October 3, 2007

TIME OUT: Incivility

My college’s new president brings with him a new campus wide initiative – civility. Initially I balked at it because … well, what does that mean exactly? However, this week I came across a June 2006 essay for newsroom managers by Edward Miller called “Incivility.”

I may not know what’s in store for my campus but if it falls along the lines of Miller’s essay, I might actually be reporting some positive affects of the initiative in the near future – either that or its failure.

Reflections on Leadership is a weekly essay sent to more than 10,000 editors and newsroom managers around the world. As a student, it’s given me a professional edge. Student journalists who want to know how to manage their staff or learn how to manage their bosses should definitely subscribe.
Reflections on Leadership
By Edward D. Miller

When organizations are under stress, incivility intensifies:

  • The managing editor chastises an assigning editor at the morning news meeting for a story that missed an important point.
  • A copy editor in Features rudely refuses to pitch in on some routine editing when Metro gets in a bind on a special project.
  • A staffer teases people about their age or weight. He thinks it's harmless kidding; his targets think it's ridicule.
  • A newsroom gossiper openly dishes the dirt.

In terms of severity, incivility may not seem to be in a class with sexual harassment, but its impact on the newsroom culture may be even more insidious. Sexual harassment is against the law, and victims have powerful legal remedies, but no laws protect us against incivility.

Research cited in the June 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review concluded this about incivility:
“It corrodes people's productivity, performance, motivation, creativity and helpfulness. Half of those on the receiving end will lose work time worrying about future interactions with the instigator...and one quarter will consciously reduce their work effort. Half will contemplate changing jobs, and one in eight will actually quit in order to avoid the uncivil situation.”

It's difficult to gauge whether these estimates hold true in newsrooms, but suppose the numbers are even close to accurate. The problem and its consequences may be more prevalent than we would like to think.

Incivilities are often hard to identify and root out. The research cited above observed that although incivility is sometimes visible and isolated, “it's often covert, retaliatory and repetitive, which makes it all the more harmful and difficult to manage.”

Even more frustrating is a victim's feeling of powerlessness. Complaining present two obstacles: It's hard to make the case, and doing so risks retaliation from the aggressor. Often a victim’s safest course of action is to let it go. But the consequences of avoidance can be severe. Not only does the problem remain, fear of repeated offenses and an increased sense of powerlessness add to the stress.

What should managers do?

Be alert to incivilities. A recent book entitled Broken Windows, Broken Business by Michael Levine tells the story of New York City's strategy against crime in the early years of the Giuliani administration. The title comes from the studies that linked the growth of crime with the eroding appearance of a neighborhood. When people saw buildings with broken windows, they deduced that the neighborhood was on the decline and crime was on the rise, regardless of the actual crime statistics. Similarly, when citizens saw police tolerate seemingly “harmless” law-breaking -- jay-walking, running red-lights or guys with squeegees extorting drivers stopped at intersections -- the perceived official indifference to petty lawlessness suggested the presence of more serious crime. By cracking down on the legal equivalents of “broken windows,” law enforcement officials could foster a climate where a commitment to lawfulness began to replace a tolerance of lawlessness. Editors need to be alert to and intolerant of the “broken windows” of incivility in the newsroom.

Have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior. One of the most dangerous work environments in the world can be found aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, where carelessness could be catastrophic. Yet the safety record of U.S. nukes is remarkable, among the best in non-combat military or industrial environments. Why? The answer goes beyond superb training and dedication of the crews.

In most workplaces, if someone does something considered unsafe but no one was hurt as a result, the response from superiors is usually a sharp reminder of the safety practices and an admonition to not do it again. On a U.S. nuclear sub, however, any safety violation is punished to the full extent regardless of the actual outcome. Sailors learn there is no free ride from punishment for a near miss. The act itself is punished, not the consequences. Similarly, incivilities will not be contained unless senior editors make it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. Period.

Don't “work around” the problem simply because the offender is a star performer or a highly ranked editor. Perks and preferences for top performers are often beneficial, but draw the line when the discrimination empowers inappropriate behavior. Some rules must apply to everyone.

Be aware of you own incivilities. When the offender is a senior editor, victims are left even more defenseless, and other potential offenders perceive no sanctions. Editors must have a keen self-awareness of the impact of their own actions.

Civil behavior is the general rule of the day in every newsroom I know. But the inevitable exceptions can do great damage if not identified and vigorously rooted out.

(c) Edward D. Miller 2006

“Hidden Harassment” by Gardiner Morse. Harvard Business Review, June 2005.
Broken Windows, Broken Business by Michael Levine. Warner Books, 2005.