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Civility, the Workplace, and Effectiveness

Civility, the Workplace, and Effectiveness

This little comment is occasioned by no specific incident or individual. But I think the topic is interesting as we think about organizational effectiveness at Mason and elsewhere.

Most of us know of occasions where behaviors by colleagues exceed reasonable bounds and must be reacted to. “Bullying” is one of the current designations. Happily, I think major problems are rare, but they do occur; and I’m not including them in the more nuanced category I wish to discuss here.

We also know of, or should be able to recognize, occasions where a colleague gets a bit excited, even modestly combative, or simply overassertive in failing to pay appropriate heed to the opinions of others.  Here, I have two personal stakes, and then a slightly wider concern.

First: In my salad days I used to get angry and upset a lot. I would fire off aggressive memos (thank heavens, email did not yet exist) or otherwise make myself objectionable. I like to think that I was in learning mode but also that my passion represented real commitment and deserved some tolerance. I did get experience and advice about being more subtle, but happily I was not slapped down entirely.

Second: As a historian I have tried to deal with the history of anger. It’s clear that for over half a century American workplaces, particularly where the middle class is strongly represented, have striven to limit expressions of outrage or even annoyance in the interest of interpersonal smoothness. Getting in a huff is taken as an inappropriate imposition on others as well as a sign of weakness and immaturity. This is part of a complex historical process that, when looked at from that perspective, has some clear downside, including potential for manipulation and problem-avoidance.

So without saying the contemporary formulas and HR initiatives are wrong, and while recognizing that civility is usually a good goal, I wonder if some of us now aren’t prone to being a little too excited about occasional dustups. Of course, persistent issues need attention, particularly if they veer into bullying, but we may work too hard to override signs of tension among people who are really displaying a healthy commitment to the work.

Most particularly, in this context: I worry, above all, that in our desire for superficial smoothness we may pin labels on some people prematurely and over-generally. A bit of abrasiveness may go with the territory of high achievement, at least in some important cases. A combination of some tolerance, a willingness to respond in kind (within civil limits) rather than hold grudges, and a willingness to forgive rather than apply durable warning signs is often appropriate, lest we lose the benefit of important talent.

And back to the scholarly point, though I’ll just assert it rather than try to prove: In an eagerness to wish that (mild) anger would just go away, we actually lose some of the ability to use and react to anger constructively.