What happened to civil discourse?

What happened to civility? Where is the compassion in pursuit of truth? Constructive and honest debate are healthy and necessary, but personal attacks and incivility erode our humanity. – Jannell MacAulay, PhD

Incivility can ruin the trust and impede the proper functioning of a team. Similar to the effect of condescension, spite, and simmering animosity have in a relationship, derision and cutting words erode the bond that holds a team together.

When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency. – Samuel Johnson

That is one of the reasons it is so important to root out problem employees and make sure that they are properly counseled and, if as appropriate, managed out of the organization. Civility, politeness, acting toward one another in such a way that would engender trust and belonging and feelings of empathy and compassion should always be striving for.

I imagine that you have been in a situation, especially a group setting, where someone uses derisive and demeaning language to describe another person. That fracturing of the social contract encourages you to lose respect for the person being talked about and the person talking. If you’re in a group setting with another leader and that leader does not speak up to stop the negative talk, chances are good that you will not think so highly of that leader in the future either.

Team cohesiveness is a key aspect to performing in group settings. Mannerly behavior may not be involved in our hive fast-paced high-tech world, but it is part of the core social fabric that defines good human behavior and allows us to interact with one another in a respectful way that supports our shared humanity. Social media and 24/7 news networks spread hatred and incivility lightning fast. It is difficult to stand firm as a respectful and polite person with those influences so near at hand.

Social media and talking heads have the effect of reducing nuanced concepts and discussions to the most basic (and typically wrong) level. When you are given only a few hundred characters to describe a scenario, much less to debate a weighty ethical topic, you cannot do it justice. When we use ‘react’ buttons or write quick remarks in a comment section on social media, we are not able to have a coherent, synchronous conversation about a given topic. We tend to use inflammatory language and simplify issues.

Logical fallacies are all too common on social media and on talking head ‘news’ programs. A false dilemma or false dichotomy is a good example. You’ve probably heard the “you’re either with us or against us” argument often. This is the sort of gross oversimplification that Brené Brown argues against in Braving the Wilderness. When your position on a given issue must be either A. or B., you are not given any other options. That is intellectually disingenuous at best and intentionally unethical and manipulative at worst. You can support our troops and still disagree with drone strikes in sovereign nations, for example. Try discussing hot-button issues on a platform like Facebook or Twitter and see what happens in the comment section. I guarantee it will not be a civil or pleasant experience.

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. – Albert Einstein

From a practical perspective, you, as the leader, must inculcate an atmosphere of respect, stability, and politeness with the underlying characteristics of care and compassion in your leadership team and your subordinates. This will allow for a more cohesive and high functioning team; one that is innovative and generates ideas absent an atmosphere of judgment or casual derision.

Professionalism and leadership demand that we follow Patrick Swayze’s advice in the 80s classic, Roadhouse, “Be polite.”

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