february 2016

So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. – John F. Kennedy

I recently had a chance to re-read an article about the price of incivility at work, by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, published in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago. Porath and Pearson found, at the time, that nearly all of the thousands of people they had interviewed had experienced uncivil behavior in the workplace and that nearly half reported being treated rudely at work at least once a week.

We might think of incivility as low-intensity behavior — typically rude, discourteous, and displaying disregard for others. Okay, for a moment, let us say that people seem pretty thin-skinned these days, always ready to be offended. Perhaps, but recent workplace research suggests a dramatic rise in workplace incivility and I would have to say that I have observed the same.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that our public behavior has become so outrageous. Turn on any cable news station, and you will see a politician or media personality engaged in behavior that would have gotten you banished from the public sphere (or punched in the face) 30 years ago. Look at the comments section of online media outlets or participate in an online forum and you find trolls galore, spouting hateful vitriol. Unfortunately, with that behavior so common, people seem to have started to think not only that that behavior is okay, but that it is normal.

But back to the workplace. What really struck me about Porath and Pearson’s work was that workplace incivility has costs, often big costs. According to Porath and Pearson, pretty much everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds negatively. In my experience those negative reactions include retaliation that frequently sets off a downward spiral of interpersonal conflict that not only worsens the situation, but can spread through the organization, sucking-in more and more people. In addition, when people feel disrespected at work they can become less open to new ideas, purposefully reduce their effort, lower the quality of their work, damage relationships with stakeholders, and leave for greener pastures. You say you do not believe it?

When Porath and Pearson polled 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, they found that, among people on the receiving end of uncivil behavior:

  • 80% lost work time worrying about incidents
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 63% lost work time avoiding someone who had offended them
  • 48% decreased their work effort
  • 47% decreased time spent at work
  • 38% decreased their work quality
  • 25% admitted taking their frustration out on customers
  • 12% left their job because of the incivility

Those are huge numbers with serious implications for employee safety, health and welfare; performance and productivity; unit cohesion and teamwork; and both recruitment and retention of a well-trained, capable, and dedicated workforce. In addition, cleaning up the mess can prove really expensive. A single incident of workplace conflict can eat up weeks of a managers’ time, prevent both the manager and the affected employees from completing their primary tasks, and run-up unplanned costs when the organization must bring in conflict resolution specialists to help.

In fire agencies, too often, we normalize workplace incivility; treating counter-productive behaviors as harmless, good-natured fun, or just part of the workplace culture. Often, rudeness, lack of common courtesy, and behavior that diminishes another person’s dignity all creeps into people’s interactions over time. I like a collegial workplace in which people can have a good time. However, having worked in both conflict resolution and teambuilding for years, I am well aware that uncivil behavior, including seemingly small events, lies at the heart of many, maybe most, workplace conflicts.

Consequently, despite a temptation to dismiss workplace incivility as just people being too sensitive, leaders at all levels of the organization must take civility seriously and create a workplace climate where people treat one another with courtesy, respect, and dignity. Organizations that neglect civility because they regard it as a distraction or a luxury will find that a single habitually offensive employee can turn an effective team upside down.

So What Is the Leadership Responsibility?

Leaders set the tone and establish the workplace climate. To do so, leaders must first regulate their own behavior; developing and maintaining awareness of your actions and of how you come across to others. These are the skills of self-awareness and self-regulation, two of the five main elements of emotional intelligence, which I increasingly regard as the secret sauce of leadership:

Create Group Norms and Set the Example

Start a dialogue with your team about expectations. I have had good success with an approach in which the team collaboratively produces concrete norms for civil behavior, and then formally takes ownership of civility as the norm.

Once you have established group norms, set the example. There are few things better for an organization than a leader who sets the example. When an organization’s leader sets a positive example and serves as a role model, rarely is effective behavioral change far behind. However, fall into the swamp, and the leader just becomes one of the crocodiles. Show people the way, set the example, be the role model for civility.

When you lead by example you create for people, a model of what is possible. People can look at you and say, “Well, if she/he can do it, I can do it.” If your team knows that you will also do whatever you expect from them, they will likely work hard to help you achieve your goals to foster a positive workplace climate.



Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.