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Future of Work

How Leaders Can Bring Back Civility in the Workplace


Close your eyes for a minute. Visualize the headlines of the day: a war here, a school shooting there. A new tragedy fills the front pages every morning.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

CEO, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Browse the latest posts on social media. Witness the spitefully nicknamed “Karens” being recorded, the videos of fights breaking out, the “OK, Boomer” insults flying. Turn on the TV. Watch a few commercials. Hear how you need more things, need to be more, need to be better. Need to stop microwaving your food in plastic containers. (OK, maybe that one we can all get behind.) Now, open your eyes. Feeling anxious yet?

It’s not easy being alive in the 21st century, in a world where there are so many demands and expectations, both real and perceived. With our ability to communicate globally, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. And because we know more, we have more — and stronger — opinions. More things to disagree on. More expectations to live up to. People are dividing into polarized camps on global issues. Issues that a few generations ago, many of us never knew much about.

We’re more diverse than we’ve ever been, and yet, we’re also more divided. And somewhere along the way, we’ve let our divisions define us, forgetting how to disagree well and losing the art of civility.

The data is telling: SHRM’s Civility Index revealed U.S. workers experience or witness more than 171 million acts of incivility per day in their everyday lives, more than 67 million of those in the workplace.

With stress levels high and busyness displayed like badges on our chests, we come to work each day weary, worn out, exhausted. Passionate, yet at the end of our ropes; tired from fighting every battle and being continuously over-stimulated and inundated with information. Also tired from the constant pressure to make a difference, to always be right, determined to defend our positions on the hot issue of the day, even if it means tearing down those around us. Because, after all, we’re on the side of social justice, right?

We carry the weight of the world with us into our workplaces, day by day, to the point where we’re less productive and more disengaged, unable to focus on our jobs. SHRM’s research confirms this, revealing 66% of U.S. workers agree incivility reduces productivity and 59% agree it causes a decline in employee morale. Because, the thing is, it’s impossible to separate an employee’s personal concerns from their work.

Creating better workplaces

So, where does that leave us? In essence, workplaces are their own micro-societies. As leaders, we set the tone. We define the culture. And our cultures can be a solace from the chaotic world around us — a force for good in the battle for mental health — or they can add to the burdensome weight already on our employees’ shoulders.

At SHRM, we’ve launched a campaign to inspire 1 million civil conversations. Despite our differences — and yes, even in an election year — we firmly believe it is possible to share our diverse opinions in a civil manner. It is possible to engage those with opposing viewpoints and, rather than leaving the conversation with hostility, walk away with a sense of learning something new, of a deeper understanding and perspective. And to use this perspective to make us better, stronger. We must learn to disagree better.

It starts in the workplace. At SHRM, we have a tagline we live by, “Better Workplaces Lead to a Better World.” And we truly believe this. Because what happens among the workforce does not stay there. What we learn and experience in our jobs bleeds into our personal lives.

As leaders, we have a choice to make. Do we create cultures that continue to spread chaos and division? Or do we choose to spread civility and a desire for deeper understanding of one another?

The choice is simple. The ramifications obvious. The only question is: Will you join us?

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