Are Our Workplaces Getting Ruder?

How often do you have to deal with people’s rude behavior at work?  Perhaps they’re checking their emails in the middle of your meeting, needlessly keeping you waiting, belittling your best efforts or even waging all out sabotage.  The reality is that most of us report that civility is on the rise in our workplaces and it’s costing us personally and professionally.  So what can we do to deal with incivility?

“Incivility is defined as rude, disrespectful, or insensitive behaviour,” explained Associate Professor Christine Porath, from the School of Business at Georgetown University and author of a new book Mastering Civility: a Manifesto for the Workplace when I interviewed her recently. “The tricky part is that it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, so it’s all subjective; it’s how people feel based on someone’s actions.”

Over the past 15 years, Christine and her colleagues have polled thousands of workers about how they’re treated at work, and ninety-eight percent have reported experiencing uncivil behavior, with around fifty-six percent claiming incivility is a weekly occurrence.  It’s not that we’re surrounded by more jerks, but that our feelings of being stressed and overworked, our growing reliance on technology and shifting cultural and generational norms are blunting our self-awareness and our energy for consistently civil behaviors.

Unfortunately the cost of this behavior is adding up.

Christine’s research has found that when you feel that your work environment isn’t a trusting, respectful or safe place you are more likely to mentally shut down and withdraw from others, are less likely to be creative, offer, seek or accept feedback,  and to feel less engaged and put in less effort to your work.   You’re also three times less likely to cooperate and collaborate with others and over time this can damage your relationships and your mental and physical health.

In a poll of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, Christine also found that when people were on the receiving end of incivility at work forty-eight percent intentionally decreased their work effort, eighty percent lost time worrying about the incident and sixty-six percent said their performance declined.  Worryingly, twenty-five percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers and twelve per cent said they left their job altogether.

So what’s the best way to navigate incivility in our workplaces?

“Most of the time incivility stems from people with greater power status which means most of us are probably going to be unsuccessful at trying to report it, fight it or change the other person’s behavior,” said Christine.  “The best strategy to buffer the negative effects of incivility is to focus on boosting your own wellbeing.”

Christine suggests this is because when you’re thriving you’re less likely to take things personally, less likely to get distracted by the negative emotions that follow, and be more focused on progressing towards your own development goals.  Think of rude behavior as a virus that you need to protect and inoculate yourself and your team from, so you don’t get sucked into its contagious downward spiral.

What can you do practically to protect yourself – and others – from incivility?

Christine suggests trying the following approaches:

  • Value Civility – regardless of how well behaved you think you are, we can all be a little kinder and more considerate at times. Seeking feedback from others on your actions can help you become more self-aware.  You can also take the civility self-assessment available on Christine’s website to gain insight into your own behavior and then master the basics of smiling more, acknowledging people and listening effectively to make your workplace more civil.
  • Take Control – help bring closure to uncivil behavior by journaling the events that happen and then letting them go – after all you can visit pity city, but you can’t live there. Then, invest your energy in new learning opportunities that boost your sense of self and absorb your attention on the things that are within your control. For example, find a great mentor to guide you, re-craft parts of your job around your strengths, connect with people who energize you, or take on a new hobby or sport.
  • Gain Clarity – in every interaction you have a choice to lift people up or hold them down. You are going to be judged by the little moments, so to make the most of them start each day by getting clear and answering this question: “Who do you want to be?” Even in the face of the most uncivil behavior your attitude, mindset and willingness can make a difference. In each moment you get to choose whom you want to be.
  • Build Civil Workplaces – recruit people for civility and be explicit about your organization’s values when you hire. Make civility part of your mission statement and engage your teams in conversations about what these norms should be and hold each other accountable. Create a culture and measurement system where people are credited for civil behaviors.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t give honest and direct feedback to others.  Give corrective feedback on bad behavior quickly and firmly. And by demonstrating civil behaviors that show others you care, value and respect them, they can be more receptive to what you have to say and respond better to negative criticisms.

What can you do to improve civility in your workplace?