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  • Writer's pictureAnn Skelton

Incivility - the workplace killer

How you show up at work means everything. As Maya Angelou, poet and Civil Rights activist, said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Saying ‘hello’ when passing in the corridor; making eye contact; respecting people’s time; being inclusive – small and socially acceptable ways of displaying civility in the workplace. When civility is the norm, co-workers probably don’t even notice it because they are engaged, productive, creative and happy at work. But the opposite? “Low-intensity deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm the target” (Andersson & Pearson (1999)), not only jeopardises any workplace harmony but slowly chips away at your bottom line and workplace culture.

Incivility may be hard to pin down. It probably, on its own, may not chin the bar of bullying or harassment but it sure can have the same impact. And just like bullying, what’s incivil to one person may be absolutely fine to another. Take texting while in a meeting – rude to some people, civil behaviour to others. Incivility and unchecked rudeness can lead to stress, an atmosphere where door slamming, exclusion and disregard for people’s time is normal. But less obvious, more subtle behaviour, equally damaging, can also equate to an erosion of morale, engagement, trust and increased conflict.

Christine Porath, Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, found through her years of research that incivility made people less motivated: 66% cut back on work efforts, 80% lost time worrying what happened, 12% left the job. Interestingly, the research shows that even those who only witnessed incivility to co-workers, had significantly decreased work performance too.

Rudeness is contagious. Experiments undertaken to show the effect of merely reading words categorised as “incivil” (words like obnoxious, impolite, interrupt) resulted in those people being five times more likely to skip or miss information right in front of them, took longer to make decisions and made significantly more errors. Teams exposed to rudeness didn’t share information as readily and stopped seeking help from their teammates.

Clearly, incivility is not good for business and it’s wholly damaging for individuals – so why does it continue? What’s so hard about lifting someone else up rather than holding them down? Arguably professional success is often played out according to a competitive narrative – so being ‘nice’ doesn’t fit. Being civil doesn’t mean there can’t be conflict, disagreement or debate. And most of the incivil behaviour reflects a lack of self-awareness, rather than an intention to be hurtful. But civility isn’t simply the absence of rudeness; it is the presence of warmth, appreciation and kindness. And these simple actions equate to a showing of respect – the factor employees most want from their workplace.

So, if you think your workplace suffers from an attack of incivility, what can you do? If you’re a leader, walk the talk – say thanks, share credit, listen attentively and acknowledge others – it’s infectious. Addressing small instances of incivility makes it clear it is not acceptable and that there is only room for respectful interactions. As Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company said, “Be tough-minded on the standards and tender-hearted with the people”. Civility lifts people; incivility robs potential.


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