Executive Suite: Civility matters

Over the past years I have personally observed and heard from colleagues about some disquieting scenes:
  • Senior officials belittling a staff member in front of others

  • E-mail containing sensitive, personal information about employees

  • People who are oblivious to individuals not in their 'club' (rank, grade, gender or race)

  • Managers who focus solely on tasks and rarely on the people who accomplish them

  • An office fistfight between two middle-aged men.

  • Most government managers are not like the above individuals. They respect and genuinely value their co-workers. But problems such as these are not rare. Each of us can fall victim to job stress and daily hassles, and regress to less than civilized behavior.

    Practicing civility as part of our daily routine improves individual motivation, enhances overall performance and makes life more bearable in our stressed-out environments. Here are a few rules of the road that would put more civility in our lives:

    Recognize people. Most people work hard. Take time to recognize and thank them for their efforts. You will be rewarded many times over with a more-motivated work force and better results. Years ago, at a high-level meeting, the individual who was the most gracious and genuine in greeting each person and making us feel welcome (with both eye contact and a handshake) was a congressman. The outcome of this meeting was clearly to his advantage.

    Recognize workers by greeting someone you typically ignore or by sending short, spontaneous e-mail messages to workers who have done something worthwhile. Also, you can thank people for special information, work performed well, being a team player and so on.

    Assume almost anyone can be your next boss. Remember those people who badmouth, belittle and backstab just about everyone who crosses their path? They are not getting any promotions, special opportunities or job offers. It amazes me that people who are inconsiderate or arrogant never link their uncivilized behavior to outcomes affecting their life. All too often, these people shift the blame for consequences to someone else and continue on with their miserable actions.

    Avoid such problems by overcoming the urge to criticize someone in front of others and listening to knowledgeable people before you act. Try charm coupled with intelligence instead of barking orders or asserting ego to persuade others.

    Be e-mail savvy. Personnel matters, emotional tirades and politically stupid words should never be sent via official government e-mail. E-mail is not the place to inform or discuss performance appraisals, yell at people (you are not supposed to be doing that anyway), seek vengeance or say anything that you wouldn't want to appear on the front page of the newspaper.

    Avoid e-mail pitfalls by waiting 24 hours to delete or redraft an emotional message penned in the heat of the office battle space. Deliver sensitive or potentially damaging information to peers, subordinates or supervisors in person. Always assume your official e-mail will be read by your enemies and compose it accordingly.

    Interestingly, civility can help reduce stress. The tone set by more civil words and actions reverberates throughout the work environment. Everyone is still working hard, but one of the unnecessary stressors of a rougher environment is gone.

    Civility is not acting or hypocrisy. It is a genuine show of humanness, recognizing the greatness and vulnerability in everyone.

    Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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