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Responsibility and Civility: The Unwritten Essentials

The American Historical Association and organizations like it—whether workplaces, departments, divisions, or colleges—are held together by interlocking and overlapping webs of rules (often written), usages (more often informally conveyed), and expectations. These guidelines are intended to assure the smooth functioning of the group, promote its interests, and serve its members or clients. The AHA’s Statements, Standards, and Guidelines of the Discipline, for example, cover many aspects of proper professional conduct. Guides like these are important to organizations, as are resources such as staff handbooks and faculty manuals; guidelines on hiring, retention, and promotion; and tenure procedures. 

Just as critical to the prospering of any such group are the unwritten expectations that underlie and ground the workings of every business or academic unit. When they’re observed, organizations prosper; when they’re disregarded, things go terribly wrong. These expectations fall under two broad rubrics: responsibility and civility. Breaches of either are frequently the reasons for organizational disasters. I have watched departments, colleges, and societies tear themselves apart, descending into fruitless squabbling with colleagues who trade acrimonious barbs and finding themselves unable to maintain a modicum of decent interaction or to exist as a functioning unit. 

Within academic departments, this situation can prove to be the kiss of death, opening them up to receivership or even dissolution—a threat every bit as real for museums, libraries, and other workplace environments, even if the dynamics differ. Often, the reasons for such dissension arise from deep intellectual and political (with both a small and large “p”) conflicts. All too frequently, they are triggered by administrative and financial pressures that rupture the normal ties binding groups together. As they struggle to stay alive, communities sometimes turn to cannibalism. If we cannot put our own houses in order, a bulldozer awaits to raze the edifice. These troubles are dreadfully difficult to avoid or negotiate; sometimes larger forces are just too powerful to ward off. Competition is often blamed for bad blood and destructive behavior—true enough. But frequently, the fault lies with us, in the culture we cultivate as groups and individuals. When the organizational and personal virtues of responsibility and civility are breached, everyone loses. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History