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Michael Woodward Ph.D.
Michael Woodward Ph.D.

Trump and the Death of Civility in America

Real dialogue can open the door to opportunity.

Not too long ago the fifth annual Civility in America survey found over 90% of Americans feel civility is a problem in this country, and nearly two thirds believe incivility is at a crisis level.

The survey also found that when it comes to the 83 million Millennials in this country:

  • 74% believe the internet encourages uncivil behavior
  • 50% believe politicians are the main driver of incivility

Unfortunately, the trends captured in this survey have continued in the wrong direction.

Source: "Donald Trump"/Gage Skidmore/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, Donald Trump has struck some sort of nerve. Unfortunately that nerve is fueling flat out incivility as opposed to passion driven purpose. Arguably one of the greatest problems we have in government today is a lack of civility among our political leaders. The real problem that continues to hamper the effectiveness of our government is the very behavior Trump embraces most: Incivility.

One of the fastest ways to shut the door on opportunity is to be uncivil. Any successful entrepreneur will tell you this. Availing yourself of opportunity means drawing people in. It’s about broadening your horizons through opening your mind and expanding the diversity of your networks. The entrepreneur in Trump knows this, but for some reason the entertainer/politician in Trump is blind to this.

Far too many politicians just can’t seem to get along and therefore don’t talk. When you don’t talk you don’t get things done. Ironically, the one-sided dialogue Trump is encouraging is actually feeding the very problem that has paralyzed our government as opposed to combatting it in a way you would expect from an “anti-establishment” candidate.

Defining Civility:

The Institute for Civility in Government defines civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Essentially it’s being able to disagree with someone without disrespecting that person. This is the foundation of healthy dialogue.

The Stress of Incivility:

When does fighting ever feel good? Hurling nasty remarks, raising our voices, and stomping our feet are all reactions to stress triggers that invoke the dreaded fight or flight response and all the biochemical reactions that go with it. Incivility isn’t just harming our ability to get things done, it’s harming our health! Negativity and anger have been shown to have serious effects on our health and our ability to make good decisions. Leading requires good decision making.

Constructive Disagreement:

Disagreement can be powerful when done respectfully. Passion is also import as long as it’s directed towards positive and constructive outcomes. In other words, it’s possible to disagree without fighting, so why do we need to fight? Whether it’s Trump’s stream of consciousness rhetoric or the slew of hateful remarks by protesters at the various rallies (some of which were recently captured by The New York Times), it appears that far too many people are confusing the demonstration of patriotic passion with being outright mean and uncivil. Genuine frustration needs to be channeled into positive actions that will move the country forward, not blindly set us back.

Why it Worked for Reagan:

There is no denying we have a long history of incivility in US politics. However, nearly every Republican candidate invokes the name of Ronald Reagan at one point or another, yet they all seem to forget about his ability to get along with Tip O’Neil, the Democrat Speaker of the House during his tenure. They had a civil relationship, which allowed them to get things done for the American people. They were ideological opposites, but always sat down, communicated and worked out their differences for the benefit of those they were there to serve: The American people.

In terms of spotting opportunity, being civil will always draw people in and avail you of new opportunities. Whether it’s the tone of our social media comments or those remarks at the water cooler, it’s up to each and every one of us to demonstrate the power of civility in all that we do and just maybe we can seize this opportunity to be the change we want to see in our country.

About the Author
Michael Woodward Ph.D.

Michael Woodward, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies.