Something About Mary, And Other Issues With Uncivil Behavior

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Often we frame our view of civility in terms of another’s uncivil behavior. In our own shops we may have encountered irate members employing coarse language, or witnessed an occasional board member tirade. Employees occasionally lose their cool with a member or a fellow employee. These are easily detected examples of incivility, some within our control and others beyond it.

But there’s a deeper form of incivility that is veiled and harder to see. Let’s call these subliminal issues affecting relationships; situations just below the surface that happen before our eyes but are not easily recognized for what they are. These subtle events can have a major impact on the performance of our credit union, from the board to management, and from employees to the members. Let’s take a look at an example that illustrates this point.

Mary runs a large credit union with multiple offices, 75 employees and a nine-member management team. On the surface things look fine, with financial performance matching her peers. She has regular meetings with her management team and, while there are personality differences, everyone seems to get along fine. After a few years, though, Mary’s had enough and resigns, citing a lack of cooperation and unity among the staff. In assessing the status of the management team after Mary’s departure, a common theme emerges: Mary chose favorites among her staff, and the unselected were marginalized.

As the organization’s leader, Mary’s primary role was engaging others, and she was good at it. Mary understood the benefits of an engaged employee versus one who merely shows up for work (CU Journal, Nov. 2, 2007 “The Benefits of an Engaged Employee.”) She had the right soft skills for the job, the right social intelligence and an able right-brain approach for those she chose to engage. But Mary created a problem when she marginalized a select few in her management team. And from this action arose the issue of incivility. The team members that Mary consciously or unconsciously decided to ignore became the source of passive derision in the organization.

Now you might say, “But that happens all the time. You have some good team members and some poor ones.” The point is, if they’re not a fit for their position, something should be done about it. But if they are kept on the team, they must be treated like everyone else. Let’s take a look at Mary’s actions and the impact those actions have on the credit union. After Mary took over as the executive, she did what some executives often do: She looked at her management team and knew who she identified with, those with whom she could readily connect without too much energy. It’s that decision which charted her course. For the first year or so she was fine. She could accomplish her goals with the people she related to while letting those outside her inner circle do their thing. But at some point along the way, those who became marginalized came to realize that Mary was not engaging them in a meaningful way and that she really didn’t pay them much attention.

So what happens to the excluded staff members? At first they look inward: Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad person? What is it about me that is upsetting to Mary? But ultimately, those inward thoughts become outward expressions and translate into actions of incivility toward others. Mary’s negative actions had a snowball effect on the entire organization.

Before we talk about how Mary should have acted, let’s delve deeper into an understanding of civility. Civility empowers engagement, and engagement empowers civility. They are perfectly symbiotic. Engagement is the electricity that empowers our organizations–and civility is the switch that lets the engagement flow. You can have the greatest benefits plan in the world, you can pay top wages in your industry, you can have the most meaningful mission statement, but if you don’t have an environment of civility, you’re not going to have engagement. Without engagement, you’ll never achieve your full potential as an organization.

It comes down to having more bridges than barriers. Listening is a bridge. Greeting people as equals–irrespective of title, position, race, or creed–is a bridge. Being inclusive of others is a bridge. Accepting responsibility and offering apologies where appropriate is a bridge. The changes we want to see in our businesses all begin with our own commitment to advance civility in all of our relationships. That’s where the magic lies; that’s where the change begins.

Let’s review the Best Practices of Civility:

* Engage everyone: every team member and every board member

* Build bridges, not barriers

* Affirm everyone every day: every member, every team member, every board member

* Use “I” messages to communicate your point of view

So what is the lesson learned and who is ultimately accountable? Mary broke the first cardinal rule of civility by not engaging everyone, and thereby created barriers to communication which led to issues of incivility. What’s the first step to insure this doesn’t reoccur? Have the entire credit union leadership adopt, endorse, embrace and engage in the Best Practices of Civility.

Ron Schmidt is president of CBS Certified Public Accountants, LLC and Credit Union Business Solutions, LLC, Solon, Ohio. He can be reached at rschmidt (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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