Make Nice. Make Progress.

July 7th 2014

Everyone loves civility, at least in theory. We especially love it when we perceive ourselves as civil. If only the rest of the world were like us, the world would be a better place. 

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Except when we forget. In certain circumstances, civility flies quickly out the office door. In my communication coaching work, I’ve discovered three areas where good manners disappear. It’s in precisely those instances where it is most important to remain civil. Get ready: I didn’t say it would be easy.

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1. When jackasses disrupt your day. I define “jackass” as someone who is rude, ignorant, or narcissistic. You probably have your own definition. If you lose your civility when dealing with these people, you are no better than they are. It might feel good in the moment, but ultimately you’ll feel bad about your behavior and you almost certainly will not change the jackass.

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2. When you disagree with partners. Been to any partner meetings lately? How about the back-door meetings that occur after the partner meetings? Conversations in this arena often descend into name-calling, labeling, and inordinately rigid posturing. At the first inkling of incivility, attendees begin to shut down intellectually, creatively, and emotionally. Losing your civility here means losing the opportunity to elevate yourself and your firm.

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3. When team members quit. No doubt about it: a team member who pulls up stakes and possibly even goes to a competitor is a punch to the gut. I’ve been privy to many conversations with leaders who have had to face this, and it’s not pretty. All too often, the departing team member has to cope not only with the stress of change, but with very poor treatment from their bosses and colleagues. While you have every right to feel all the emotions you feel when someone leaves your firm, it is not productive to express the negative feelings publicly. When you cast aspersions or assault the character of the departing team member, you are being both uncivilized and unkind.

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It is entirely human to react emotionally in these situations, to strike back, to say things that are truly better left unsaid. Civility is probably against our most basic nature; I think it’s a learned behavior, not an instinct. As a leader, though (even if you are only leading yourself), developing the discipline to remain civil at the most difficult times is essential. Otherwise, you risk looking like a jackass yourself, and you teach those who follow you that it’s acceptable to behave poorly.  Eventually, it becomes part of your culture.

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The great thing is we get to choose your behaviors in every moment. There is no rule that says you have to lose your kindness and compassion in the face of difficulty. You can choose to be the bigger person in every situation. In making this choice, you ultimately become a stronger leader, a truer teacher, and a kinder human being. It isn’t easy, but the payoff is significant for you, your colleagues, and your firm.

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leadership, management, communication, employee retention

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