Rediscovering Civility

Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.

To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.

Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.

There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.

In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.

Tell the Truth

When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.

Your Name Belongs to You

Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.

Manners Matter

We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?

Think Long

Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.

Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Upper Hand

Think you’ve got leverage? You might. Now think hard about whether you want to exert it.

The success of a business reveals itself over long periods of time. The same is true of a career, even more so.

At any given time, circumstances may go your way. Cheesy television shows that gloss over the true workings of business may suggest this is the time to seize control of a weakened opponent, play the hard angle of opportunism, lower the boom on the boomless.

Certainly that’s one way to play the game.

You’re a property owner and the market is tight. You can play hardball with potential tenants. Maybe that works and they sign the lease without much choice.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a well-educated graduate entering the job market where positions that capitalize on your skillset are abundant. You are offered a very fair salary at an employer where you can grow, learn, and evolve your talent. You ask for 50% more. Maybe they say yes because they have a job that needs to be done right now.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a broker of commodity supplies suddenly in demand for construction or renovation. Longtime customers ask for your support in quickly completing a needed project without breaking the budget. You tell them you’d like to help, but new customers are willing to pay three to four times what you’ve been paying for the same materials you have stockpiled in inventory. Maybe you get the new asking price from your original customer and your margin soars.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

Here’s my take: You’re blowing it.

In all three of the above examples, the true price of hammering home your isolated moment of glory far exceeds the devil’s bargain you might be invoking.

You are sacrificing the establishment of trust.

You are shredding the notion of loyalty.

You are establishing a set of ground rules where the nanosecond leverage shifts, you are going to get swatted with a mirror version of the upper hand you thought was so nifty.

Think I’m wrong? Think business is just a cycle of gamesmanship where everyone longs for effective application of the upper hand? If that’s you, I am sure you are confident in your convictions. Relish the spoils of your conquest, but do us both a favor: Seek others who are like you and leave the rest of us to apply a much longer view.

Deals are short. They come and go. Want to win every single dispute, argument, and arcane point of negotiation? Try to build a brand, reputation, or legacy on that.

One day you will lose the upper hand because no one has it forever. When that day comes, you will get what you get. You put it in motion, you own it.

Am I suggesting that you should rollover and take less than you are due in any meaningful negotiation simply to be nice? No, that’s not the takeaway. Always figure out what you need, convince yourself through the other side’s eyes that your position is reasonable, and then fight for it with cordial determination. At the same time, consider the possibility that the few pennies you may choose to leave on the table today might be a stealth investment in a future windfall you can’t yet see, but might have the foresight to envision.

Being clever is seldom obvious. There are too many other clever people always around you. Being consistent in your values with an obsession for integrity is way more valuable and easier to benchmark.

Wise investors know that equities trade in cycles over decades with an upward trajectory. Timing the market is a fool’s game. You play long. Same with customers, same with brands, same with careers.

Seriously, why?

Because in the next down cycle, you are going to need help. You are going to need to pick up the phone and humble yourself. The question is, will someone answer?

I often say that one of the few good things about getting older is that you’ve accumulated the experience to navigate events with a framework for predicting a myriad of outcomes. Challenges are both temporal and lasting. Knowing the difference provides you with context for better decision-making.

As I also often say, the great tragedy of too many careers is that the learning you wish you had in your earlier years doesn’t come until much too late, and then you’re out of time.

Get ahead of the pack. This won’t be the last boom. A bust is coming. No one knows when, only that it absolutely will happen.

Then another boom and another bust. Rinse and repeat. Those are variables. The constant is you.

Play the long game. Build your network with reciprocal give-and-take. Be the kind of person in business people want to call all the time, not just when either one of you has a temporary advantage. The inspired upper hand is less about brute force, more about wisdom.

I’m 100% sure that’s a great idea.

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Photo: Pexels

A Childhood Friend Passes

I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.

We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.

The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.

Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:

“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”

He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.

Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.

There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.

Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”

There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.

He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.

Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.

He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.

Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.

Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.

Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.

Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.

Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.

This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.

There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.

When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.

He left us with the perfect ending.

Let’s go home.

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Photo: Pexels

The Telephone: A Basic Operating Manual

img_0050As we return to work and the workplace in the new order of normalcy, I am reminded of the many bad habits we may have acquired in the discomfort of isolation. Foremost among these vices is the spreading disease of poor telephone conduct.

A phone is hardly a phone anymore. It’s an email device, a web browser, a camera, a texting platform, and an app launcher. Yet its initial (if not primary) function we still call a telephone. Perhaps it is time we relearn how to use it in that regard.

Call me ancient, but let me suggest that manners still matter in human contact on both ends of the line.

Unless we recognize the contact name or Caller ID on the screen, few of us will answer a phone anymore. No matter what number you file at the DoNotCall.gov registry, your phone rings continuously with garbage sales calls and bot inquiries. I think that is where bad manners begin, with poor intention.

I once had a boss who never answered the phone, and this was in the days before cell phones. He used to say, “If it’s good news, they’ll call back. If it’s bad news, I don’t want to hear it.” I think that’s another form of bad manners. I also don’t think it’s true. Sometimes good news gets reallocated. Bad news swept under the rug can swiftly convert a minor misunderstanding into a corporate crisis.

Sometimes we need to answer the phone whether we like it or not.

Mobility doesn’t give any of us license to rotten phone behavior. I have written before about returning calls, but now I am getting into the basics. If you didn’t grow up with a landline or have forgotten the etiquette associated with polite calling, here is a laundry list of reminders you may want to paste on the back of your mobile case.

  1. Do not leave your voice mailbox full. You may be getting a call with a job offer. I may not call back.
  2. Record a greeting on your voicemail, however short, and your name. How else do I know I called the right number, particularly if you told it to me wrong.
  3. Speak clearly into the mouthpiece. Don’t rely on the Bluetooth microphone. Articulate your verbal expressions with deliberate care and emphasis. Pretend the other person is really interested in what you are saying. Say it that way and I might be.
  4. Speak even more clearly when you leave a message on my voice mail, particularly the number I should call back if it’s not the one you called from. If I don’t know you and your name is more than one syllable, be precise or spell it.
  5. Should I take the time to leave you a voice message, please extend the courtesy of listening to it before returning my call. You don’t need to begin our conversation with, “What’s up?” I’ve already told you. You’d know that if you simply hit the playback button.
  6. When you answer, speak. Say, “Hello, this is Joan.” If your name isn’t Joan, you can substitute the correct version. Don’t leave an awkward pause and wait for me. I called you and I want to hear your voice. That is reassurance we are getting off to a good start. Your silence tells me you are not interested in the activity at hand and you may never discover why I called if I don’t continue. There go the Dodger tickets I was calling to offer you.
  7. If you’re sitting in the seat behind me on a plane being boarded, don’t speak at full volume. Same recommendation in the airport when we are in line for coffee. I don’t care if you have an earpiece. You may find this ironic, but I really think your business is best kept to you. If you are fighting with your spouse, do you think the fight will end better if she thinks you are sharing the disagreement with the company of strangers? Speak softly or step away where you are alone to lose your argument with dignity.
  8. If I don’t know you, begin the call with your name. Then tell me why you are calling. You called me, remember? I need to know why, not guess at it.
  9. If I call you to introduce myself, don’t know you, and it goes to voicemail, do not text me back. We don’t know each other yet. I’m not ready to text you in shorthand until we have established a relationship. Dial me back. If I waste your time, you needn’t ever text me at all.
  10. Please, thank you, and goodbye are all foundational words that are exceptionally useful in building a platform for communication. Grunts and guttural utterances have their place, but you’ll be surprised how much easier sentences flow with old-fashioned politeness.
  11. There are time zones. They are easy to understand and largely consistent. If you’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and I live near the Pacific Ocean, your brilliant idea at an early breakfast is not quite as interesting to me in my final few hours of pre-dawn rapid eye movement. Likewise, when I get an idea at midnight, I promise not to bother you with it for at least six hours when we are both again awake.
  12. The phone part of your mobile phone—don’t hesitate to occasionally use it when conversation is sufficient for the topic. Videoconferencing has its place, but we don’t always need to see each other just because the invitation link is a click away. Sometimes we can just talk. Really, we can.

I am sure you have some recommendations of your own. Feel free to share them in the comments here.

Here’s one more tip: Email is not the best way to handle everything. Around the time of re>re>re the essence of an email is largely lost. If you are seeking to be understood or understand (humbly invoking the inspiration of St. Francis), talking is a wonderful alternative to a long list of email comments no one can follow. Email certainly gives you a paper trail and artifact, but it doesn’t necessarily solve your problem.

Some people subscribe to the notion of returning all your calls every day. Try this. I’ll bet your life gets better.

When your phone rings, don’t assume that someone is in an accident or has died. I know that’s becoming an urban legend. Your heart rate deserves better.

Oh, and if I call you, it’s likely for a reason. Please give me the respect of a call back.

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Photo: Pexels