Impacts of Incivility

I was commiserating with some friends over the weekend about our recent interactions with rude people. A couple friends had just returned from a trip and had spent time in airports and on airplanes. They shared their experiences with difficult travelers at the terminals and on their flights. They witnessed instances of angry people shouting at flight attendants and yelling at gate workers. Another friend, who teaches locally, talked about the rude parents and students she’s been encountering. She regularly receives angry emails from parents and rude comments from her students. Another friend, who is still working remotely, shared that she’s been interacting with a difficult co-worker through most of the pandemic. Personally, I talked about my recent experiences with a couple of challenging colleagues and students who have sent rude or sarcastic emails to me. As we discussed these instances, we agreed that incivility seems to be on the rise.

Surprisingly, I pulled up my podcast app this morning to find Hidden Brain had dedicated its most recent episode, How Rude!, to the topic. Here’s how the episode was described in the app:

“It’s not your imagination: rudeness appears to be on the rise. Witnessing rude behavior — whether it’s coming from angry customers berating a store clerk or airline passengers getting into a fistfight — can have long-lasting effects on our minds.”

After the weekend conversation with my friends, I felt compelled to listen to the episode. While the show echoed a lot of the experiences my friends and I shared, it also discussed the causes of the incivility and outlined some of the potential negative impacts from encounters with rude people. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the main cause is stress. And with the rise of stressful situations borne out of the pandemic, incivility is also increasing. While that emotional connection seems logical, it also depersonalizes the behavior a bit. For the most part, these aren’t rude, uncivil people doing awful things or sending mean emails. They’re just people under stress who may not be able to see the full impact of the stress on their actions. I know that might not make those rude encounters easier to navigate, but it does make it easier to understand. We’ve all been under stress lately. We’ve probably all said or done something that we didn’t intend. Stress is a challenging emotion.

For me, the interesting part about the episode was when the main guest, Dr. Christine Porath from Georgetown University, discussed the impacts of incivility. Porath is a behavioral scientist and the co-author of the book, The Cost of Bad Behavior—How Incivility Damages Your Business And What You Can Do about It. Porath likened stress to a virus that spreads from person to person, with rude and uncivil acts as being one of the main transmission systems. During the discussion, Porath shared her research that examined the cognitive impacts to encountering or witnessing rude behavior. In a study published in Organizational Dynamics, Porath and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments and found that:

(I)ncivility impairs working memory, which in turn negatively impacts both performance and creativity. Working memory has three main functions – the verbal function, the visual function, and the central function responsible for higher order cognitive tasks; incivility impairs all three. What’s more, this effect occurs in the absence of a specific uncivil event; simply having incivility on one’s mind has been shown to decrease working memory performance. This is important because it suggests that even being in a workplace that has a climate of incivility may impair workers’ creativity and performance. Incivility robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts all three components of working memory, and ultimately hijacks performance.” (p. 259)

That’s some pretty serious stuff, but it might also be the solution. Maybe recognizing the harmful impacts of rude behaviors could cause some people to act differently. While I’ve sent my share of harshly worded emails and angry texts under moments of stress, recognizing those impacts may help me to communicate less rudely in the future. Beyond that, I’m also going to work to put more positive energy into the world. While Porath spent most of the Hidden Brain episode discussing incivility, she has also researched the impacts of civility, too. She outlines some of her work on a post titled How civility matters for you and your network. She writes that just like stress spreads like a virus, research shows that “civility is contagious – the benefits spreading as friends and friends of friends reciprocate civility.” So, while incivility is on the rise, maybe we could spread some civility, too.

Porath, C. L., Foulk, T., & Erez, A. (2015). How incivility hijacks performance: It robs cognitive resources, increases dysfunctional behavior, and infects team dynamics and functioning. Organizational Dynamics. 44(4), p. 258-265.

Working on Work

Classes started this week and faculty and students have returned to campus. After fifteen or sixteen months of online and remote instruction, the hallways and classrooms are abuzz with conversations, lessons, and activities. While everyone is wearing masks according to the university guidelines, I’m finding it weird to interact with people in the face-to-face world again. After more than year of communicating with people primarily through Zoom, these face-to-face interactions are offering an odd mix of the familiar and the novel. And that combination is honestly causing me some personal dissonance.

My dissonance is magnified by news articles, podcasts, and posts I’ve seen which are challenging our traditional views of work. After a year of working online, lots of people are questioning what work looks like after the dust settles on this pandemic. Take this opinion article that appeared in the New York Times last week. Priya Parker is the author of the Art of Gathering and the host of the Together Apart podcast. In her Times article, Parker writes:

After the pandemic hit, we began to sense what we can do even better virtually (the use of chats, breakout rooms and polling), as well as the limitations of not being in the same physical space (lively unmuted brainstorming, complicated coordination, spontaneity). With millions of hours of virtual meetings under our collective belts now, we can pose a question too rarely asked of workplaces: What is worthy of our collective time, and how should it be structured?

So, while the campus is stirring again, there seems to be this unspoken collective questioning of “Do we need to be here? Could this be online?” Thankfully, Parker offers some guidance. Parker references an article written by Rae Ringel that appeared in the Harvard Business Review last July. In the title of her article, Ringel asks the question directly “When do we actually need to meet in person?” To guide our decision making, Ringel offers a series of questions we should consider before scheduling a face-to-face meeting. Of the questions, the one that stands out to me is when Ringel asks: “Are my meeting goals relationship-based or task-based?” Digging deeper into these contrasting goals, Ringel writes:

Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person. People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where destructive and distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.

I’m sure after a year away from our colleagues, many of us could benefit from spending some time “strengthening or repairing connections.” Beyond focusing on the goals of the meeting, though, Ringel also includes a question which helps individuals evaluate the complexity of the meeting’s objectives. To Ringel, complexity includes “emotional complexity, the range of interdependence, or the need for intervention.” Like relationship-based goals, Ringel recommends that meetings that focus on really complex objectives should usually occur in person. Ringel also includes a graphical tool to assist with deciding how the meeting should be offered.

While examining the goals and objectives of a meeting is important to consider when deciding whether to meet online or face-to-face, Ringel also challenges us to evaluate how inclusive our meetings will be. An in-person meeting requires that people are actually able to travel to the site to participate. This requirement may create a burden on working parents or people who have sick family members or other responsibilities that may limit their participation. I think the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes to the personal challenges with which some of our colleagues have to deal. And we should definitely consider these as we move forward in this (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

As I’m wrestling with the nature of our work moving forward, another quote has been bouncing around in my head for the last week. It’s from an unrelated podcast on “How to Forgive.” In the episode, Elizabeth Bruenig says that she grew up in an environment where “my virtues could flourish, and my vices could be contained.” And maybe that should be another guideline as we move forward. I know virtues and vices aren’t things we typically discuss when talk about work, but I’m betting we could identify a bunch of “workplace vices” and “workplace virtues.” Let’s choose modalities that contain our “workplace vices” and help our “workplace virtues” flourish. I know it’s not a simple metric, but what about this last year has been easy? Moving forward isn’t going to be simple either.

Communication Convergence

I don’t know why or how this happens, but sometimes I’ll be flooded with common stimuli from seemingly disparate sources. For example, a few years ago, I heard Joni Mitchell everywhere I went. I’d turn on the radio and there was Joni Mitchell. I’d go to Target and hear a Joni Mitchell song. I’d watch television and there was a Joni Mitchell song being used for the soundtrack of a show. I took it as a sign to listen to more Joni Mitchell.

Over the last week, the same sort of thing has happened. This time, however, hasn’t involved any singer songwriters. Instead, I’ve been flooded with quotes about communication and listening. Again, these have come from different conversations and from different sources, which I’m taking as some sort of sign for me to work on my communication and listening skills.

I came across the first quote in a discussion post written by Andria, a graduate student in one of my classes. Writing about the importance of communication in teaching, Andria drew on a speech by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Realize and be humble to know you do not know everything and do not be afraid to say you do not know. The goal in communicating is not to show everybody how smart you are, the goal in communicating is to have people understand what you’re talking about.

– Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking at Cornell University

A few days later, I was recording a podcast episode with my collaborator, Dr. Scott McDonald. We were discussing the role that dialogue plays in our teaching. Scott shared a quote from a book by Oren Jay Sofer that he was reading.

We need to learn how to reperceive our world with fresh eyes, beyond inherited historical and economic structures of competition and separation that can so easily determine our relationships. True dialogue is more than the mere exchange of ideas. It is a transformative process based on trust and mutual respect, in which we come to see another in new and more accurate ways.

– Oren Jay Sofer, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication

And then, this past weekend, my wife and I went on a road trip to New York state, which gave us a chance to get caught up on some podcasts. We were both taken with the definition of listening that Susan Piver shared.

The best definition for listening I’ve ever heard is from a friend and fellow writer named Catherine MacCoun who said, ‘listening is when you stop thinking your thoughts and start thinking mine.’ So, instead of thinking about I think about what you’re saying, I listen to what you’re saying and trust you and trust myself and give myself to listening. That’s a very underrated skill.

– Susan Piver on the 10% Happier podcast

So, what does it all mean? I don’t know, yet. Or maybe I do, and I’m not sharing. Either way, I’m offering these quotes for you to create your own bricolage and find your own meaning.

A Good Conference Session?

With my role as the director of my institution’s Teaching and Learning Center, I attend a fair amount of conferences that focus on faculty development, innovative pedagogies and emergent teaching practices. Over the years, I’ve also attended a number of face-to-face sessions and webinars to inform the types of programming that I could offer on campus and the evidence-based instructional practices I could promote with my colleagues. Although I’ve attended some great sessions over the years, I’ve also sat through many unrewarding presentations that lacked focus or didn’t present any real usable information. After attending a horrible session a few years ago, I penned a post entitled “Presenting to Colleagues” that attempted to offer some suggestions to inform the design and delivery of conference sessions. Reading back over the suggestions (complement your slides, don’t recite them; engage your audience, provide a roadmap early, etc.), it’s clear that I was focusing on the mechanisms of presentations. After attending several great keynote sessions recently, I may have a different set of criteria to offer.

The Magna Teaching with Technology conference was held this weekend in Baltimore, MD. In full disclosure, I was the conference chair and helped to select the amazing keynotes that we heard. Julie Smith (author of Master the Media) and Josè Antonio Bowen (author of Teaching Naked) offered inspiring and insightful bookends to a Saturday full of thought-provoking sessions. It was Peter Doolittle’s Friday night plenary, however, that has me seeing conference presentations in new ways. In his keynote on Teaching, Learning, Technology, Memory and Research, Doolittle offered the audience three simple questions to use when attending one of the conference’s sessions:

  1. Where’s the processing?
  2. Where’s the design?
  3. Where’s the research?

While Doolittle offered this simple rubric as a way to assess the instructional practices that presenters offered, I thought it would be a good tool for creating strong conference presentations. While I know this won’t apply to many disciplinary conference sessions, if you’re facilitating a teaching and learning session, you should consider the following:

Where’s the processing?
In my original post, I argued that presenters needed to engage the audience. But engagement isn’t enough. Good presenters give attendees the opportunity to process the material being presented. This means more than providing five or ten minutes at the end of the session for questions. A simple strategy would be to build a few “think/pair/share” questions in throughout your session. Get the attendees to make sense of what you’re presenting and to see how the content you’re sharing applies to them and their institution.

Where’s the design?
Good conference sessions are designed to balance sharing information and fostering interaction. Learning, even during a conference session, is a social process and good facilitators design their sessions so that attendees learn from interacting with the content and with one another.

Where’s the research?
This is a big one for me. I want to see an evidence base behind the strategies and technologies being proposed. If someone is suggesting that attendees restructure an assignment, incorporate some novel instructional strategy or redesign an entire course, the presenter better be sharing some larger research base or offering some larger instructional framework to ground their work.  Share your citations and offer any data that can show the impact of the strategies you’re sharing.

While I know this three-question rubric won’t solve every presentation misstep, it may help to make your session more rewarding for attendees. By focusing on the underlying educational processes at play in a conference session, you can make your session a better learning experience for all.

Diffusing Innovation

Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I spend a fair amount of time focusing on innovations in educational environments.  I work to promote innovative instructional practices and focus on emergent technologies of promise.  By communicating these areas, I hope to help to spread innovations.

I came across some research recently that estimated the “innovativeness” of individuals within a social system.  In his work titled Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003) categorized five different groups based on the degree to which they would adopt new ideas.  The groups included: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.  In Rogers’ conceptualization, innovators were the risk takers and the ones most willing to test uncharted waters. Despite representing only 2.5% of the population of a social system, innovators play a critical role in spreading new ideas. Innovators bring new ideas from the outside and serve as the gatekeepers and prophets for change.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, laggards are the ones most resistant to change.  They are skeptical of innovations and need proof that a new idea works before they try it themselves.  In Rogers’ estimation, 16% of any social system could be categorized as a laggard.  “What about the other 81%?” you may be wondering.  Roughly, 13.5% would be categorized as “early adopters.” Early adopters are similar to innovators in that they are open to experimentation and change.  One key difference, however, is that early adopters are more likely to hold leadership positions and can help to spread innovations by dedicating resources to fuel the diffusion.  The other 68% of the social system are evenly distributed among the early majority and late majority groups.

While categorizing people into different groups may help leaders identify some of the challenges with diffusing innovations, I think it might be more helpful to look at some of the other factors that influence the spread of new ideas.  While Rogers identifies several elements that impact the spread of new ideas, I thought I’d focus on the one element where we may have the most impact: the social system.  In her recent blog post on Edutopia, Alyssa Tormala identifies several strategies that school leaders should employ to create a “culture of innovation.”  School leaders, Tormala writes, need to model innovation by communicating “when we’re taking a risk, asking for feedback, sharing any data that we gather, and then visibly self-assessing and reflecting on the results.”  Additionally, school leaders need to empathize with the challenges that educators face when they encounter new ideas and celebrate whenever educators are willing to take risks.  In his work with establishing the “innovator mindset,” George Couros identifies five characteristics of innovative organizations.  While some of the characteristics are reflected in Tormala’s post, I think two characteristics stand out.  Couros writes that innovations spread through relationships and in environments where sharing of ideas is supported.  Innovations don’t spread if individuals don’t know (or trust) their colleagues or if they aren’t comfortable sharing their successes and failures.  While I agree that leaders need to model this, they also need to create environments where supportive, collaborative relationships are developed.