution and not othering. We’re in it together.

Jim: Thank you again, Colleen, for taking the time to join us today.

Colleen: Oh, you’re welcome. My pleasure.

Jim: If you want to learn more about this from Colleen, just a reminder that she will be joining us on November 14 in Nashville, Tennessee, at our event Workforce L&D. Please consider joining us, as well. She will be cohosting a session titled “Management Training to Foster Civility and Respect and Banish Cultural Negativity.” As I mentioned earlier, I will provide links in the description. And listeners, we are always interested in suggestions you might have for what HR Works should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter, @HRWorksPodcast, with any thoughts or concerns you have about the podcast in general or just to say hello. Thank you for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.