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A healthy academic department comprises a diverse group of active scholars committed to the welfare of their colleagues, the missions of research and teaching, and service toward the governance and betterment of their department and university. Important aspects of creating this culture are the fostering of respectful interaction among colleagues as well as the minimizing of bullying and incivility.

But today, when the boundaries of acceptable social and political discourse are contested, it can be especially problematic to determine whether discourse is, in fact, bullying or uncivil. Indeed, even agreeing on a shared definition of “bullying” and “incivility” is rife with difficulties, as the norms governing appropriate behavior -- particularly during disagreements -- differ from department to department, even within the same institution.

Robert I. Sutton has identified a “dirty dozen,” or 12 behaviors that are generally considered to be uncivil and toxic in organizational culture. The list can serve as a starting point to help diagnose whether the observed behaviors qualify. It includes: 1) personal insults, 2) invading one’s “personal territory,” 3) uninvited physical contact, 4) threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal, 5) “sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems, 6) withering email flames, 7) status slaps intended to humiliate their victims, 8) public shaming or “status degradation” rituals, 9) rude interruptions, 10) two-faced attacks, 11) dirty looks, and 12) treating people as if they are invisible.

Such behaviors may seem to be clear-cut examples of inappropriate actions. But bullying and incivility can still be challenging to define in any workplace, especially in an academic context that presumes the widest possible arena for academic free speech -- even when some might find that speech offensive. One person may consider the boundaries that another person draws around what counts as “civil” as restrictions on freedom of expression. In some contemporary debates, the valorizing of “civility” itself is seen as silencing nondominant critical voices and perspectives. In addition, some issues of civil discourse may be more interpersonal in nature, while others may be more indicative of problem cultures.

The Interpersonal Level

The academic culture features many healthy (or overdeveloped) egos, assertive (or aggressive) argumentation and the boundless quest for excellence (or impatience with mediocrity). When a senior colleague states that a junior faculty member’s latest article was “not worth publishing,” is that tough but fair critical feedback or oppressive bullying? Do we need to know specifics about their respective identities and positions to make such a judgment, or are those details irrelevant? Does it matter whether this feedback was solicited or not? How much do time, place, manner, tone and even body language matter?

Motives or intentions can also be relevant in these contexts, and the motives of hypercritical colleagues can be difficult to discern. They may say they are only critiquing the work, but how impersonal are their motives, really?

More complicating is that while, as an often-expressed adage asserts, one should critique ideas and not individuals, in practice it is difficult to keep them entirely separate. Particularly in certain disciplines and modes of authorship, critiquing my ideas is criticizing me -- and in some cases, us (my group and me). A typical response in such situations from the critics can be that others are simply “too sensitive” or are employing “PC” labels to blame others for expressing their opinions -- that they are “snowflakes,” in the current lingo.

Considering contemporary threats to academic freedom and free speech, it is understandable that institutions tend to err on the side of too much rather than too little openness. But those policies conflict with another set of institutional values, which includes the fostering of a supportive and productive teaching and research environment. A climate of excessive conflict and accusatory speech is stifling in its own way.

The Social Context

While certain difficult people can engage in behavior that often leads directly to interpersonal conflict, emotional pain and stress, issues of bullying and incivility do not manifest themselves only between and among individuals.

A tolerance for personalized criticism, an avoidance of questions regarding power and discrimination, and a critical mass of bystanders who witness such behaviors without speaking out or getting involved -- all these contribute to an environment in which bullying and incivility can become normalized. And that is where the issue can become a department or unit problem.

There are and will be contested interpretations of whether certain actions ought to be considered “bullying” or “uncivil” and whose interpretations should be privileged. Is a perceived insult or slight a problem, regardless of how it is intended? Is how something feels more important than how it might appear to a third party? Can even playful or benign speech acts and gestures nevertheless contribute to an unhealthy academic environment? How do specific criteria for discerning instances of incivility and bullying interact with ethno-cultural styles? To you, it’s a joke; to me (or to us), it is an insult. What then?

While what constitutes appropriate behavior varies across department and unit cultures, the broader academic culture must also be considered: a culture necessary for the open, vigorous and productive clash of ideas; a culture that supports the growth of knowledge; and a culture that serves as a self-conscious exemplar of professional behavior for impressionable students.

How can departments and other units foster an environment that lends itself to healthy and productive discourse, even in the face of vigorous disagreement?

A Helpful Approach

Identifying the signs of incivility and communicating clear expectations for acceptable and unacceptable conduct can contribute to more ethical and effective units. As a first step, it’s crucial to honestly assess the overall climate of your department, spanning the spectrum from vibrant (healthy) to challenged (unhealthy), including items that diagnose the civility of discourse and interaction. What are the norms and common behaviors? Respectful interaction is indicative of a healthy department, while bullying and incivility are indicators of trouble -- among faculty members, between faculty and staff members, between faculty members and students, or among students. Often, such dynamics are contagious.

As described in previous Inside Higher Ed articles, you can use the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool, or AUDiT -- a project that we’ve developed at the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- as one way to explore and diagnose issues that impede academic departments from achieving their goals. The results are aggregated, so that no individual is called out and the discussion is focused at the group level. The AUDiT allows a unit to collectively identify particular problems that must be addressed and provides a way to structure discussions around more broadly shared perceptions and values that enlists the wider community in identifying and calling out damaging interactions.

The most productive conversations, those that help move a unit’s culture in a positive direction, focus on the desired culture instead of on the problems, and don’t involve personal blame or recriminations. These can be difficult discussions, and a facilitator can be helpful. People in leadership roles must ask both themselves and their colleagues a series of questions designed to elicit a shared understanding of respectful interaction: What does it take to make sure everyone feels free to generate new ideas in this environment? How ought we act toward one another in this unit? What should we do when we witness bullying and uncivil conduct? What shared responsibilities do we have to monitor and support acceptable ways of speaking with one another? The leader should guide this group discussion in order to encourage a collective definition of the shared norms regarding disrespectful interaction and bullying behaviors.

Ultimately, creating a culture of civility and openness isn't accidental. It's an intentional act that breaks, as one academic has called it, the circle of nastiness.

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