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

Chance Meetings and Their Power to Change Your Life

Imagine if you just said hello.

I was sitting on a flight recently, observing the informal “Golden Rule” among business people who frequently travel: You don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. By bother, we mean talk. Business people can actually sit next to each other for a full Trans-Atlantic flight never saying more than “excuse me” when we need to step over each other to get to the aisle. Strange as it may seem, we consider this polite. We are terrified of the notion of losing an hour or two of work time, reading time, movie time, or sleep time, to idle conversation time—or worse, opening the door to being asked for a favor. We like silence in our air travel. Silence is safe.

Silence is also a lost opportunity.

About twenty minutes before this flight landed the person in the seat next to me braved the opening of a conversation. He asked me if I was headed home or away. He told me he was headed home after playing a music gig in Seattle. Turns out he was a studio session guitarist who has been surviving as a professional musician for fifty years. I told him I used to play, but now was just a devoted fan. He asked me which musicians I admired and suddenly we found overlap in artists whom he had backed. He had played behind Don Henley onstage. He had played on an album with Frank Sinatra. I told him I had just seen Jackson Browne at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and he said he always wanted to play with Jackson Browne, that was on his bucket list. We agreed The Greek was the best live venue currently in the L.A. area, and he said the next time he played there he would try to invite me if he could get extra tickets. We exchanged cards. He asked me for nothing.

It was a great twenty minutes. I don’t know if I will ever see him again, but it made me think hard about that unwritten rule of bothering the strangers around you. How many amazing opportunities get away from us because we are too wrapped up in ourselves to reach out, or too exhausted from today’s turmoil to see tomorrow’s opportunity? We’ll stare into a tiny LED screen and page through infinite tidbits in a news feed, but we’ll hide from the tangible stranger who is less than a foot from our elbow. It’s a weird way to partake in humanity, and it’s probably costing us an unseen miracle or two over the course of a lifetime.

We all know well the image of the “Meet Cute” that plays out in romantic comedies. Two unlikely strangers bump into each other in the supermarket parking lot and knock their groceries to the asphalt. Eggs break, toilet bowl cleaner ruins their leather shoes. Ninety minutes of screen time later—after at least one baffling breakup and a healing montage of running along the beach—they get married and the best man offers a drunken toast about how the couple was always meant to be. The truth is, it does happen in real life. It happened to me over a quarter century ago, although the groceries involved had more to do with a commercial real estate rental. I wake up every day thanking my lucky stars I was paying attention. I could have let that go by. It would have been much easier to maintain silence. My life would not have been the same. The risk involved was sub-measurable. The reward was beyond belief. How close I came to blowing that. How very, very close!

Wait a second… risk… reward… aren’t those words better applied to, uh, business? Is it possible we are shutting down real possibility by obsessing in our solipsism? What part of the obvious are we shutting down for no good reason at all? If someone doesn’t want to talk, he or she will tell us. If someone doesn’t want to be bothered, that can be revealed in a nanosecond. Why are we so afraid of interaction? What might the avoidance of a kind greeting be costing us?

The “Chance Meeting” is the Platonic version of the Meet Cute, where the paths of two strangers intersect for any number of reasons and the grounds of some relationship begins. Like the Meet Cute, where romance comes when you least expect it, the Chance Meeting commences without expectation. In my own life this has resulted in a job opportunity, discovery of a favorite vacation spot, invitation to a speaking opportunity, the hugely rewarding chance to mentor a technology star, a book recommendation that changed the way I think about words, an affordable channel for collectible wines, and more than one new friend who likes to hang out at Dodger Stadium. The Chance Meeting is powerful, and yet I rarely leave myself open to it. When I think about what may have gotten away based on what didn’t, it’s scary. And stupid.

My new book, Endless Encores, is all about a Chance Meeting. It takes place in an airport executive lounge, where a veteran CEO offers a life’s experience to a rising executive who is about to encounter failure for the first time. When I was sending out early versions of the manuscript for feedback, one reader told me she really loved what the book had to say about what it takes to repeat success, but she couldn’t buy the premise that a successful woman in an airport would strike up a conversation with a downtrodden young manager who was in desperate need of all she had to say. Was it really that outlandish, I wondered, that a seasoned business leader would engage in dialogue with a stranger to pass a few hours and hand off her years of learning without expectation of anything in return? My reader said yes, that was a sticking point for her, if I could get past that, the rest of the wisdom was solid. I guess my reader closely observes the unwritten Golden Rule of the business traveler. These days, I’m trying to get over it.

Don’t miss out on a Chance Meeting. You never know where it could take you. You never know where you could take someone else. Learning happens when ideas are exchanged. For ideas to intersect, people have to intersect. That only begins when someone says hello. Imagine the power you can unlock with a single word. Or you can stay safe and stay silent.

Your risk. Your reward. Your choice.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.