I have a confession to make. I travel all the time, and go to meetings, and conferences, and lunches and dinners. I meet all kinds of people. I’m lucky enough to invited into organizations and the analyst community. I’ve something of a platform to say things to the world. And yet, a few weeks ago, in a simple moment when I could’ve shut down a cruel, sexist remark about a highly professional, intelligent and qualified female executive, I turned away. It would’ve cost me nothing, I had very low risk in speaking up. And if I didn’t, it’s easy to imagine that very few other people would either. It was just one of several seemingly minor acts of unkindness I have seen or heard of lately. I’m ashamed that I did not seize this opportunity to correct a seemingly small, but symptomatic instance of incivility. But instead of shame, I want to use that energy for change.
Civility isn’t just a personal issue. It’s a business issue. We have designed organizations, and tolerated leaders, that can stifle our natural instincts towards kindness. Our society and our workplaces are not designed to acknowledge the fact that human beings are sometimes young, old, or sick. Or that sometimes the people we care about are young, old, or sick. We talk about wellness in the workplace, but wellness is about so much more than an individual’s health numbers. To be well, I know I need more than just my own security. I want to know my family is safe, cared for, free from pain, not lonely. As Americans work more and more, organizations and solution providers are going to have to tackle the messy truth that we are still human beings, despite the benefits of automation and technology.
I think the lack of civility also has something to do with our lack of connection. We increasingly see the world through a screen. As vacationers, we document our trips and moments instead of living them. As leaders, we report on, and measure, and document the flow of work and workers through our organization. And this gives us a sense of disconnect from the people we may not happen to have personal relationships with. While keeping some distance is important sometimes when executives have to make tough decisions about the organization, not the individual, it would take so little to change something that could be a hostile or even neutral act into one of kindness and civility.
Acts of incivility are often so minor on their own that they can go unnoticed. But when they pile up, they can cause a true breakdown, in society or in organizations. My husband makes fun of me for what he calls “shopping cart rage.” I hate it when people don’t put their shopping carts away in the cart corral, or even worse, leave it in a handicap spot. I know, it’s no big deal, a shopping cart. But I am irrationally obsessed with this issue. To me it’s a symbol of the tunnel vision that makes us forget about those around us. It’s the little niceties left undone that add up to thinking that we are better than, or separate from. Turning this around can take so little effort. It’s extending a courtesy to someone. It’s being thoughtful when someone cannot move as quickly or as well. It’s asking a caregiver how they are doing, not just the person they are caring for. Or yes, putting away that shopping cart. It can take so little to add civility back into our day, and it can do so much to de-escalate tense situations. Situations that have been all too prominent in the news lately, from airlines to office buildings to schools.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s all bad. I also see incredible acts of kindness, and thoughtfulness every day. I find myself saying frequently that people are amazing, in the most wonderful and awful ways. I’m not writing about creating world peace, or changing your personality, or feminism, or protection for people with disabilities. I’m simply reminding myself, and all of us, to call out the incivilities we see. And as the examples above show, they come in many flavors. Don’t let people get away with them. If you have a voice, put a stop to the rude comment. Let people know when leaders are abusing their power in small ways. Because when we correct the small things, sometimes, just sometimes, we can avoid the big things. It takes so little, and seems so simple. But simple is not easy. If it was easy I would’ve called out the person who made the negative comment I witnessed. I’ll do better next time. And I challenge us all to do better next time too.