CEO Tribe Logo

"Civility costs nothing, but means everything."
Mary Wortley Montagu

It's subtle. A coworker refusing to put her phone down during a meeting. A supervisor rolling his eyes at a direct-report over a simple error. A team member arriving a few minutes late every day. A leader interrupting a conversation with impunity.

Incivility at work is often seen as the least of our problems. It's not violence. It's not bullying. It's not harassment. It's just...rude. But incivility slowly, and surely, erodes morale and culture, chipping away at the bottom line. What's at the root of ill-mannered, impolite behavior - and how can organizations overcome this divisive habit and restore civility in the workplace?

What Is Incivility?

Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, who wrote the book on civility in the workplace, and lack thereof, write in Harvard Business Review: "We're always amazed by how many managers and employees tell us that they don't understand what it means to be civil. One quarter of the offenders we surveyed said they didn't recognize their behavior as uncivil."

Must be one of those things you can't define - but know it when you see it. Through thousands of interviews, Porath and Pearson found that 98% of employees experienced "uncivil behavior" in the workplace.

While images of horrible, ranting, temper-tantrum throwing bosses come to mind, incivility can encompass everything from checking your email while someone's speaking to you to disguising criticisms and negativity as jokes.

In The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What To Do About It, Porath and Pearson write, "Because incivility often seems minor, it can go unnoticed by everyone but the target." But when left unchecked, it has the "tendency to spread fast, far, and wide." What's the Big Deal?

A drop of water won't damage a stone. But a steady stream, over time, can erode the hardest rock. And so it is with incivility. Over time, it can wear away people's motivation, engagement, and productivity. It can create an environment of discord and dissatisfaction that has a tangible effect on the bottom line.

In a wide-scale study, Porath and Pearson found that among those who experienced workplace incivility:

  • Nearly half (48%) decreased the effort they put into their work, and 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% of those surveyed missed some work because of an incident of incivility, and 63% did so to avoid the offender.
  • Performance and commitment to the organization decreased among 66% and 78% of respondents respectively.
  • A quarter took out their anger/frustration on their customers.
  • When customers witness an act of incivility (e.g. an employee behaving rudely to another customer or a manager berating an employee), they are much more likely to "quit" the company.

The big deal about the lack of civility in the workplace is that it is corrosive; it kills culture and impacts your ability to compete - and thrive - in business.

Don't Blame the Apple: What Really Causes Incivility?

According to a Weber Shandwich and Powell Tate survey, three-quarters of people feel that civility is decreasing. An American Psychological Association article, "That's Just Rude," speculates as to the cause.

Could it be anonymity? Dr. Ryan Martin says, "When you're posting anonymous [online], you're more willing to say things you otherwise wouldn't say... I used to have a soccer coach who said, 'Practice makes permanent.' That's what's happening here: If you get in the habit of venting anger in this way, it becomes your go-to mechanism for dealing with anger in all circumstances."

Could it be cellphones? Maybe, says Dr. Veronica V. Galván, people may be so wrapped up "in their own little bubbles" that they don't realize they're holding up other people in line, blocking a door, or just engaging in rude - if oblivious - behavior. And again, practice makes permanent.

Could it be age? A BBC article suggests that the "millennial generation also has contributed to the loss of workplace decorum." They're outspoken, unimpressed with "workplace norms," like punctuality and dress code, and "many grew up in households with few rules or restrictions on their behavior, so it's not surprising they'd care less about etiquette than their elders."

Could it be the fast-pace of life, in which people have no time to be courteous? Could it be high pressure times, in which people take out their stress and frustration on others? Could it be that some people think courtesy makes them look weak?

Sure, it could be all this. But it's more. The roots run much deeper. We've come to a point where everyone is putting stakes in the ground: "I'm right; you're wrong." We don't listen because we don't think we have anything to learn.

One of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is that we should seek first to understand, then to be understood. But we don't have time or patience for that. "I'm right. If you don't agree, not only are you wrong, you're bad." This gives us license to treat others with incivility. We've lost the ability to disagree respectfully. And admitting we may be wrong? Forget about it.

The Civility Solution?

Perhaps the solution is to seek first to be civil. Setting an example is the best way to reverse a culture of rudeness and instill civility in the workplace. Civility isn't complex: it's watching your tone, being respectful, thanking people for their contributions, offering constructive feedback, putting the phone away during meetings, making eye contact, listening. It's back-to-the-basics kind of stuff, but these simple steps are incredibly effective in bringing courtesy and respect back to work.

Rude and impolite behavior often operates quietly and subtlety, and because of this it's allowed to metastasize throughout organizations. If untreated, it destroys engagement, productivity, and profitability. The cure: reintroduce civility in the workplace.


Larry Hart

You Might Also Like..