Civility at Work

“How do you handle someone who is being obnoxious?”

That was a question put to me recently when I talked to a group having their annual Civility Awareness day at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center at Worcester.

We explored how best to encourage civility – which goes beyond mere politeness. The UMass credo on civility offers these tips:

  • “Conduct yourself with integrity, courtesy, and respect toward fellow members of our community.”
  • “Hold individuals accountable for their actions.”
  • “Promote an environment where individuals feel safe and supported.”

These rules for civility in a workplace are heartening; I’m pleased that an organization has focused on how to upgrade the quality of interactions among everyone who works there, as well as with patients.

People at work in any organization face a panoply of forces that easily overpower the urge to be civil: stress, multi-tasking, too much to do with too little time, or too little support. Stress and distractedness – not meanspiritness – are the most common enemies of civility at work.

Consider what you might call “deep civility”: being fully present and attuned to the other person, empathizing, and preparedness to do what you can for them. This attitude resonates with Martin Buber’s concept of the “I-You” connection, where two people are in rapport. These are the human moments when we feel fully engaged and contacted; these are the moments of personal connection we value the most. And, in the workplace, this is what allows for the chemistry where people can work together at their best, or where customers and clients feel most pleased.

What then, does this take? In Social Intelligence I described the varieties of empathy – cognitive, emotional, and empathic concern. These are prerequisites for the full engagement that allows deep civility. But beyond that, each of us can take responsibility for conducting ourselves so the people we contact feel attuned to. Given the countless distractions we face, this begins with paying full attention. The ingredients of a moment of human connection start with our putting down what we’re doing, stopping our wandering thoughts, and simply paying full attention to the other person.

Now, back to that question about the obnoxious person. Because the social brain makes emotions contagious, the danger comes when we take in the negativity, and fail to metabolize it – when the anger, for instance, stays with us, instead of our recovering from it. In the helping professions, the recipe for burnout begins with someone who constantly deals with others who are fearful, angry, or resentful, and who walks away from those encounters feeling that distress – and can’t recover from it. Over time this builds up to an emotional exhaustion – burnout is the end state.

So particularly among those in the caring professions, the ability to recover from such stress is crucial. Luckily for the people at UMass, they are home to the program in Mindfulness-based stress reduction. This training – which has spread to hundreds of hospitals and clinics – gives people the inner ability to stay calm and attuned, without closing down to other people.

In the emotional intelligence model, self-awareness and managing our emotions well are the keys to self-mastery. Once we stabilize in a positive state, we can become senders of that positivity to others. And that suggests one strategy for dealing with an obnoxious encounter – stay calm and clear, be firm but friendly. Because every interaction is a system, this can have a positive impact on the other person. And even if they do not change how they are acting, we can leave their negativity behind as we go on to the next encounter.

In short, the ability to pass on to others our own positive states suggests a deeper sense of “civility.”

9 thoughts on “Civility at Work

  1. I am wondering if there is any value to a concept like civility? Doesn’t it imply that those who choose not to obey established rules are somehow “less-than”? Doesn’t a concept like civility reinforce judgment, blame and violence? Would you be willing to comment?

  2. For most part, people are civil with one other in both personal and professional environments. Which leads me to believe, this notion of “Civility at work” is more an exception rather than a rule for most work environments. In that case, it is best to seperate yourself from the situation before crafting a response to the person who is obnoxious. In this world of instant gratification and response, it is easy to bring in your own emotions and respond to soothe your ego, feel more important, show the upper hand, etc… But more often than not, you are adding gasoline to the fire and making matters worse. The best response in situations like this one is always a delayed but thoughtful response even at the cost of letting the other person feel like they won for that moment in time.

    Every battle is won before it is ever fought!
    aka Sun Tzu – The Art of war

  3. I have no doubt that stress is probably the biggest cause of a lack of civility in the work place. What is worrying is when stress-induced lack of civility gets results in the work place. It fortifies a feeling ( not right, in my opinion) that civility is no big deal.

  4. “Social Intelligence” was amazing in explaining the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It helped a lot to learn what’s been going on in my body. I am interested in knowing how to recover from work induced PTSD — see “Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the Amercan Workplace.” Some people are never able to return to any job, thus, become permanently disabled and isolated. Are there methods when medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and counseling are ineffective? I find that action — writing a book and participating in legislation for a healthy workplace bill — make me feel better. The PTSD symptoms — deep-seated fear and terrifying nightmares — increased with failure of many people including management, medical professionals, and attorneys. It would seem that your theories would generate new therapies and treatments.

  5. “Social Intelligence” was amazing in explaining the process of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It helped a lot to learn what’s been going on in my body. I am interested in knowing how to recover from work induced PTSD — see “Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.” Some people are never able to return to any job, thus, become permanently disabled and isolated. Are there methods when medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and counseling are ineffective? I find that action — writing a book and participating in legislation for a healthy workplace bill — make me feel better. The amydala calms down with a sense of control over and change of the situation. The PTSD symptoms — deep-seated fear and terrifying nightmares — increased with failure of many people including management, medical professionals, and attorneys. It would seem that your theories would generate new therapies and treatments.

  6. I am a big propronent of “emotional intelligence for civility” Last week, I trained 30 attorneys in Chicago to meet the new civility training requirement by the State Bar.
    I am constantly amazed with the use of emotional intelligence in so many areas such as anger management.

  7. Is there any case law out there specific to PTSD induced by work place environmental violence. Specifically, I was a Psychiatric Technician on a forensic unit and was exposed to over 700 physical altercations, this being statistically averaged in and over nine years. It does not take into account all of the hours I worked over time.
    I have found that I have so much PTSD symptomology and have that it is hard to keep employment, hard on my family, my wife is a saint of over 25 years; however, that being said, my concern is that more individuals in the same work-environment is or will have the same issues of myself.
    I would like to bring a cause of action against my former employer but I do not know where to start. Any help would be much obliged.

    Bob D.

  8. Whether at home or at work, when repeated civility does not begets civility, the levels of Emotional Intelligence good enough in congenial atmosphere does not work. I am not sure if any level of emotional aptitude helps cultivate civility in extremely abnoxious situations……unless you choose to neglect.

  9. How to handle someone who is obnoxious? This is a complex question. If one is at work and one is continually belittled and screamed at, in the workplace, by your boss, there is sometimes recourse to go to HR b/c the boss is in violation of a company policy against employee bullying. But alas this often does not work as HR usually does nothing basically. SO, one can try to talk privately to the boss, but this usually doesn’t work either, as there is too big of a power differential. So, I have to say that I agree with N. Mahadev, that one can continue to be civil, but it does not always beget civility, so one can only be in control of oneself. And this can get tiring and feel awfully one-sided.

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