30 October 2013

Civility rising!

I have always been an optimist! As a child, I dreamed of playing second base for the Chicago Cubs. I imagined myself deftly scooping up ground balls like a Hoover vacuum and whipping the ball to turn a double—or even triple—play. No one ever told me I couldn’t become the next great major-league infielder. As an adolescent, I dreamed of attending Harvard University, being first in my class, and becoming our country’s first female president. No one ever told me I couldn’t become the leader of the free world.

As a young adult, I dreamed I could change the world. Working with challenging and violent youth, as a member of an adolescent mental-health team, reinforced my belief that a strength-based approach to treatment, mixed with a little bit of luck, often resulted in positive life changes in our clients. A core belief of our team was, to give up hope is to give up everything. We believed that each adolescent deserved another chance, and it was our goal to make it happen. Hope was the glue that kept us going and inspired us to keep fighting the good fight. No one ever told me to lower my expectations or to let go of my unlimited idealism. Instead, I was encouraged by nearly everyone around me to dream big and believe in something greater than myself.

Today, in my middle-adult years, I find myself still burning with passionate optimism and believing that things can and will get better, that faith and being open to possibilities are part of my DNA. I am a firm believer in amplifying the civility conversation to strengthen the human infrastructure of civility and respect and to stimulate optimism and hope that relationships matter and that workplaces can be venues of collegiality. To think otherwise is to surrender and admit defeat.

A positive outlook must be balanced, however, with a realistic perspective. I am not naive to the fact that there are challenges many of which may seem insurmountable—sadly, in a few cases, they may be—and that the only way to stay healthy and motivated is to leave that situation, take our passion with us, and infuse it into a more welcoming venue. But most of all, I see pockets of civility rising! They are brave and courageous individuals who refuse to settle for the status quo and, instead, work together to effect change and bring civility into the light. As Louis Brandeis, former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, stated, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” meaning that transparency matters and that raising awareness about our challenges and identifying ways to address them helps shed light on them, thereby making them less prone to continuation. In my view, being open and honest with others is requisite to civility. Organizations that embrace and encourage a free flow of dialogue and communication are masters at creating and sustaining a culture of civility.

Let me share a couple examples of why I believe civility is rising. Each semester, my students and I co-create our classroom norms. This semester, in addition to our usual norms, among others, of engaging in respectful interactions, assuming goodwill, respecting differences, and making thoughtful contributions to the teaching-learning environment, we decided to add modeling the type of nurse each of us aspires to be. When we formally evaluated our classroom norms during midterm, we discovered that we are doing an excellent job of abiding by our norms and staying accountable to them. Certainly, we are not perfect, but by having a clear code of desired behavior, we are coming much closer to being the professional nurse we aspire to be.

Similarly, a group of students from Florida has developed and committed itself to a “civility pledge,” with each student signing a promise to work toward positive behavior. The pledge was presented at the school’s All College Day earlier this semester, and students, faculty members, and administrators signed the document. In doing so, students promised, among other civil interactions, to respect others, listen carefully, celebrate diversity, be considerate of others, advocate for the profession of nursing, and promote collaboration. Making this pledge and living by its code has transformed this group of students. Following their example, other students in the school are planning to make a similar pledge. Wouldn’t it be terrific if all faculty members and students committed themselves to a similar set of principles?

Here’s another example of civility rising. I was recently presenting a workshop to a group of practicing nurses, students, nursing faculty, and other nurse leaders. One of the interactive exercises involved completing the Clark Workplace Civility Index (Clark, 2013), a self-reflective activity designed to raise awareness, inspire conversation, and achieve a better understanding of oneself and others with regard to civility and respectful behavior. This eclectic and engaging group thoroughly immersed themselves in the activity and generated several ideas to foster civility in their various settings.

One of the most intriguing ideas resulting from the exercise had to do with using the index as a model to create a family-specific index that would include desirable civil behaviors within families. I encouraged the person suggesting this to use her creativity and imagination to do just that. What a fantastic idea! It’s amazing what we can do individually and collectively when we allow ourselves to think beyond the usual way of doing things and engage in important and provocative discussions on issues that matter.

A final note: A subhead in a recent Time magazine article (Newton-Small, 2013) describing the relationship among some of the women in the U.S. Senate declared, “Civility Above All.” The piece reinforced the importance of establishing norms and adhering to rules of civility. What a wonderful concept!

Clark, C.M. (2013). Creating & sustaining civility in nursing education. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International.

Newton-Small, J. (2013, October 16). Women are the only adults left in Washington. Time.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.