Green on Race and ADR

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.

6 thoughts on “Green on Race and ADR”

  1. Query whether it demonstrated civility (or at least emotional intelligence) in the first place to to get offended by a co-worker’s choice of reading material (without understanding what it was)and then to express that discomfort. What will be next, expressing discomfort when colleagues read bibles or korans or books about the holocaust, sport interesting tattoos or jewelry, have pictures of same-sex spouses in their office etc. Perhaps the reader might have explained what the book was about which might have alleviated the discomfort, but it is understandable that she felt the expression of discomfort might have crossed a boundary.

    1. Lisa, this is a valid line of argument that really resonates with me. We live in a society with others who are different, and so part of acting civilly is providing space for those differences. Maybe she overreacted to the cover, maybe she took a judgmental tone, maybe she refused to listen when he tried to tell her what the book was actually about — none of this we know from the case itself, though we can all imagine (and likely have experienced) people who react in these unproductive ways. We don’t want to encourage this kind of behavior.

      But even if she was not civil, that does not mean he responded well. Let’s assume she was totally uncivil in her response about this book cover. Is his rights-based response therefore necessary or makes sense or serves his interests, in the final analysis? Would he be wrong to acquiesce to her demands, given her lack of civility? And if he did refrain from bringing the book to work, does that mean that now anyone can get offended and complain about anything in the workplace?

      This slippery slope argument is interesting because it suggests that we are concerned that once one person is uncivil (or intolerant, or offended, or offensive), we can’t respond with regard/respect/civility because we risk emboldening that person — and therefore we must respond with rights-based arguments.

      But in my own experience, when you are civil and respectful to someone who is behaving badly, they often become easier to persuade.

      This does not answer the larger policy-style question of what should be our general practice when one person is offended by what another person has the legitimate right to read or display at work. Perhaps we do a case-by-case assessment of whether civility is worth it in a given moment. And maybe at work (and especially at home), we have a rebuttal presumption of civility.

  2. In my view, laws and workplace policies exist so that people have common understandings of what is expected and don’t usually have to do a case-by-case assessment or negotiation of what is the appropriate way to behave. On the whole, though, we do value and benefit from freedom of speech and expression, and I think society loses when that is unnecessarily squelched out of political correctness. I am not advocating that the reader have been rude, but asserting one’s rights to read a book of one’s choice is not necessarily uncivil.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your comments. Since I made the presentation, let me explain a little more about this. I don’t disagree with what you said but I think it can be a chicken and egg approach. Certainly you can say it was not civil to respond with complaint to someone reading a book without knowing what the book was really about. However, regardless of how someone responds and even if you think they are being overly sensitive, if you legitimately have no reason to question their response as legitimate for them, why would you insist upon your right to continue doing so if you knew it was hurting them?

    Reading a book during a break has nothing to do with performing your job. And people in the workplace have to get a long with each other. So, even if they have what one person may perceive as unique sensibilities, why would you continue to knowingly pursue a path that would hurt those sensibilities? If you have to get along together in the workplace and there is no harm to you in deciding not to continue reading a book in the workplace that has nothing to do with performing your job, then why continue to insist upon reading it?

    By insisting on continuing to do so, are you the one who is now being not civil? You got your speech out by telling them about the book and why you are reading it. If its subject still causes emotional hard feelings for that person whether you think it is politically correct or not, why continue to insist? Some individuals that you work with could have certain subjects that might evoke a form of post-traumatic emotional distress. If your decision to read a book raises those subjects even if the content and purpose of the book is a good and positive approach to that subject, why continue to insist on doing it if you know a fellow co-worker is telling you that they find it harmful and offensive? Isn’t it best from a civility perspective and the employer’s prospective in productivity and efficiency to not have both of you getting tied up in discussions and matters that have nothing to do with performing your job duties?

  4. As someone who has been consulting and teaching about “trigger warnings” and academic freedom issues lately, this has been a very useful post. I write merely to reiterate a basic point that inspired me to be a negotiation theorist, scholar and ADR practitioner in the first place–the assertion of “rights” can be very problematic in our culture–as the story above indicates, there are almost always at least two “competing” assertions of rights in any situation–the right to read whatever one wants and the “right” not to be offended by racially charged material. Rights language often inflames rather than heals and it does not usually foster mutual understanding…that is why I talked about human “needs” in my early work and continue to do so–humanism requires more than rights rhetoric and lawyer-dispute resolvers need to learn and educated about that.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. This thread is fascinating.
    What strikes me about the cited example is that the 2 co-workers INSTANTLY resorted to a rights-based line of thinking instead of exchanging information or relying on a belief that the other has a capacity for understanding and caring. They both leap to alarm mode, imagining that their reference to a set of rules (“rights”) will alter the other’s behavior—or at least justify their own position–and that short-sighted goal seems enough…until next time.
    Throughout the encounter they are apart. They end further apart, ignoring all the ways they are connected by a shared predicament and could benefit from cooperating. It’s not just that “rights” are valued over connection/relationship here. They don’t even acknowledge a relationship except to the extent that it’s all or nothing.
    We all see that reference to an external authority may “settle” it –or at least bring about an appearance of resolution–while leaving the participants still adversaries. No news there.
    What’s interesting to observe though is that these 2 co-workers entered the encounter perceiving the other as adversary—Setting aside the possibility that they knew each other, their presumption makes me wonder about the wider workplace and decision-making styles & conflict resolution protocols there—Specifically, I’m fascinated with the impact “leadership” styles have on those “led.” The presumptions built into written employment policies as well as management behaviors/speech trickle down. What features about this setting/workplace may make it more likely that these fellow employees to see an “adversary” instead of “co-worker” before the conversation even starts? Based on almost no exchanged information, each presumes the other’s actions or comments will offend through intention or indifference–and each sounds the bell, seeking enforcement of their “rights” by some external somebody. And so it goes.
    (I know this is simplistic–correlation is not causation and the individuals themselves are wrought with “variables”—and sometimes an external authority is a sound option—-but, still, so interesting…)
    IRL, I am reminded that even in my own work, the role of the neutral, e.g. whether she is presented as the “mediator” or the “arbitrator” alters almost every aspect of the conversation between disputants. Process, certainly, but also trust (& trustworthiness!), speech patterns, framing of arguments, focus of attention (in arb everyone plays to the perceived authority figure vs in mediation, parties shift & begin to talk to their counterpart once they realize the other side, not the arbitrator, must be persuaded).
    You see where I’m going with this…
    Oh, and now I must head to work. Happy Wednesday

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