Civility in the Workplace: Can We Remember the Lessons from 9/11?

There is an old saying in engineering: “Don’t fix the blame, fix the problem.” It’s also good advice in every other walk of life; whether you’re leading an engineering team, a management team or a project team.

I was recently interviewed by a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News for an article on incivility in sports. It made me think of incivility as a whole in our country, organizational culture, the 9-11 tragedy, sunburn and workplace training.

I know that’s a mouthful. Trust me though as you read you’ll see how they’re all interconnected.

Fixing blame instead of fixing problems

I do not believe our country is just experiencing a lack of civility, however, we are experiencing a lack of leadership. There’s a lot of fixing blame rather than fixing problems.

We are leading the youth of America by example, and when there is a lack of positive role models for them to look up to, there is a trickle-down effect and we see incivility in youth. Every day we witness (and some participate in) incivility and bullying in politics, in the workplace and even on the roads. Why then are we surprised to see it in our schools and on the playing fields?

I believe we’ve lost a common sense of purpose in this country. I also see this in my consulting work; the No. 1 problem plaguing most of my client’s organizations and teams is a lack of a collective sense of purpose. Simply put it kills employee engagement and job satisfaction, which in turn wreaks havoc on results.

Remember how civil people were to each other, not just in New York  and Washington D.C., but all over America in the weeks and months after 9/11? The further we got away from this tragedy, the more that civility faded like a bad sunburn.

Why people are stressed at work

You’ll see an annual version of “the fade” if you this little test. Count the number of “friends” who changed their Facebook profile pic to an image of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the American flag, or 9/11. Then watch over the next days and weeks how their profile pic changes back to their headshot, a beer can, their dog, or some other meaningless image. And how quickly status updates morph from today’s “never forget” post back to complaints about the length of the wait at airport security.

Workplace civility is no different. We are experiencing turbulent times and there is a tremendous amount of research indicating that when the national stress level increases, so does incivility. Stressors like unemployment, recession, the political environment and the war on terror all cause people to be less civil, less tolerant and more apt to respond with anger. You can insert “corporate stressors” like downsizing, budget cuts, and changes in leadership for the national stressors listed above, and the end result is the same inside the walls of most organizations.

Mutually agreed-upon core values

How do you counter this? To quote Ghandi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Don’t just plant a flag in the ground for the 9/11 anniversary; plant seeds of civility, tomorrow and every day. Civility is about leadership and a personal responsibility in daily excellence.

The best first step towards planting those daily seeds of civility in your department is by creating a core covenant together. A set of mutually agreed upon core values that govern the way your team functions together and communicates.

I was recently hired by a client who had been transferred within his company to head up a relatively new division. He wanted me to help build their leadership group into a team. His reason for contacting me was quite simply that the group “lacked a common sense of purpose” and needed some guidance from an outside voice.

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Symptoms of this group were: incivility and poor communication (the problems), as well as a general lack of accountability and finger pointing (the blame). They had a group mission statement and brought in another consultant earlier in the year to do a team building day, but his people weren’t exactly “walking the walk anymore” (his words not mine).

The reason: Sunburn (my words not his). A one day team building event is like a summer day at the beach without sunblock — painful and expensive. It’s expensive in more ways than one, because you pay for the event literally yet tend not to reap any long-term ROI from one day. It’s like joining a gym, going once ,and expecting to be at peak fitness without ever doing another workout all year. Figuratively, your team may feel “the burn” for a few days, but then the further you get away from the one day, the more it fades like a sunburn.

4 steps to living core values

As I referenced in my TLNT article on The Aftermath of Penn State, it is not enough to simply print a mission statement on your wall or on your letterhead. Nor is it sufficient have a one day “rally” or to talk about it every once in a while. When you do that, your common sense of purpose will fade like a sunburn.

Everyone in your department needs to understand your core covenants, be able to define them, and be able to describe what those values look like in action in the workplace and in the community. And most importantly, the cure to prevent your common sense of purpose from fading like a sunburn is to build a culture where your people are living the core values every day. The exercise I take clients through is a four step process and you can do the same with your department.

  1. Define your Core Values (typically three or four);
  2. Identify and describe in detail what they look like in action (using examples and success stories);
  3. Make a public declaration that you will live them and display this declaration;
  4. Go live them!

(I would be pleased to share a copy of my core covenant blueprint for you to use with your team email me:

Changing a culture, building a team, and creating a more civil workplace can seem overwhelming, and you may feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. To put things in perspective, understand that you alone can’t change the world but you can make your small part of it a better place and that is contagious.

So, I encourage you to honor those who gave their life in the war on terror, thank every service man and woman you meet and practice civility like we did the weeks after 9/11. Most importantly, don’t just do it today on the anniversary of 9/11, do it every day. Don’t let civility fade like a sunburn.

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and author. Using a multidisciplinary approach, he helps organizations and individuals develop their competitive edge. Brubaker is the author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies Out Of The Locker Room Into The Board Room, and co-author of the book Leadership: Helping Others To Succeed. He's also the host of Maximum Success: The Coach Bru Show on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston. Contact him at