“Civility costs nothing and buys everything.” ~ Mary Worley Montagu
There is a tendency to speak of civility in a political context and to refer to it as "civil discourse." Without a doubt there is a political speech aspect of civility but to limit civility to politics does not do justice to the importance of the idea and its practice. To make what I think are important points about civility in the public service arena, I want to leave behind, for a moment, the usage of civility to mean a type of political discourse. I would like to examine the concept of civility as a workplace norm and practice.
I recently heard a radio advertisement that encouraged customers to do business with them because they “treat people right.” I can’t think of a better and more concise definition of civility. But this simple definition begs at least two important questions if were to apply this to the public sector- Which people? and What is right? For the private business with the slogan the answers are simple- the “people” are potential customers and “right” is what it takes to get the customer to purchase its goods or services over those of a competitor.
For us in the public sector, our customers are the public as a whole and we have no competition and corresponding monetary incentives to treat people right yet the public has a reasonable expectation to be treated with civility. So what is the “right way” to treat the public?
For ages, people have tried to make rules for how others should be treated and to codify civil behavior. As a young man, George Washington produced a list of such rules in his manuscript “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” These charming rules cover a range of bodily functions and anachronistic social interactions which highlight a major problem with specifying civil behavior. Rules lose their meaning outside of a context and specific fact patterns. Nonetheless, Miss Manners and other modern advice columnists (and even talk show hosts) continue the tradition today. The problem with such lists is that they cannot possibly cover every situation that can arise. Even if there were such a list, it would be so large that no one could master the whole thing.
The key to knowing how to treat people the right way must, therefore, be found in a set of principles rather than in a list. I propose two principles that capture and define civil conduct for me. The first principle of civility is respect for others. Respect expresses the value we assign to others, to their feelings, to their opinions and to their well-being. Respect does not require agreement nor does it require shared views or priorities. Respect assigns the same value to others that we claim for ourselves.
This leads to the second principle which guides civility—the “golden rule.” The idea that one should treat others as they would like to be treated themselves is not merely a pithy, Judeo-Christian concept. The principle is found in nearly every culture’s ethos and traditions. The beauty of this principle is that, without prescribing any particular behavior, it addresses all the variability and all the situations that could possibly arise in one’s interactions with others. The “golden rule” provides a foolproof guide to civil conduct for everyone.
I am proposing that civility is simply treating others with respect and treating them the way we would want to be treated. These concepts are already fairly well engrained in the customer service practices of most public entities. It is always a priority to treat the public with respect (even if it is merely to avoid complaints). Rules, regulations and bureaucracy can often constrain the application of the golden rule, however, within the discretion granted by the rules, it is realistic to treat others the way we would hope to be treated. A level of civility in the interactions between public entities and the public is fairly well established and outright incivility is a rare exception.
Ironically, it seems that the civility granted to the public outside the agency is not always granted to co-workers and colleagues within the agency. Just as teenagers will treat friends and strangers more respectfully and civilly than they often treat parents and family, we often treat those closest to us in the workplace with less consideration than we treat total strangers. Returning to the question of who should be treated right, the answer cannot be the public and strangers only. The answer must be “everyone.” To do otherwise jeopardizes the practice of civility all together. It is difficult to be sincerely respectful of one group of people while simultaneously disrespecting others. This bifurcation of civility undermines the credibility and consistency of civil conduct when it does occur.
The point I wish to make to public administrators and leaders is that civility must be uniformly practiced and extended to all if it is to be an important value in any organization. Civility must be behavior that is rewarded and reinforced by an organization’s culture and working environment. Allowances for treating some people more (or less) respectfully than others is discriminatory and ultimately weakens an organization. An organization’s culture and the tone of the workplace environment is a reflection of the quality, competency and civility of the organization’s leadership. Leaders are responsible to create, support and sustain a culture of civility in their agency and should regularly assess and reinforce civility in their teams. It goes without saying that leaders themselves need to practice civility and “treat people right” as a role model and because it is the right thing to do.