When Attempting Civility Can Become Destructive

Last weekend I spent some time in the car catching up on a bit of a podcast backlog. One of the things I listened to was an episode of NPR’s This American Life entitled Continental Breakup. The episode was an hour-long explanation of the European debt crisis for those of us who have an ocean between us and the day-to-day realities of this issue.

The host went back to 2002 and explained first how the common currency came about and how countries were selected to join the EU and then how admitting some less financially stable countries like Greece to the EU had started the ball rolling on the current crisis.

The whole episode was fascinating but what struck me most was that when talks and negotiations were happening a decade ago to admit Greece into the union, many people suspected that Greece’s financial picture was inaccurate. However, nobody brought their suspicions to the group and Greece was admitted.

The This American Life interviewers talked to people who were in the room when the decision to admit Greece was made and they reported that while many people had their doubts about Greece’s financial stability, the collegial and diplomatic atmosphere of the meetings discouraged them from raising the alarm.

I am a firm believer in increasing civility at work but it can become problematic when groups go so far beyond civility that they become destructively permissive. The European debt crisis offers an example of a BIG consequence of crossing this line but it can also occur on a smaller scale.

Mary is a newer member of her company’s evaluation committee. This committee meets quarterly to discuss employees and mete out bonuses and other rewards. The group rarely disagrees with managers’ evaluations of employees and meetings tend to be uncontroversial.

At one meeting Mary is listening to one of her colleagues discuss his employee Jessica. The supervisor explains that Jessica has met with the most customers of any employee in his group during the quarter and therefore deserves a bonus. Mary happens to be very familiar with this group and she knows that while the supervisor is correct about Jessica’s meetings, another employee in the group, Andrew, actually converted more of his customer meetings to sales.

Mary believes that sales are more important to the company than meetings and therefore thinks that Andrew should receive the bonus over Jessica but she is a newer member and in her experience the group is really just a rubber stamp on the manager’s decision so she doesn’t say anything.

In both of these cases, decisions happened that may have negative consequences. In both cases, one or more people knew this but failed to say anything because they feared being seen as impolite.

How could Mary or the EU deliver their messages and challenge bad decisions while still maintaining civility in their groups? Does being civil require being deferential?

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