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Why Can’t We Have Civil Conversations Anymore?

August 8, 2018

75% of people in the workplace have been affected by bullying, according to a study noted in Forbes.

A company I recently read about had to pay an employee $600,000 in damages because of her manager’s bullying-reflective behaviors.

Our political landscape and cultural behaviors are bleeding into the workplace. Incivility is on the rise in the workplace whether expressed online or within the physical office. Norms are breaking down.

It is becoming more common to hear statements like:

  • “You are an idiot. How did you make it through the interview process?”
  • “What the hell is wrong with you?”
  • “You are so stupid. You probably voted for (fill in the blank with the candidate of your choice).”
  • “You have a target on your back!”

Some people have been subject to expletives, even in front of guests and customers.

Incivility can manifest itself through more subtle means as well, such as providing the silent treatment or talking negatively about co-workers and using them as an example of warning to others.

I have experienced workplace incivility. At my first job, one of my co-workers tried to make me look bad in front of our boss. Thank god it backfired and he was hoisted onto his own petard. I was not equipped to handle that, as it was my first job.

I once had a VP that felt self-importance. He invited me into his office. At first, he tried buttering me up in an attempt to make me feel important. Then, he proceeded to try and throw me off by removing his socks and shoes and then clipping his toe nails. At that point, he asked me to spy on my boss. He did not like her and wanted to find an excuse to fire her. When I refused to be his spy, he threatened me.

One client I work with has a leader that berates and puts down employees. He justifies it based on deadlines, pressure, and the fact that the employees make mistakes. However, he can hold his employees accountable without being Attila the Hun. This is an example of excuse making, to justify bad behavior.

In today’s workplace, the challenge is that it is happening more frequently and most people do not have the skills to cope with it or work through it. The reality is that this is not professional behavior. So why do people make these excuses? Someone recently asked me to answer this question.

“We’re looking at the same thing, but see it differently. You have your opinion, and I’ve got mine. Why can’t we discuss our opinions without name calling?”

Amazing. He wanted to know why two grown adults can’t disagree without name calling and attacking each other. Explaining the reasons is easy.

There are three core reasons why people behave this way:

  1. Ignorance. They have an uneducated viewpoint; even if they are right, they can’t explain why or defend it. They just believe it to be true. So when they are challenged or presented with facts that contradict their perspective, they get defensive and angry. It is a form of self-protection, albeit not a productive one. Unfortunately, once they get frustrated, they become willfully ignorant. Willfully ignorant individuals are fully aware of facts, information and resources yet refuse to recognize and utilize them. For these types of people, living is more comfortable with their eyes closed. In some cases, they choose this path because accepting certain information may rock their core or foundation. In other instances, it breaks with their values or beliefs. Regardless of the reasons, change is difficult for someone like this. They will run up against a wall and refuse to back down. People who are willfully ignorant may engage in personal attacks to preserve their ideas and views of the workplace. The conundrum…ignorance never solves a problem. Just remember, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
  2. Control. Some people have a need to control their environment and those around them. It makes them more comfortable to foster a false reality that they can create a predictable outcome. Control is fear in action. The only thing we can truly control is ourselves, and many of us can’t seem to handle that. These individuals are very goal oriented, and they like predictability. However, problem-solving is unpredictable. Otherwise, it is just theatre. And in many cases that is precisely what we are watching, theatre. People open up problem-solving when they already know their course of action. Then they try leading people where they want them to go. When individuals resist or try to move in a different direction, the controller comes out and can be quite uncivil.
  3. Ego. People attach their self-worth and identity to their ideas. When you do not agree with their opinion, they feel rejected. What people need to remember is that their idea is not them. They are much more than an idea, and they also hold more value. The ego operates out of self-interest. People who suffer from this pursue approval and recognition at all costs. They must be viewed as correct. They will be resistant to feedback because that means, in their mind, they were not right. Because the idea ties to their ego and sense of self-worth, they can become difficult to work with and misbehave.

Here are a few ways to improve at maintaining civility in the workplace and determine what you need to work on:

  • Don’t make the conversation about you.
  • When you get defensive, ask yourself why.
  • Seek to learn and understand and the results will come.
  • Take steps to become self-aware.
  • Do the opposite of what your emotions are telling you.
  • Ask yourself: What do they see that I do not? Or why do they view it that way?
  • Determine: Would you rather be right or get something done?
  • Focus on what you can actually control.
  • Think about why you struggle with trusting others.
  • Admit you have control issues.
  • Question your beliefs and assumptions.
  • Recognize a little chaos or unpredictability is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Admit you have a bias and perspective.
  • Allow someone else to be in charge.
  • Identify your triggers.
  • Focus on changing your communication style.
  • Get a coach.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Acknowledge that no one is perfect.
  • Compassion, compassion, compassion…for yourself and others.

Ultimately, curiosity, empathy and an opportunity outlook are what leads to amazing conversations, debates, and problem-solving. When we can learn to listen to each other and our concerns, we will be able to co-discover and co-create the future we want and need.

I am hopeful more people will find empathy and curiosity over time. We need to see each other as neighbors, co-workers, teammates and fellow citizens. When we view working with each other as an opportunity, we will be moving in the right direction. I am hopeful those that disagree not only can and will discuss opinions without name calling but that they will eventually co-create organizations and futures in the best interest of all. We all have a lot of growing up to do in the meantime.