Posted by: Knightbird | July 6, 2010

Civility in the Workplace

Jim Leach ’64 is a very accomplished fellow alumni of my alma mater, Princeton University. In the June 2, 2010 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Jim and his campaign for civility in national debate is profiled in an article by Mark F. Bernstein ‘83.  Jim is a 15 term Congressman and currently serves as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The first paragraph contains a quote from Richard M. Nixon’s first inaugural address. “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.” Boy did this hit home for me. Please indulge me as I explain that this article really does apply to the workplace, particularly in learning what Toyota’s “Respect for People” pillar really means. First I want to talk a bit about Jim’s perspective and what he has taught me. Jim says “At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history and life experience.”

While at Princeton, I was taught to think. We read widely and although I did not necessarily read voraciously, I did plow through some intense reading lists. I met some amazing people. (I am currently studying the Mayan culture, and had an opportunity to meet Professor Michael Coe, formerly of Yale University, one of the foremost Mayan anthropologists of our age. As an ignorant young student, I did not appreciate his role in this area of study that now so fascinates me.) While I was not then, and not now, much of a scholar, I did learn how to assemble facts and use them to formulate an argument and response.

Mr. Leach’s point is that we have abandoned civility, rendered facts obsolete, and adopted a “zero-sum” partisanship of “you win, I lose.” The article reminded me of a psychology experiment I participated in where the object was to figure out a way to have both participants win although the experiment was designed to reward an aggressive participant. You could not communicate with your partner except through selecting an action. If you selected a, and your partner selected a as well, you both received an equal number of points. If you selected a and your partner selected b (or vice versa) the party selecting b received 10 points and the one selecting a received no points. If both parties selected b, neither party received any points. The best possible result in 10 tries was 100 points for one party and 0 for the other. The worst possible result was 0 points for each. The compromise could return 50 points for each party. Without accommodation by the parties, the typical result would have one party offer the compromise during the first exchange. If met with a compromise, then the win-win scenario resulted. If the second party rejected the compromise, they would typically receive 10 points for the entire series, and that would be it. Both parties would likely reject any further overtures for compromise. Trust had been broken and  would be difficult to resurrect. The score could end up 10-0.

As Mr. Leach observed, national debate has many times degenerated into labeling and name calling, with scant recognition that facts even exist. This national debate at times reminds me of the incredibly funny Saturday Night Live skits Point- Counterpoint segment of the Weekend Update news when Dan countered the usually brilliantly reasoned arguments by Jane Curtain with the phrase “Jane, you ignorant sl*t.” I could write more about this, but I am sure you get the point already.

Many times our workplaces resemble the national debates and abandoned civility. Foul mouthed Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was quoted in Esquire Magazine saying “Cursing is part of the job. Everybody has this funny reaction to it. I don’t know what the big deal is.” Some people just don’t get it when on the job. Cursing, email or text messages in ALL CAPS, sabotage, politics, discrimination—they are all bad when you consider the diversity of people in a workplace. As Mr. Nixon said, we cannot learn from each other until we stop shouting (cursing, sabotaging, politicking, discriminating).

Now here is how this lesson hit home for me. I have 2 sons. Both are absolutely wonderful kids. I love them dearly. Yet when they were young, and I was teaching them what I knew about sports (pitifully little I came to find out), I got angry at them if they did not learn and execute the skill perfectly and immediately. I said things (non-swearing things) that I now regret. I commented negatively on their abilities, and worst of all, I made negative comments within the earshot of authority figures (referees and umpires) that I am not proud of. I eventually acknowledged all of this and apologized. I still find myself reverting to these behaviors (read my blog on Restoration to Health at Chugachmiut to understand how I could become this way). I have been attempting to change my behaviors to the way we have attempted to manage at Chugachmiut, to show dignity and respect for our employees.

So what does civility in the workplace mean to me? First of all, I had to recognize that the people who work with me are here for the same reasons as I am: to make a living, and to feel good about what we do. To try to eliminate anger in the workplace, I began talking about “No blame, no shame” early in my tenure. I also asked for our employees to negotiate and adopt an Employee Values Statement to guide how we interact with our customers, partners and each other. Then we started to work on managing processes, and teaching our employees about poor processes producing 94% of the defective work we encounter, so don’t blame your co-worker for poor results. Find the root cause of the defect and fix it. And sustain the fix. Does this mean we can’t have vigorous discussion about the defect and our role in facilitating it—no it doesn’t. But we can have that debate center on facts, with appropriate disagreement when warranted, but still compromising enough to decide on an experiment that might resolve the defect. If the experiment doesn’t work perfectly, then the second Toyota Pillar of Continuous Improvement guides us and we don’t get angry over an experiment that doesn’t work as expected the first time. We do it again with the knowledge (and facts) we gained through doing the experiment. What a novel concept.

Respect for People is critical for any workplace that chooses to become Lean. YOU CANNOT BECOME LEAN WITHOUT RESPECTING YOUR PEOPLE. OK, enough shouting. Your employees will amaze you when you convince them that you truly respect them, and trust them to do the work you hired them to do. And when you give them the tools necessary to pursue a Lean workplace, watch out. The workplace becomes self improving at a pace you never imagined possible.


  1. Now there is the TRUE and REAL RESPECT FOR PEOPLE I was looking for!

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