As I posted earlier, last Friday Oregon hosted a symposium on implicit bias. Our keynote speaker was Michael Z. Green (Texas A&M), who spoke on “Civility and Mediation as Workplace Responses to Conscious Disregard of Racially-Biased Behaviors.” Like this title, Michael’s talk was provocative, stuffed with information, and at once idealistic and critical.
You can watch Michael’s entire talk on our youtube channel (I apologize for the sound quality; we are in the process of upgrading our IT). I want briefly to address one point he made during his presentation.
Michael pointed out that a rights-based way of thinking often ignores toxic workplace incivility. He recounted a recent case in which one employee told another that the book he was reading in the break room made her feel uncomfortable. This book, which was about the history of Notre Dame’s efforts to get rid of the KKK, had pictures of crosses burning on the cover. Rather than put the book away (or get a book cover), the employee asserted his right to read whatever he wanted on his break. Many academics and other commentators supported this position, which is of course much in line with strong cultural narratives around freedom of speech.
Michael’s take was a little different. Why not, he suggested, just refrain from bringing the book to work? If one’s colleague is upset, perhaps that is reason enough to do something different. Rights aside, shouldn’t we strive to behave civilly toward our co-workers and others, especially when it does not inconvenience us that greatly to do so?
Now that I’m serving as an ombudsperson, these points have particular salience. People in conflict often want me to tell them what their rights are, because they think that those entitlements will safeguard their interests going forward. But as we know, relying on rights-based arguments in pursuing resolution often is not the most effective way to meet one’s interests and priorities.
And certainly a strictly rights-based approach to managing workplace conflict does not lead to improved relationships or a more functional team culture, both of which are essential to organizational and individual success.
Instead, it is often the more local and informal interventions that make it possible for people to respect one another and, possibly, make adjustments to behaviors that cultivate a better work environment. Being civil to one another — underenforcing our rights, if you will — does not need to be a slippery slope to having no rights at all. Civility is a low-cost, low-risk way of respecting difference and showing regard to another’s point of view. Thus civility acts, as Michael points out, as a response both to implicit bias and conscious disregard of bias.
Additionally, civility is a strategy for people in non-race-based conflicts, to remind them not to demonize the other and, importantly, to empower them to take responsibility for addressing the conflict themselves (instead of looking to someone else to adjudicate rights-based claims).
Oh, and in case you can’t see the slides on the youtube channel — they were classic Michael Z. Green, gloriously busy.