In Robert D. Putnam’s 2020 book, The Upswing, he compares the incivility (although he never uses that word) of today with that of over a century ago.
Putnam uses the labels of “individualism,” or an “I” society — which is a focus on yourself, your company, or your organization — and “community,” or a “We” society — which is a focus on others — to describe the two contrasting periods of time. He postulates (and he provides a lot of data to support his position) that today is similar to the late 1800s, in that many of us are dug in on our positions based on how events affect us personally. By contrast, he says that during the 1960s, many people were focused on the community and the greater good.
The following are a few nuggets from his book:
- The United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s was startlingly similar to today. Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed.
- According to Putnam’s research and reporting, the situation improved over the years and peaked in the 1960s. He would label that period as community-oriented, versus the individualism of today and the late 1880s.
- Public debates are characterized not by deliberating the merits — or lack thereof — when it comes to differing ideas, but by demonizing those on the opposing side.
- A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that Americans are “broadly pessimistic” about the future, with clear majorities predicting that the gap between the rich and the poor will widen.
- In the 1960s, union membership peaked at 35 percent of all workers.
- The Great Society initiatives, including the War on Poverty, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare/Medicaid — the very issues at the core of intense party polarization today — were supported by 74 percent pf congressional Democrats and 63 percent of congressional Republicans. Wow!
Who knows if Putnam’s premise is correct? But it sure seems that we’ve become an “every person for themselves” society.
I wasn’t intending to blog about Putnam’s book, but then I heard Shola Richards speak, and I followed up by reading his book, Go Together. Richards tackles incivility head-on. He defines civility as polite and respectful conduct and expression. Does that sound like what you observe on the nightly news and social media? How about while driving in rush hour traffic? To make the subject even more confusing, according to a recent poll cited by Richards, 94 percent of Americans believe they are always/usually polite and respectful to others. Seriously?
I won’t attempt to summarize Go Together, but I’ll share a few excerpts:
- Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective, or the ability to feel what another person feels, and that can change everything.
- Remain curious and reserve judgment. Judgment is one of the quickest and most effective ways to shut down connection with others.
- Nothing is acceptable about hurting another person.
- Do you have the courage and mental fortitude to stay curious about people you really don’t like or respect?
- Fear is the driving force behind every fight, war, form of abuse, and practically every atrocity this world has ever seen.
- Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Richards has eight simple strategies to help teams or individuals function more effectively:
- Address conflict quickly, maturely, and with appropriate transparency.
- Be willing to step outside your role to further the success of the team. (For example, I saw a restaurant owner on his hands and knees cleaning under a table the other day. My thought was, “I could work for him.”)
- Recognize and appreciate others’ contributions.
- Be willing to act selflessly to assist others who are struggling.
- Be positive and solutions-oriented.
- Have a high level of self-accountability by choosing to own a problem, instead of choosing to blame others.
- Be dedicated to ensuring the personal, professional, and psychological safety of others.
- Consistently communicate in ways that are clear and respectful.
I’ll stop there.
Please join me in creating the next Civil Society Era. Think about the findings and advice of Putnam and Richards.
Then, make this pledge: I agree to treat people with whom I disagree just like I treat my best friend!