Ethics and civility

4434656921_5f74e0057f.jpgEthics and civility go hand in hand. In fact, civility is a foundation for ethical behavior. But we live in a world where incivility is becoming the norm. Look at the “comment” section of any Internet news site, and you won’t disagree. That needs to change.

But what can higher education do? Can they teach us to be more civil? More ethical? And what is the real cost? Will higher education instigate this societal change if they practice it, cherish it and model it? This spring JMU adopted a Quality Enhancement Plan, The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, that will begin to alter the perspective for students, honing their ethical aptitudes. When they graduate, they will be better equipped to implement positive change in the offices, organizations and institutions where they land. They will be, we hope, ethical and civil.

This morning, in a post on his blog, Shaeffer’s ForaysJMU Associate Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement Jim Shaeffer discussed civility — and the lack thereof. Jim makes some excellent points, chief among them is that civility starts with “me.”

The Price of Incivility

By Jim Shaeffer, Associate Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement 
Jim Shaeffer

Jim Shaeffer

I’ve been trying to catch up on my reading lately, and being on a train for five hours is a great place to do it.  An article out of the Jan-Feb 2013 Harvard Business Review caught my eye, because I believe the content is extremely timely.  The article, “The price of incivility: Lack of respect hurts morale and the bottom line,” by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, not only shows that incivility is rampant in the work place, but also that it negatively impacts the bottom line.

I imagine we’ve all witnessed incivility, or been on the receiving side of it, or — worse yet –been guilty of it. I’ll come clean on this one, I recently learned that an off-handed response I made sent the wrong signal, but luckily I had the chance to mend fences.

Porath & Pearson report the depressing statistic that over the past 14 years, 98% of workers surveyed reported experiencing uncivil behavior. Even more shocking is that half of them indicated that they experience incivility at least once a week.

I found that incivility can come in many forms; sometimes it’s even in ways that are unintended but still rude behavior. One of my great pet peeves is when you enter an office and no one looks up and asks, “Can I help you?” Yes, it’s a best practice in customer service to greet people who are visiting your place of business and offer your help. But for heaven’s sake, it’s simply good manners to greet people! (You may have noticed that I feel strongly about this one.)  I know sometimes this can be difficult because we are already multitasking, possibly on the phone but still a quick gesture of “I will be with you shortly” goes a long way.

Another place I see incivility are in meetings where people talk over others. They don’t let others finish their thoughts, points, or ideas.  If this happens often enough, someone would understandably just stop trying to contribute to the conversation and thus possibly impacting productivity.  This is one area where as a leader we can intercede and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, which may require asking others to hold their thought until the other person has finished.

Porath & Pearson also reminded me that “incivility can take much more subtle forms, and it is often prompted by thoughtlessness rather than actual malice. Think of the manager who sends e-mails during a presentation, or the boss who ‘teases’ direct reports in ways that sting, or the team leader who takes credit for good news but points a finger at team members when some-thing goes wrong.”

Oh man, I can be guilty of checking my email in meetings. Even worse, I’ve responded to them while in the meeting. Looking back, this is just rude behavior.  As I think about it, reading and responding to email while in meetings is the same as taking a phone call during the meeting.  We just wouldn’t do that.  One of MY worst offenses in this area was when I was having lunch with colleagues and I spent more time checking email instead of being part of the conversation.  So I gave myself a lecture and reminded myself of the importance of active listening.

Rude behavior can be very expensive.  Porath & Pearson report that employees who are exposed to rude behavior become less creative, may produce lower quality work, feel a loss of commitment to the organization, and (most damaging) take out their frustrations on customers.  And let’s face it: it only takes one bad experience and we could lose a customer forever.  From a customer’s point of view, another pet peeve of mine is when employees spend their time complaining about their jobs when they are serving me. The worst offense is when I see a supervisor reprimand an employee in front of customers.

So what can a leader do to minimize and hopefully end incivility in their organization? The authors suggest a number of things, the first being that as leaders we need to model civil behavior.  This obviously includes not being rude to your team, and it includes respecting the team by being engaged in meetings as compared to checking emails.  It means honoring the ideas of others and it means giving credit where credit is due.

One of the ways of checking up on yourself the authors suggest (and I strongly support) is asking for feedback.  Not everyone on your team will feel comfortable giving feedback to the boss but hopefully there is someone in your organization that has your trust and will provide feedback.

There are also a number of things that leaders can do assist the organization in minimizing incivility.  One of them mentioned by the authors is create norms for behavior.  One of the things I learned and borrowed from one of my mentors is that in each organization I’ve been involved with, not only do we establish a mission and vision, but also shared values.  Our values for Outreach & Engagement include things like honoring the ideas of others, treating everyone with dignity and respect, creating an enjoyable work atmosphere, and recognizing the value that every employee brings to our unit.  It is not only important to establish these values but it is important to revisit them periodically. One thing that I do is review them with new employees, and I challenge them to hold me accountable for living up to these values.

There is little doubt that there are examples of incivility all around us — simply turn on the television and watch the news.  My goal first and foremost is to monitor my own behavior and model civil interactions.  And second, work with others in our organization to create a civil safe zone for our offices and for our customers.

Let’s face it, the bumper sticker has it right: “I Hate Mean People.”

To read more of Jim’s blog, you’ll find Shaeffer’s Forays at the embedded link. We appreciate Jim letting us share it.

The great and important overlap

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

For every college and university in every town and every city in every part of the country, there is town and gown, yin and yang, give and take, push and pull. JMU in Harrisonburg is no exception.

Since 1908, Harrisonburg and Madison have grown together and sometimes groaned together, side by side. Occasionally, there are spats, but for the most part it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. A university’s presence in a community, a state, a nation can and should have a positive impact. It should be a catalyst for positive change.

Last night citizens from the community, students and Madison faculty came together for a Citizenship Forum as part of the weeklong celebration of Friday’s inauguration of President Jonathan Alger. They discussed higher education’s responsibility to society to help produce educated, informed and enlightened citizens, who will in turn influence their communities.

In the wise words of panelist Jim Shaeffer, “We’ve got to live with each other at the end of the day.” It is, perhaps, the best reasoning I’ve ever heard for civic and civil engagement, but how do we get there? What is higher education’s responsibility in producing educated, informed and enlightened citizens?

Jim, associate vice president for outreach and engagement at JMU, was joined on the panel by Chaz Evans-Haywood (’96), Clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, and Meg Mulrooney, JMU associate professor of history and associate dean for University Studies. Brian T. Kaylor, JMU asistant professor of political communication, advocacy studies, rhetorical methods and public speaking, moderated the discussion.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

Jim has spent 30 years in outreach and engagement. He characterized the intersection of civic involvement, community involvement and education as a Venn diagram whose purposes overlap. Based on the Carnegie model, he says, civic engagement should provide mutual beneficial exchange of ideas and strengths, partnerships and reciprocity. “All of us bring strengths to the table,” he said, “You leverage the strengths of both.”

That’s exactly what happened in Chaz’ office, for example. After he was elected, Chaz was faced with an office full of documents dating back to the 1700s. His predecessors had “saved everything,” he said. Preserving that history has been an important task for his office, and JMU students have played a part. “The students were excited about the technology and how they could use it [to preserve the court’s history].” It was a win/win for the clerk’s office and for the students. Students provided enthusiasm and ideas based on their technical saavy. The opportunity to work in an office setting helped hone students’ critical relationship skills.

When students and community groups intersect both also have responsibilities. Chaz pointed out to the students in attendance that they — as voters in local elections — influence the lives of his children through votes on issues such as local school funding and the allocation of funding.

To make those decisions, Meg Mulrooney said, students — as future citizens — need good judgment. One of higher education’s responsibilities is to prepare students to make these decisions wisely and to apply learned and practiced skills in ethical reasoning. Teaching ethical reasoning across the curriculum is the focus of the Madison Collaborative, a new program that will ensure that every student will graduate equipped with the critical thinking skills to function as thoughtful and positive members of society.

The obligation of higher education to teach ethical reasoning in action and civic responsibility goes even further than teaching, Jim said. “As a public university, we have a moral obligation to share our resources, our expertise with the community.”

“The Madison community must also model community engagement to students,” he also said.

The Madison faculty does that well. “As a student, I found those teachers who helped me get involved in the community,” Chaz said.

Participants in the event included current students, members of the JMU debate team, faculty members, community members, one toddler (who was the least interested in the event) and even friends of the Algers, the Matsons from Princeton, NJ, who were on campus to celebrate the inauguration of their good friend Jon Alger.

The Citizenship Forum was an evening of engagement in action, one that is repeated in offices, classrooms, clubs and organizations — anywhere that the university and the community overlap.

For more of Jim Shaeffer’s perspective on JMU’s civic engagement, read his blog, Shaeffer’s Forays.
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