Thursday, June 30, 2011

Owning the Higher Ground How to maintain civil discourse when others don't. by Daven Morrison and David Limardi, Current Issue |

JULY 2011 · VOLUME 93 · NUMBER 6


Owning the Higher Ground

How to maintain civil discourse when others don't.

by Daven Morrison and David Limardi

For most public managers, working in an open forum is part of the job. The idea of a work life in a fishbowl is nothing new. Recently this situation has been compounded by the Internet,1 which some have called today’s “wild west.” In our experience, every manager is familiar with the regular distraction and destructive aspects of the web. The web’s mechanisms to produce and distribute seem endless.

Beyond the number of attacks, the often anonymous personal attacks can be particularly upsetting for the manager. The distress grows out of the seemingly limitless muckraking of individuals who work with selected facts and under a cloak of anonymity. Like the mechanisms, the individuals who produce the content seem limitless, too.

All citizens are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. For many reasons, but mostly to counter the personal, offensive, and unfair attacks, the call for civil discourse is being made at a steadily increasing pace. The unrelenting onslaught is draining, especially for those managers working in organizations that do not have the resources to counter the accusations and distribute fact-based communications to the community.

For those who possess those resources, the work of responding can seem exhausting, especially when there is a crisis or a significant conflict in the community. Time is required to read the blogs, Twitter accounts, and e-mails. Questions on the part of the council or board as well as the leadership team must be answered. Average citizens expect access and responses to inquiries as well.

Communications in response to questions are expected to be instantaneous, and the longer the delay the greater the suspicion. In this way conspiracy theories and assumptions of corruption blow up fast.

Figure 1. Components of Judgment.

But, what is perhaps most bothersome of all the aspects of managing the information is the lack of general civility in the messages. Cutting comments that are shared in passing with the manager as well as with the staff can be disturbing:

  • “You would never make it in the real world.”
  • “You work for me; my taxes pay your salary.”
  • “All public workers are corrupt.”
  • “Public workers are unprofessional, and they aren’t productive.”

These insensitive and personal remarks are what wear down the manager over time. Combined with an absence of appreciation for the work that needs to be done, two or three hostile community members active on the Internet or at council meetings can cause a severe emotional reaction in a manager. We believe this atmosphere has caused assistant managers to reconsider becoming managers and has blocked strong private sector leaders from considering entering into the profession.

Figure 2. Comparison of Political Language and Managerial Language.
FocusHow the message is perceived:
How does this make me look?
What is my exposure?
How do I keep the people who support me enthused?
How do I persuade those who can be persuaded to my way?
How the message can get things done:
Who is going to be responsible?
By when ought this be completed?
How much is this worth compared with another initiative?
How do the leaders in this organization make the best decisions?
How will we know if we did it well?
ExamplesThis is what the citizens expect us to do! How does this maximize value for the taxpayers?The mechanics in facilities believe it will take three months to convert the engines to the new required specifications.
Underlying motivationReelectionCompleting tasks


Fueled and exacerbated by a long period of financial uncertainty as well as a national tone of extremely polarized politics, this trend will probably not change anytime soon. It is astute on the part of managers to consider what to do; it is also astute to decide what to avoid. Today, the equivalent of punching someone in the nose is sending an e-mail that somehow is supposed to “teach them who’s boss and who has the facts right!” Thus, the first thing to remember in this atmosphere is not to act purely on your emotions.

Understanding what is happening is more important than taking a specific action quickly. Solid judgment is a simple and critical requirement. When taking action, the manager should collect all the relevant information, boil it down to the essentials, and then act according to what makes the most sense (see Figure 1).

Note that when done correctly, action is last:2 It’s easy in the heat of the moment to take action first, before collecting data. More accurately: it is easy to feel the need to take action. What happens when people turn rude and insensitive and the discourse becomes uncivil?

The worlds of politics and management have competing goals, as shown in Figure 2. This impairs communication as each world has its own different type of language.


When the discourse becomes uncivil, bullies who previously lurked can now make an appearance. The bully is not invested in the best resolution of an issue. A bully merely wants to be dominant, and that can include targeting the manager and trying to get the manager to look weak and foolish. The goal of the bully is to cause the person who is attacked to make a heated, impulsive response.

As children, we learned an emotional reaction is a trap, and the bully learned this also. The bully refines skills, too, and knows that without a response stakes are raised: the bully expands the conflict.

The underlying motivations of bullies come from their emotions. In our experience, the most challenging emotion for leaders to manage is embarrassment. Although unpleasant to experience, embarrassment and shame are emotions that allow us to adapt to our world. When we are children, shame allows us to stay out of harm’s way, and as adults, shame keeps us from tearing apart our social fabric.

The absence of a shame competency causes much of the lack of civility. Examples include the hate radio on the AM dial, the rudeness of paparazzi, and the insensitivity of those who blog unfairly and destructively about our communities.

Biologically, we are all wired for shame, an emotion experienced as an interruption to positive emotions. We can feel a little bit of shame as a twinge of self-consciousness or an immersion in shame as profound humiliation.

We are most embarrassed when we are invested in sharing something, and the other person is not interested. Figure 3 shows how shame works from a low experience of self-consciousness to a high level of humiliation when person B expressed interest in person A and that interest is not returned.


The bully appears to be insensitive to embarrassment. Inside, however, bullies are aware of and motivated by an acute fear of being shamed, and they have a strong motivation to avoid it. The emotions that motivate the bully include a mix of anger, disgust, contempt, and, at times when discovering a weakness, excitement.

Shaming others highlights weakness in others. Thus, bullies use shame for dominance in order to keep control. Threats to their power are met with a fierce defense. When the discussion becomes rational and moves in a direction where the bully will lose credibility or be perceived as weak, that is when bullies are most vicious.

In a larger arena, the bully will insert more chaos. Bullies are invested in avoiding being the loser in a battle; thus, the bully will inject chaos into an orderly process, particularly one that is heading to a loss. The recent financial crisis has led the politics of the right and the left to become particularly ruthless as the dollars have dried up, leading each to extreme efforts to bully the other side.

Both the political and the managerial languages have value. Neither is wrong in fact. The political side does have value. Politics assists the community in deciding how to take action. But during the working through of budgets and priorities, the languages become mixed. The manager faces a difficult challenge when an elected official or a citizen decides to use politics to bully.

The purely politically motivated person is not speaking to those in immediate earshot but, instead, is playing a larger game. The politically motivated are invested in the process only to send a message to a larger audience. This is a second magnifier of shame: exposure. A manager needs to remember the capacity for broader shaming with a larger group (Figure 4).


Recognize that although bullies’ comments are personal, they are a tactic. The intention of the bully is to provoke and cause managers to make mistakes. The attacks are the bully’s worldview, not the manager’s. Their comments are intended to provoke reflexive action, but they must be done thoughtfully. For a manager, it does not make sense to counterattack or withdraw. The manager needs to acknowledge the context and move the conversation out of earshot if possible. The manager needs to direct the conversation to facts and to the purpose of the meeting.

Here are several essentials to understand about uncivil discourse:

  1. There are two types of language for the public manager: political and managerial.
  2. Shame reinforces dominance.
  3. Bullies try to shame those who threaten their agendas.
  4. Bullies fear shame and take extreme measures to avoid it.
  5. Increased exposure equals amplified shame.

As a psychiatrist and as a city manager, we are both professionals, and as such we profess to have a higher set of ethics. It would be unnerving and even terrifying to some if either of us acted in the flippant, arrogant manner of those who fan the flames and use uncivil discourse as a means to their ends. Given this understanding, what remains for us as acceptable actions or guiding principles?

  • Minimize the access of bullies to audiences.
  • Don’t respond in kind.
  • Avoid political language.
  • Drive the managerial language.
  • Build your shame-tolerating muscles.


Practice tolerating shame. It is merely a feeling. As a public manager, you have learned in your life to tolerate feelings of hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Tolerating shame is a skill of the same order.

Managing insults and managing bullies are not skills to be taken lightly, and such management does not have to be done alone: use your team to game plan. When the team collectively observes and then establishes a strategy and tactics, those in the public arena can work against the bully.


Currently, an opportunity exists to excel when times are difficult. Although today’s challenges can bring out disruptive behavior, the environment may allow some of the toughest problems in your organization to be addressed. Times like these can allow us to innovate and recalibrate. The sleepy, barnacle-encrusted problems are now exposed and waiting to be worked on and changed.

To embrace this challenge may seem ridiculous. It may even seem impossible at times. But consider today what once seemed challenging in your past and that you have finally mastered. Passion for the management profession and pride in our work can be exhilarating for our peers and to those who will follow us. They can serve as antidotes to the attacks.

Own the high ground.

1 Daven Morrison, “Your Life in a Fishbowl . . . and on the Internet,” PM 92, no. 4 (May 2010).
2 David Limardi, Carol Morrison, and Daven Morrison, “Know Thyself: Judgment Capability Factors,” PM 90, no. 8 (September 2008).

Daven Morrison, M.D., is a psychiatrist, and director of Individual and team consultations, Morrison Associates, Ltd., Palatine, Illinois ( David Limardi, ICMA-CM, is city manager, Highland Park, Illinois ( All figures used in this article are the copyright of Morrison Associates, Ltd.

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