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A conversation on civility with Scott Raecker


  The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and ensuing events are of deep civic importance and ultimately affect our economy and business climate. So while we are a business publication, the reality is that civic engagement, civility and disruptions to democracy affect our workforce and our places of business. While we are apolitical – we don’t endorse candidates for office and we have historically chosen not to cover the day-to-day news of individual election races – we do not shy away from critical issues important to our readers. Our commitment to you, as always, is to provide balanced analysis through the lens of helping business do business better. (You can read a full letter about this that we published on Jan. 6 here: bit.ly/2Xl4jKf) 

As business leaders consider their role in fostering civility, we feel it’s part of our role to have thoughtful discussions about this topic. The morning after the events, Chris Conetzkey, Business Record publisher and executive editor, and I had a conversation with Scott Raecker, who is the executive director of the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. 

Barske: [On Jan. 6] we saw some national business and industry leaders quickly condemning the violence and the storming of the U.S. Capitol. And that’s a little bit unprecedented because usually business leaders typically stay out of the political arena, at least publicly. And so what do you see as the role that businesses play in creating civility in our society?

You are correct it was unprecedented and the response was unprecedented. We’ve never had this happen in our lifetimes – this type of engagement at our Capitol and clearly the good governance of our country and our individual states impacts our business communities all across this country. If there is uncertainty, if there is disruption within good governance, it leads to tremendous uncertainty within the business arena. So I don’t think it was that unprecedented in the fact that they responded. This is critical in their ability to do business. And I think businesses have a responsibility to be focused and raising the awareness of these civility issues in our work. 

One of the things we see is that people tend to gravitate immediately to the public arena and the political side of the civility context and discussion. Civility is more than just being mannerly and nice, and etiquette. It’s about how do we agree to disagree, how do we find common pathways forward, which business does a great job of to be creative, to be innovative, to resolve and solve complex problems. Business could actually be looked to as a leader for some of the challenges we’re seeing in the public space right now around civility and incivility.

Barske: And obviously when employees are coming to work, it’s not like they’re not taking their beliefs with them. Everyone brings their own personal identities and beliefs with them when they come to work. So how can we make sure that the conversations that people have about their beliefs at work, that we can keep them civil and keep them focused on discussion and not necessarily the polarization that we’re seeing?

Clearly we are a polarized society – and it’s more than just the politics. There’s polarization around all types of issues, but I believe in the workplace, it’s like general society: We need to focus on some common elements that we know, and are probably already doing in many regards, and then with intentionality continue to do those. We hear a lot of discussion in the most recent years about workplace culture. Workplace culture is driven by core competencies of character and ethical leadership that lead to a heightened level of civility and what work is being done in any individual business to raise and elevate that culture. 

Now an aside to this is it has become more difficult this last year with the heightened elements and anxiety of the global pandemic. That needs to be taken into consideration, but I’d encourage business leaders to think about what are they doing with their own workplace. We use the acronym TEAM – teach, encourage, advocate and model. What are we teaching that we want to see in our workplaces around these concepts of people that have differing opinions that we still need to get a report done together or the project together? What are we doing to encourage that? Even encouraging the time and space to build relationships within the organizational structure, which is the foundation of civility and leadership. How do we become advocates in the workplace? … Not just advocates within the organization, they become advocates within the community at large … that this is the way we want to see business done in our community. … 

If you distill it down to some simple actions of being intentional about building relationships and seeking to understand people and where they’re coming from, and to be understood and … having the courage and the conviction to do that with people that are new and different to you.

Conetzkey: I want to touch on something that you’ve talked about a little bit, which is we’re all going to go into our workplace, we’re going to have business meetings that we’re trying to do as a business – how do you react in that moment when you’ve got that meeting while something is happening that is that is so politically charged? People are coming into that situation with their own beliefs, their own set of systems, and I’m curious what your approach would be in a type of situation like that?

So we have a very tightknit high culture organization [at the Ray Center] with 10 members on our team. We meet weekly, and if [Jan. 6], or even [Jan. 7] had been one of our team meetings, we would have absolutely addressed this. … Having lived through the explosion of a space shuttle, having lived through 9/11, there are certain days within our life span that are those epic days. I was just a very young child when President Kennedy was assassinated. When those types of elements come to play in our lives and those are kind of historic moments. [Jan. 6] was a day like that. … For many people it was that stop and pause and [thinking], “Never in my lifetime did I think I would see this happening.” 

And you have to be able to acknowledge that with your team members in your workplace. … I would encourage business leaders to not just gloss over this – and I don’t think anybody has right now. But let’s be attentive to this. Let’s be intentional. Let’s say, “This is a historic moment in the life of our country.” Let’s recognize and appreciate the blessings of our own community and the stability that we have and the good governance that we have and the positive things happening here. And at the same time be in tune that we’re also a community that’s wrestling with other issues, whether that be social equity or racial justice issues that we are also trying to become better in, and we as leaders in our workplace need to model this. …

Barske: We know from some of the social movements that we’ve seen in the past few years with the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter and some of the other movements by underrepresented folks that there have been a lot of voices in the past that just haven’t been at the tables for a lot of conversations within our community, within our state and around the country. So within this context of civility, how do we make sure that all of the voices that need to be heard are part of conversations?

As I look to our community right now … I think we need to be intentional about this and I’m really proud about where we’re going with this. Clearly we need to get better and can continue to get better. 

I’ll give you a recent example. [The Business Record] just recently had an article about the Central Iowa Water Trails, and the advancement of that really generationally changing movement that’s taking place and advancing here in our community. In the formation of their multiple committees has an inclusion committee. As they focused on the standards of how they were going to operate, not only maintenance standards, they focused on a tool kit for inclusion, everything from what the restrooms look like along the road or trails to meet the needs of diverse communities, but how do we get into communities that may not have naturally been attracted or drawn into water activities, to make them comfortable with that? My point is, it’s that level of intentionality. It’s making sure that people have seats at the table. … It’s the encouragement, it’s the advocacy of those voices, and it’s really not just having people at the table that might not have been there before. Let’s remember some of our core communication skills as well. Let’s seek to understand, and then be understood. Let’s really understand what the perspective is from marginalized voices in the past and how we can build on that as an asset to our community. …

Watch the full interview at www.businessrecord.com/video and learn more about the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University by visiting www.drake.edu/raycenter

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