Cultivating Civility

This post originally appeared in the 2017 CX Outlook, a free e-book curated by Kerry Bodine & Co. and Swedish design firm Doberman. Other thought leaders who contributed include Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, Ingrid Lindberg former chief customer officer at Cigna turned CX consultant, and musician Dave Carroll of United Breaks Guitars fame. Download the full e-book here.

California resident Amanda Blanc never thought Etsy would make her famous. But shortly after adding a yard sign that reads “Make America Kind Again” to her shop, TV cameras showed up on her doorstep. Blanc told CNN that the sign was not a statement for or against any political candidate. Her goal was simply to “spread awareness of respecting other people's views and values." Orders started pouring in by the hundreds because, as it turns out, many others want the same thing.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans surveyed for the 2016 report Civility In America think civility, or a lack thereof, is a problem in today’s culture. Almost three quarters said the problem has gotten worse in recent years. And not just in politics or social media. Research by Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University, found that 62% of people are treated rudely at work at least once a month, up from 49% in 1998. And more than a quarter of workers have been victims of incivility so severe it meets the criteria for workplace bullying.

These numbers are distressing, particularly for the CX community.

We’ve worked for more than a decade to improve levels of empathy and cooperation in corporate culture. Every act of incivility between co-workers chips away at that progress. According to Dr. Porath, “when employees are exposed to rudeness, they’re three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half.” And incivility spreads like a plague. Research from the University of Florida shows that just witnessing bad behavior, even if we’re not the target, makes us more likely to be hostile, aggressive, or rude to someone else.

Civility needs to be a CX priority. In particular, we need to combat the epidemic of insidious incivility—tiny acts of disrespect like chronic lateness, multitasking during meetings, and leaving a mess in the office kitchen. Some people rationalize these behaviors as a fact of modern life. That’s a cop-out. We can do better, and we must. If not, we run the risk that working relationships will erode to the point where CX ecosystems begin to fall apart.

The easiest way to improve civility is to lead by example. As you finalize your goals for 2017, consider a few simple (though not always easy) changes to your everyday habits.

  • Drive carefully. As I left work one day, a car came flying through the parking garage and almost hit me. The driver wasn’t someone I knew, and he didn’t stop. A few days later we ended up in a face to face meeting together where he showed no signs of remorse for our earlier encounter. Maybe he didn’t remember. But I did, and it forever tainted my perception of him as a colleague and as a person.
  • Eat lunch together. Fifty percent of Americans eat lunch alone every day. Dining with others helps you get to know them as human beings, not just job titles. And the better we know someone, the more slack we cut them if they are rude to us on occasion. We know they’re not a jerk, so rather than attribute the behavior to a character flaw we consider the possibility he was just distracted, overscheduled, or overtired.
  • Pay attention in meetings. Executives at Salesforce reportedly leave their phones in a basket, out of reach, to reduce the risk of distraction during important meetings. If you need to take notes on a laptop, sit next to someone you wouldn’t want to catch you checking email. And if you zone out in meetings that aren’t relevant to you, stop going. It’s less impolite to decline than it is to sit there without ever looking up from your screen.
  • Stop the stupid talk. Sadly, it’s common to joke about “dumb” decisions made by executives or question the intelligence of people we disagree with. Rather than insult colleagues, try to empathize and see the situation from their perspective. Did they have less (or different) information than you do now? Were they optimizing for valid concerns like risk or stability but—in your opinion—got the balance between those things and CX wrong?

This stuff may seem trivial, but it’s not. When these little behaviors get repeated thousands of times by hundreds of employees every day it creates an undercurrent of negativity that customers can’t help but pick up on. That’s why I strongly suggest making civility a core pillar of your culture change effort (it it’s not already). But regardless, in 2017 we should all follow Ghandi’s (slightly modified) advice and be the kindness we wish to see in the world.