Why Civility Means Business: A Memo to the B-School Dean (Cc: the CEO)

Illustration by Sally Comport

When a system of management based on authority breaks down, one based on communication must take its place. We are precisely at such a juncture in history. The dictator boss of yesteryear has thoroughly reformed. No longer the enforcer who tells you what to do, he or she is now the first among equals, someone who lets you know why something needs to be done and asks for your input as to how to do it. Workers come with a personal identity that requires respect and tending. Managing these new workers includes helping them manage their own work-life balance. In part these developments are a result of the new sensibilities surrounding equality, equity, and diversity that grew in the wake of the civil rights movement. What matters here, however, is that in a world where the business of leading and managing has become an exercise in inclusion, persuasion, recognition, and an overall attention to the worker as a person, we need new leaders and we need them strong in communication skills.

This is particularly true in challenging economic times. An important 2007 study published in Business Horizons collected data from 1,040 U.S. managers and found that the two leading causes of managerial failures in rapidly changing organizations were “ineffective communication skills/practices” and “poor working relationships/interpersonal skills.” This may not be rocket science, but we’d better not disregard it on account of its apparent “softness.” Good communication does not mean simply keeping your workforce informed about organizational issues. It means fostering an organizational culture of positive connection. This is where civility-based relational competence comes to play a crucial role.

Civility is the very effective code of skills that allows us to train our leaders in the relational competence that today’s workplace requires. We simply cannot afford to disregard such a remarkable resource. For one thing, as civility advocate Diane Millett has been arguing for decades, if workers put into everyday practice the simple rules of civility, the occurrences of illegal behavior such as harassment would drop virtually to zero.

But civility is also an antidote to stress and can even reduce the potential for workplace violence. For one-third of the American workforce, the prevailing cause of stress at work is other people. This means bruised or broken relationships. If we became better at relating to one another, we would eliminate a major source of workplace stress, which, according to rough estimates, costs business about $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, medical and legal costs, etc. What’s more, of the 1.8 million acts of physical violence perpetrated annually in the American workplace, a substantial number of them have their origins in acts of incivility that escalate and make people lose control. By keeping the levels of civility up, the good leader keeps the levels of physical violence down. A civility-modeling, civility-fostering leader can save his or her organization millions.

An outstanding leader’s basic cognitive and emotional kit includes empathy, integrity, and fairness—the last being particularly important in a diverse work environment. (One of the most fascinating finds in recent well-being research is that workers who believe their bosses are treating them unfairly are more prone to cardiovascular and other kinds of diseases.) Outstanding leaders are authoritative but not authoritarian, tactful but not manipulative, temperate but resolute. As providers of validation, they not only encourage and praise their workers but also articulate for them why the work they do matters. Always secure and never overwhelmed, they make leadership appear effortless, projecting an aura of power in repose. In this respect, they remind us of sprezzatura, the deportment touched by grace made famous by the Italian Renaissance thinker Baldesar Castiglione.

Can we afford to ignore the fact that sustaining healthy communication in the workplace gives organizations an edge? Can we imagine something more important than communication skills in a global market that is increasingly becoming everybody’s market? Can we doubt that the ability to train future leaders to be effective communicators will be a hallmark of the best business schools in the world? Embracing communication is fundamental to future success, but to perform at its best, communication needs to have civility as its operative value code—think of civility as the software application to communication’s hardware.

More importantly, when effective communication meets true civility, the result may even transcend business, restoring for society at large trust in the economic and financial system that was so spectacularly compromised in the crisis of 2008.

P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature, is co-founder and director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

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