The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Part 3)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical Thinking and Decision Making require staying grounded in ethical values, but there is much more to do than knowing our values and living them every day through our choices. In Part 1 of this series, I explored the Depth of our thinking, and in Part 2, I broke down issues related to understanding Context. In Part 3, let’s take a look at Complexity.

Embracing Complexity is Part of Leadership

Complexity has become a way of life. To make ethical decisions, we must embrace it and incorporate it into our thinking processes. That means digging into issues until we understand their multiple dimensions, connections, and contradictions. It means being intentional about decision making and avoiding making snap judgments.

Leaders who develop a high level of thinking complexity will be better able to help our organizations understand and work through a wide variety of challenges, problems, and opportunities. They will make sense of issues and problems that are multidimensional and connected. And they will be prepared to do what all great leaders do – help those they lead deal with increasing complexity.

         — Linda Fisher Thornton, Dealing With Complexity in Leadership 

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Don’t Do

  • Use oversimplified approaches to understanding complex issues
  • Ignore the complexity of an issue because “it’s too hard to figure out.”
  • Fall into the trap of only noticing data that conveniently backs up their current beliefs

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Do

  • Ethical thinkers and leaders know that complexity is part of the leadership sphere and they embrace it 
  • They look for, notice, and talk about complexity
  • They work to find clear and compelling ways to communicate complex issues so that others can understand them

When we ignore complexity, many around us can easily see that we are not operating in reality. They can see that we’re not taking informed action and not solving problems in responsible ways. By embracing complexity, we stay on the path that leads to ethical solutions that work in the real world.

Stay tuned for Part 4 in this series! 

Dealing With Complexity? Use Ethical Thinking

 

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The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Part 1)

 

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Welcome to Part 1 in “The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making.” Ethical decision-making is not simply a task. It is the process of analyzing and understanding multiple connected variables in a changing context AND applying ethical values to make responsible choices. It requires doing the work to understand issues clearly before making decisions or taking action. In each post in this series, I’ll explore one aspect of this complex, connected process. Today I’ll focus on the importance of deep thinking. 

Deep Thinking

Ethical thinking requires much more than just knowing and following our values. I’ve written about the trap of shallow thinking and how important it is to intentionally “wade into” the depth of issues to fully understand them.

Why is deep thinking so important? 

  • Complex issues involve connected systems which are undergoing constant change
  • Complex issues cross borders and boundaries
  • Complex issues can’t be understood from one or two perspectives

When we dig into issues and explore their depths, we gain insights that we would otherwise miss. Complex issues just can’t be deconstructed and understood using shallow thinking. The meaningful insights are only found below the surface.

Shallow Thinking and Shallow Breathing

What happens when our approach is too shallow? Think about how easy it is to start using shallow breathing without being aware that we’re doing it. This can happen when we’re stressed or anxious, and it can impact our well-being. We may be unaware that we are using shallow breathing until someone notices we’re turning pale and tells us to BREATHE.

We can medically treat people who are having trouble breathing. But what do we do about thinking that is starved for depth, context and complexity?

When we use shallow thinking, that impacts the “well-being” of our decision making, leading to false conclusions and ethically problematic decisions. It’s almost as if when we use shallow thinking, our decision making is getting less oxygen. 

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Don’t Do

  • Survey issues at the shallow level and make bold statements without all the information
  • Attack the statements or decisions other people make without doing the deep thinking required to understand the complexity of the issues
  • Blame others for being “wrong” without trying to understand their perspective or the data that backs it up

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Do

  • Ethical thinkers and leaders do the deep thinking
  • They ask for input and listen to what other people see and believe
  • They wade into the depths of issues to understand them clearly before they make decisions
  • They struggle through a tangled web of complex information to find the truth

In the airline safety briefing before a flight, we are told to “put on our own oxygen mask first, then assist other passengers.” Similarly, we need to do our own deep thinking before we direct others. When we do the deep thinking, we set the tone for those we lead to do the same. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the “Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making” Series!

 

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Healthy Media Consumption

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I’ve blogged about how to spot fake news and variables complicating media ethics. Today I’ll explore the characteristics healthy media consumption. Let’s begin with a dose of healthy skepticism. 

Healthy Skepticism

You can’t believe everything you see. Photographs and videos that appear to be “proof” of a story may have been altered. Your best bet is to choose your sources of information carefully so that you can reasonably be assured that what you are seeing and hearing is real.

Careful Sourcing

Not all media platforms are created equal. Some don’t even try to be objective, and others are trying to sell you things while making you think you’re being entertained. Choose platforms that are considered objective, or sample a wide range of differing sources that each have different perspectives/biases/assumptions.

Time to Think

We need time to think. It is easier to stay grounded in our values when we have the time and space to reflect on them. When we aren’t constantly consuming content, we are more aware of our thought processes and more likely to pay attention to our responsibilities.

Multiple Layers of Truth

Even if you choose reputable news sources, you still have to look critically at the information that is presented. In the rush to share news first, even reputable sources mistakenly share content that may have some problems on closer inspection. We have to watch for layers of truth and investigate things to see if the assertion holds up at more than one level.

Case in point: The Washington Post published a story headlined‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.While the study mentioned in the article was actually published, questions were raised about the way the study was conducted, including existing neck problems in study participants, according to Ari Shapiro and John Hawks in the recent NPR interview: Is Technology Turning Us Into Horned Monsters? Not Exactly. In addition, the Washington Post article has since been updated to include that there appears to be researcher conflict of interest.

Careful Content Consumption 

“Smart” phones change our lives in positive ways, but they don’t remove the need for good thinking. Even though it may seem this way, they don’t simplify things for us so we can do less thinking. The high volume, high speed flood of content we are exposed to actually MULTIPLIES the need for good thinking and careful content consumption.

 

 

 

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Nature Moments Offer Cognitive Renewal

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The last time I had to stop to let a flock of geese to cross the road, they were in no apparent hurry. Most likely, part of their territory had been turned into a housing development, and they were just travelling from point A to point B. The driver of the car in front of me enjoyed the nature moment – watching them quietly as they crossed.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” William Shakespeare

The driver in the left lane, though, was clearly not happy with the interruption. The car inched forward, closer and closer to the geese, and the driver honked repeatedly to hurry them along.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  Einstein

If you notice nature’s beauty and bounty, you can interpret a moment like this one as a welcomed respite from a busy day. It can leave you refreshed. If you have become “immune to nature’s beauty” you are missing out. “More than two-thirds of people choose a natural setting to retreat to when stressed” (How Does Nature Impact Our Well-Being?, umn.edu). Time in nature can also help us be more focused and patient. Spending time in nature, looking at plants, water, birds and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient” (Immerse Yourself in a Forest For Better Health, Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State).

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Lao Tzu

Nature moments can help us handle constant change and complexity. According the most recent Global Wellness Summit, “The medical evidence for doses of nature is wide-ranging… It’s powerful medicine for our minds too, with studies indicating walks in nature engage the “default mode” brain network associated with stress-reduction and a boost in cognition, creativity and short-term memory” Prweb, Global Wellness Summit.

“Look for nature to be a much-more-prescribed antidote for what ails us.” Prweb, Global Wellness Summit

“University of British Columbia (UBC) researcher Holli-Anne Passmore says if people simply take time to ponder the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being” (Melissa Breyer, You can boost happiness by simply observing nature around you, Treehugger.com). According to research, Jill Suttie explains, “experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—perhaps by inspiring awe, a feeling akin to wonder, with the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself—which then leads to prosocial behaviors” (How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative, Greater Good Magazine, Berkeley.edu)

If you are feeling rushed (and “honking mad”), remind yourself to take a breath and enjoy the nature moment. It just might improve your thinking, creativity, focus, memory, health, well-being and happiness. The bonus for the people around you? It will improve your patience too. 

 

 

 

 

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5 Insights For the Class of 2019

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I have a special message for our 2019 graduates. It includes five important life insights that I wish someone had shared with me when I was a new graduate beginning the next chapter of my life.

5 Insights For the Class of 2019 

  1. Take The JourneyRemember that while many will try to sell you the “quick fix” and “easy out,” it is doing the work and taking on the struggle and the growth that provide lasting success in life.
  2. Know Your ValuesFigure out the qualities in yourself that you most want to cultivate. Know the ethical values that you believe in deeply and want to live up to.
  3. Commit to Investigative Learning Learn how to find relevant information in a sea of content. Decide to do more than take information at face value. Learn how to identify fake news and sort out the misleading from the true.
  4. Learn Ethical Thinking and Communication   There is much more to learn beyond “do unto others.” Learn how to untangle ethical issues and talk about them calmly and respectfully, even when you disagree. Learn how to honor multiple stakeholders and look for solutions that benefit all.
  5. Decide to Make a Difference Just “showing up” to work does not make a good life. Find a cause you are passionate about that serves others in your community. It will offer you stability and satisfaction as you weather the normal ups and downs of life.

While the world will pull you in many different compelling directions, it is your values that will keep you anchored. Become aware of them. Nurture them…Know what you believe in. Live it. Set an example for others by building a good, ethical life in a chaotic world.

We are counting on you.

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Unethical Thinking Leads To Unethical Leadership

By Linda Fisher Thornton

As humans, we are flawed thinkers who easily fall victim to biases and traps. The biases and traps we so easily fall into reshape our thinking in ways that can lead us to make bad decisions.

As you review the list of leadership traps below,, think about how each can lead to unethical thinking and actions.

Cause-and-Effect Thinking in a Systems World

Polarities and Dichotomies

Isolated (Top Down)

Fearful

Passive

Fragmented

Incompetent

Blinded By Profitability

Quick Fix

Controlling

Divisive

Oversimplified

Shallow

“Right”

Closed to Learning

Exclusive

Not Trusting

Not Trustworthy

A popular post I wrote on the subject of unethical thinking years ago that is still relevant today is 10 Thinking Traps (That Ethical Leaders Avoid)

Ethical leaders know they are subject to flawed thinking and use an intentional process to overcome biases and traps. To learn how to take charge of your thinking, see 22 Resources For Ethical Thinking.

 

 

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How Is Critical Thinking Different From Ethical Thinking?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical thinking and critical thinking are both important and it helps to understand how we need to use them together to make decisions. 

  • Critical thinking helps us narrow our choices. Ethical thinking includes values as a filter to guide us to a choice that is ethical.
  • Using critical thinking, we may discover an opportunity to exploit a situation for personal gain. It’s ethical thinking that helps us realize it would be unethical to take advantage of that exploit.

Develop An Ethical Mindset Not Just Critical Thinking

Critical thinking can be applied without considering how others will be impacted. This kind of critical thinking is self-interested and myopic.

“Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest.”

Defining Critical Thinking, The Foundation For Critical Thinking

Critical thinking informed by ethical values is a powerful leadership tool. Critical thinking that sidesteps ethical values is sometimes used as a weapon. 

When we develop leaders, the burden is on us to be sure the mindsets we teach align with ethical thinking. Otherwise we may be helping people use critical thinking to stray beyond the boundaries of ethical business. 

 

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Ethical Thinking Through the 7 LensesMay 22, 2019

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Shallow Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The question of the day is “How does “shallow thinking” lead to ethical mistakes?” By shallow thinking, I mean thinking that is limited in breadth and depth. 

Think about taking a stroll on the beach as you read the characteristics of shallow thinking below. How do these characteristics describe the kind of thinking that can lead to ethical mistakes and decision gridlock?

Characteristics of Shallow Thinking

  • Shallow thinking wades at the edge of the waterline instead of diving in.
  • When shallow thinking gets its feet wet up to the ankles, it thinks it “knows the ocean.”
  • Since it thinks it “knows the ocean,” shallow thinking considers deep thinking to be misinformed or misleading.

Using shallow thinking leads to making decisions out of context. Blissfully unaware of the deeper issues, we may make decisions that set off a chain reaction of unintended consequences. 

Be on the lookout for times when you may be tempted to stay in the shallows instead of diving in to understand the real scope of a complex problem. Ocean-size problems can’t be solved from the shallows. 

 

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Ethical Thinking Through the 7 LensesMay 22, 2019

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Interview on the Leveraging Thought Leadership Podcast

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Today I’m sharing my recent interview with Peter Winick on the Leveraging Thought Leadership Podcast.  We had an interesting conversation about my journey including how I got my start, challenges I faced and “growing into” this important work.

Click on the graphic above to hear the Leveraging Thought Leadership Podcast Interview with Peter Winick. The challenges I faced helped me grow and become a more authentic advocate for ethical leadership. Listen in!

 

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Ethical Thinking Through the 7 LensesMay 22, 2019

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Ethical Thinking For Challenging Times

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Yet many leaders try to unravel increasingly complex issues using the same thinking process they have always used. 

New Ethical Thinking Course

I am delighted to announce that I am partnering with the University of Richmond Robins School of Business to offer a new Executive Education course “Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses.”

 

University of Richmond Robins School of Business, Executive Education 

Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses: This course will develop your ethical thinking skills in 7 important dimensions, help you understand local and global issues in a broader context, and equip you to make ethical decisions with increased confidence.

May 22, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 pm

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Why We Need Ethical Thinking

To celebrate the new course, I wrote an article for the University of Richmond Robins School of Business Executive Education publication EXCEED! that includes recent research about Why We Need Ethical Thinking. 

Read the article

 

It’s time to update our thinking the same way we routinely update our computer’s software. We know that updating our software is necessary for efficiency, effectiveness and risk reduction. It’s time to admit that updating our thinking is even more important for the same reasons.

 

 

 

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Research: Moving Beyond Cause-and-Effect Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The traditional view of research in the U.S. has been that something has to be proven to a statistically significant degree using established research procedures. It should be able to be replicated to confirm that the results are accurate and true. The problem is that established research procedures generally call for isolating one thing at a time to prove cause and effect, but we live in a world of complex, connected systems.

“People don’t become systems thinkers because systems thinking is so cool; they do so because they discover that linear thinking won’t answer their questions. Linear thinking is cause-and-effect thinking.”

JIM OLLHOFF and MICHAEL WALCHESKI,MAKING THE JUMP TO SYSTEMS THINKING, TheSystemsThinker.com

Is an “Accurate” Study Possible? 

Researchers may pride themselves on accuracy using the current approach, but cause-and-effect thinking may still lead to mistakes. The traditional research thinking believes that if a study is accurate, we should be able to repeat it and get the same result. If we do, then the effect has been “proven.” The problem with this thinking is that if we try to prove something is or is not causing something else, we ignore important variables that limit both the accuracy and the usefulness of the results:

  • The context may change the outcome (and context isn’t factored in if we’re using cause-and-effect thinking)
  • Some effects happen only some of the time (a repeated study may result in different conclusions without either study being wrong)
  • There may be other impacting causes that were not studied that led to the outcome

Which Research Studies Are Reliable?

There are so many predatory publishers sharing fake research results (see this Yale link) that it is becoming harder to tell which studies are responsibly conducted. The results of research studies are used to make decisions that have a broad effect on society and any fraud in the process can cause harm. 

Complexity Can’t Be Ignored

Our understanding of DNA and genes has progressed to the point where we know that certain combinations of things can result in genes being switched “on” or “off.” According to the US National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference Article Can Genes Be Turned On and Off in Cells? “Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. This means that in addition to our external environment being impacted by many different changing systems at the same time, our internal environment is also made up of complex connecting systems that adapt to changing conditions.

Closed Loop Peer-Review System Can Block Innovation

Academics and professionals who are pressured to publish sometimes game the already flawed peer review systemThe research publishing system has built-in biases that are attracting increasing attention and some scholars believe that the peer review process by design can block innovative work. According to Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, “It takes significant reviewer agreement to have a paper accepted. One potential downside is that important research bucking a trend or overturning accepted wisdom may face challenges surviving peer review.” (Aaron E. Carroll, Peer Review: The Worst Way to Judge Research Except For All the Others, New York Times)

Can you ever isolate a cause and effect relationship when studying multiple connected and adapting systems? How can you test research more reliably before it is published? The current system of research and publication (a system with built-in hurdles that may block innovative thinking) is in need of innovative thinking. 

 

 

 

 

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Mindset or Competency: Which is More Important?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post will explore the interesting relationship between leadership mindset and competency. Which is most important? What happens to our leadership capability when our mindset is out of date? 

How we think about something impacts what we do about it. Nick Petrie, Center For Creative Leadership, writes in Vertical Leadership Development Part I that “In terms of leadership, the stage from which you are thinking and acting matters a lot. To be effective, the leader’s thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment.” 

An “Un-Fixed” Mindset

Keeping an open mind and adapting when new information is available is important for our leadership success. Capability, or what we can do, is still important, but it won’t get us far if we’re using an outdated mindset. Our mindset needs to be upgraded regularly as the context changes or we risk missing important parts of the picture.

“Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s mental maps, their theories, expectations, and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood.”

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, The Neuroscience of Leadership, strategy + business

Seeing From Multiple Perspectives

In Coaching Vertically, Jan Rybeck MCC writes that one of the significant elements important for vertical development is taking on the challenge of multiple perspectives. Besides helping us deal with complexity in general, being able to understand multiple perspectives helps us meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. It guides us to better decisions when we face difficult choices. It helps us navigate tricky issues that have many angles and helps us talk about them without rushing to take a side.

“The future of leadership is mindsets, not competencies.”

Charles Palus, Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, Vertical Leadership Development For a Complex World

We need to carefully look at mindset, world view and assumptions before we move great individual performers into leadership positions. Sherryl Demitry, PhD writes in Training Industry that “it is common for people to be promoted into higher levels before achieving the vertical proficiency to be effective and successful at that level” (Disrupting Best Practices in L&D: Differentiating Horizontal & Vertical Development). Think about a time you observed a new leader using the mindset of a professional and making rookie leadership mistakes.

Mindset Problems Can Lead to Leadership Failure

When we broaden our mindset to adapt to change, we open up new terrain for learning and leadership. Gaining new competencies without the necessary mindset changes will be ineffective at best, and may even be harmful.  Think about a leader using an outdated mindset about human rights and treating certain groups of people negatively. That leader may “delegate effectively” in terms of how assignments are communicated and tracked, but may deny certain types of people access to opportunities to grow. This failure in leadership is due to a mindset problem that can quickly turn a “competency” like delegation into unfair practice.

I would have to say that leadership mindset is more important than competency. If you lack certain competencies or have the wrong competencies for the job, you can learn. If you have a “fixed” and outdated mindset, however, you will resist learning and potentially do more harm than good. 

 

 

 

 

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They’re Trying to Tell Us Something

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Since I started researching ethical leadership, I have begun to notice just how many different people are trying to steer us in the right direction. Their ethical messengers cross geographic and time boundaries and professions. The messages they leave are compelling. They are trying to tell us something important.

The messages are packaged in a multitude of different ways including books, music, quotes and stories. People who have realized important insights about ethics are leaving a trail for others to follow. But to follow, we have to notice.

Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and other ethical sages don’t have an “exclusive” when it comes to ethical wisdom. There are many more recent messengers. Popular songs engage us in learning about how bullies harm and how each person should be respected. Dr. Seuss wrote about human rights and sustainability in The Sneetches and Other Stories and The Lorax. Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai and many, many others have imparted wisdom to us about what it means to live ethically.

“I want to thank all of you out there who have been brave enough to walk point and force change. To fight for basic human rights that…my son’s generation and the generations to follow will so greatly benefit from.”             

—Sally Field Quoted by Human Rights Campaign, HRC.org

When you’re “tuned in” to something, you tend to notice it more frequently. This week, notice the ethical messages around you. Look for the trail of breadcrumbs left by people who have struggled and learned and advanced their understanding of the human condition and ethics.

Each of us has a part to play in creating a better world. Once we begin to notice the trail of breadcrumbs, we can look for clues to see where that trail is leading us.

Questions For Reflection

  1. Where in the course of my day am I noticing messages about our human responsibilities to each other?
  2. What can I learn from the messengers?
  3. How can I help spread the word?

 

 

 

 

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16 Answers To What is Good Leadership?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The theme I noticed in the most viewed posts on this blog in 2018 was Looking For a Better Kind of Leadership. Google reported that the most popular Google searches in 2018 were about how we can be good people. It sounds like it’s a great time to explore the question “What is Good Leadership? 

While it’s tempting to over simplify leadership and think about it as any one thing, good leadership can only be fully understood by thinking about it in multiple ways. Here is a starter list of 16 defining characteristics of good leadership:

  1. Purposeful

  2. Ethical 

  3. Intentional

  4. Thoughtful

  5. Meaningful

  6. Respectful

  7. Caring

  8. Open

  9. Invites Dialogue

  10. Globally Responsible

  11. Up-to-Date

  12. Trustworthy

  13. Culturally Inclusive

  14. Ethically Inspiring

  15. Embraces and Adapts To Context and Complexity

  16. Continual Learner

This list of 16 is designed to get you thinking. There are many more characteristics we could add. Think about great leaders you’ve had in the past (or not). What defining characteristics of good leadership would you add to this list? Share your ideas in the comments!

 

 

 

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Beyond Civility

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Civility seems like a minimum standard or a fallback position, certainly not a desired end. We expect so much more from ethical leaders.

Without civility, communication is chaotic and difficult (if not impossible). Civility adds choosing words more carefully and avoiding blaming and attacking others. When I think about people “being civil” I get a picture of people who don’t like each other very much struggling to maintain their composure.

The origin of the word and its uses are interesting.

“The word civil has about twelve different meanings; it is applied to all manner of objects, which are perfectly disparate. As opposed to criminal, it means all law not criminal. As opposed to ecclesiastical, it means all law not ecclesiastical: as opposed to military, it means all law not military, and so on.” [John Austin, “Lectures on Jurisprudence,” 1873] https://www.etymonline.com/word/civil

Extrapolating on this definition, perhaps civil interpersonal behavior is “all behavior not criminal.” I advocate Civility, but not as an ideal. Just as law is the minimum standard of acceptable individual behavior in a society (below which you are punished) civility seems to be the minimum standard of interpersonal behavior (so as not to get in trouble with the law). Use these posts to learn about the nuances of civility as an ethical issue.

Civility is an Ethical Issue

Civility and Openness to Learning

The Questions We Have in Common

 

 

 

 

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