Will Civility Destroy All the Fun?

“This is one of those emails that you type to blow off steam and then erase as a ‘boy I better not say this’ moment.” So began a spirited email I received from a man who recently participated in one of my workplace incivility training sessions.

He continued: “I am giving serious thought to writing my own book called The Case for Incivility. In our efforts to achieve civility in the workplace, we will remove common sense. Our halls will run silent. Our conversations will be contrite and disturbingly stale. Far worse, no one will know how to express their dissatisfaction for fear of reprisal because ‘how can anyone argue against civility?’ People will live in fear that what they say or do will make someone complain about them. Is this the civil workplace you envision?”

Wow, what a great email—I love it!

And no, that is not at all the workplace I envision.

I have at times seen people react with visceral fear to the notion of a civil and respectful workplace. They are concerned about the death of fun, spontaneity and camaraderie. They are worried that political correctness will sanitize the workplace and bring all these to their fatal demise, leaving behind robotic (and boring) semi-human clones. Or that minor mortal mistakes will turn everyone into what a workshop participant once called “a walking HR bomb.”

You may have experienced this reaction yourself, even if only for a fleeting moment, perhaps accompanied by a longing for the good old times. I, too, had wondered about this matter on occasion. But with time, the countless stories people shared with me about being impacted negatively by incivility or harassment changed me. As I delved deeper into the field of civility and respect, I became a convert.

So, here’s my take.

Civility does not and should not mean that corridors fall silent. On the contrary: it means that there should be more laughter, solidarity, and participation by all (rather than just, say, those who possess more social power or are crusty and sarcastic such that their colleagues are afraid to ever say anything that could spark their wrath). Surely we can have a fun and lively workplace that is still civil. Humour does not have to be at someone’s expense, friendships can thrive without excluding others, dissenting opinions can be shared without belittling or dismissing, and frustration can be expressed constructively without resorting to eye rolling.

The civility and respect message is more about dos and less about don’ts: treat others as you would like to be treated. Play nice in the sandbox. Show regard. Be considerate in words and actions. Be open to feedback. Explore your blind spots to learn how you can do better. Apologize when you screw up. Develop your Teflon shield. Have a generous spirit and give people the benefit of the doubt. And above all, strive to be a Real Human Being—someone who steps up, lifts up, speaks up and yes, shuts up too.

The civil workplace is one that maintains a Healthy Body state, as opposed to one with a persistent allergy, chronic infection or acute disease. It is a place not entirely void of incivility—after all, how could it be if it is filled with living human beings who, like you and me, inadvertently say or do the wrong thing from time to time? Rather, it is a space where everyone does their best to be respectful, take responsibility for their mishaps and is open to feedback. It is an environment where people feel comfortable calling out others on their behaviour (constructively!), where sticky situations are dealt with and people move on. It is an environment in which everyone strives to be a decent and conscientious corporate citizen.

The case for a civil workplace is strong and compelling. True, we have to be careful that the pendulum does not move into the realm of paralyzing political correctness. But from what I see, we have a far way to go before there’s a real danger of that happening. For now, let’s focus on kicking civility and inclusion up a notch, so that everyone in our work environment can perform at their best because they feel safe and respected.


As always, contact me anytime to explore whether and how we can help your team or organization.





This entry was posted in Blog, Harassment, Leadership, Respectful Workplace, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.


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