Workplace incivility is more than bad manners. When employees take credit for others' work, talk down to colleagues, spread rumors, make derogatory comments and otherwise violate polite norms, it can hamper collaboration, increase turnover and damage customer satisfaction—and ultimately your cash flow.
“Even if people want to perform at their best, they can't as rudeness hijacks focus, and their creativity and performance subsequently plummet," says Christine Porath, a civility researcher at Georgetown University and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.
“Just being near incivility is enough to shatter focus, stifle success and squash helpfulness," Porath adds.
In her research people exposed to incivility showed steep declines in performance on tests of thinking skills and helpfulness, in some cases more than 50 percent. When your team isn't performing at it's best, it can affect your cash flow.
Business owners and other leaders aren't immune, adds Julia Eisenberg, professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business. Eisenberg published research in the April 2019 issue of Organization Management Journal examining incivility's effect on top manager teams.
“When uncivil behavior is exhibited by leaders, it has the most severe consequences for subordinates, but it also affects others in the organization," Eisenberg said.
Perhaps worst of all, customers notice too.
“Research has shown that customers who observe incivility between employees get angry and generalize the negative impression to the firm, reducing the likelihood of those customers returning to that firm," says James Wilkerson, a business professor and civility researcher at The Pennsylvania State University in Scranton.
Unchecked incivility can cause serious and widespread trouble, these experts contend.
“Once that kind of climate takes root, it's only a matter of time before it starts eating away at the company's culture," Wilkerson warns. “Norms of politeness slowly give way to norms of rude disrespect, and then your company management has a dysfunctional mess on its hands."
What Causes Incivility?
Porath's research indicates that incivility is on the rise, and today most employees report being treated rudely at least once a month, she says. While experts tend to agree on the trend, the causes of incivility are less well understood.
“The number one reason is stress," according to Porath, who also cites technology, global workforces, generational differences and leaders who are poor role models.
Managers and owners have to work harder at modeling civil conduct. Walk the talk, clearly communicating expectations as to politeness and etiquette and firmly addressing incivility when it happens.
—James Wilkerson, business professor and civility researcher, The Pennsylvania State University in Scranton
Elsewhere, digital communications often gets most of the blame. Vance Johnson Lewis, a management professor and incivility researcher at the University of Central Arkansas, says the problem is that emails, tweets and posts don't require both parties' simultaneous attention and participation.
“It's the asynchronous nature of it," Lewis says. “It's not true communication and it's not actual collaboration. It lends itself to misinterpretation."
Tell-Tale Signs of Workplace Incivility
When employees seem dissatisfied or lack motivation, when collaboration, engagement and cash flow declines while turnover increases, incivility could be the cause, Porath says.
Other signs may include people failing to clean up after themselves in the lunchroom and borrowing others' tools without permission, Lewis adds.
“We will see withdrawal behaviors," Lewis continues. “People will come in to meetings and not participate. They'll be tuned out. You will notice people not going to lunch with one another and people not greeting each other in the morning. One of the most natural things is for people to greet one another when walking down the hall. If you don't see that, you have incivility going on in the office."
All of these patterns affect your company's culture and your cash flow. If your employees are unhappy, your customers (and your bottom line) feel that pain.
Finding a Cure for Toxic Workplace Culture
Suggested remedies for incivility start with hiring people likely to treat each other with respect.
“Interview for civility, using structured interviews with behavioral questions," Porath recommends. She advises paying attention to hunches about candidates' ability to be civil in addition to thoroughly checking their references.
Wilkerson says setting an example is also important.
“Managers and owners have to work harder at modeling civil conduct," he says. “Walk the talk, clearly communicating expectations as to politeness and etiquette and firmly addressing incivility when it happens."
Lewis says businesses can go a long way toward reducing incivility by encouraging employees to have face-to-face communication.
“The old-fashioned office retreat and having office lunch on Friday afternoons—those are simple ways to let people get to know each other," he says. “If you open up enough opportunities people can almost always find a way to like something about someone at least well enough to get along with them in the workplace."
Can Office Discord Be a Good Thing?
Ginning up a perfectly polite workplace is not the objective of anti-incivility crusaders.
“There is lots of research that suggests we need some level of discord," Eisenberg notes.
Healthy arguing and debate while collaboration can bring about innovation and new opportunities for cash flow. However, Lewis says the value of vigorous contention among competing ideas doesn't justify incivility.
“There's a big difference between being a devil's advocate and a jerk," he says.
Wilkerson agrees incivility is different.
“Moderate conflict between employees over tasks, methods and proposed solutions can be very conducive to improved performance, but workplace incivility gets personal," he says. “Gratuitous rudeness, name-calling, belittling and insulting language clearly shift the focus from the job and business to egos and personalities.
"That's incivility," Wilkerson continues, "and it is not productive."
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