At some time in everyone’s career they experience incivility at work, this can be as small as being interrupted or bumped into without an apology, or as terrible as bullying and harassment. Repeated instances of incivility can impact the psychological health and safety of employees. It has been predicted that depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide by the year 2020.
Research by the Harvard Business Review on workplace incivility has found that 98% of employees have experienced some level of incivility from their coworkers, supervisors, or customers/clients during their career. Half even reported they were treated rudely at least once a week. Nearly everyone who experiences incivility reacts in a negative way. They may end up feeling stressed, disrespected or humiliated. They may become less productive, have bad time keeping or even consider resigning. For the company this behaviour could spill over into bad customer service, high retention costs, legal expenses and damage to the employer brand.
Incivility and negative behaviour is a social phenomenon. They do not occur in a vacuum. If one person complains about discrimination, hostility or bullying, others are likely experiencing it as well. Some people will actively choose sides, validating the negative behaviour. Some may reinforce it by not stepping in to stop it. Managers who tolerate incivility are often reinforcing it.
Definition of Incivility
- Rudeness or impolite behaviour
- Treating a subordinate like a child
- Berating a subordinate or co-worker
- Making unfounded accusations
- Excluding co-workers or team members
- Interrupting people
- Texting during a presentation
- Jamming a printer or copier and letting someone else deal with it
- Use of demeaning language
- Creating unnecessary and irrelevant controversy
- Mocking a co-worker
“Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people experience in their day to day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in an offensive act or made an offensive statement.” – Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University
Take Responsibility for your own Behaviour
Take a long look at how you speak to your coworkers. Are you using positive or negative language? Perhaps you’ve met someone before who just has to disagree with everything you say, or find constant ways to correct you. You might have mentioned revenue being up by 3%, and they will point out it’s actually 3.4%. This is called disconfirming messaging. It shows a lack of regard for another person. While usually unintentional, they are saying “I don’t value you.”
On the opposite side, confirming messaging shows people they matter and are valued. It all comes down to how you address your comments. Instead of “that will never work” you could say “I have some concerns about how that can go wrong, can we talk about it?”
Do an exercise, how many disconfirming vs. confirming messages do you use while at work or at home? Tallying yourself to see how you do. Ideally you would have 5 confirming messages for every disconfirming message.
Remember that everything you say and hear is filtered through your own culture, experiences, emotions, personality and knowledge. Someone with a completely different filter may experience remarks completely differently. If something you said causes someone else to feel disrespected, it doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what they think because it’s bothering them enough to step up and talk about it. Don’t dismiss their concerns because you don’t agree with their perception.
Try to limit things like:
- Speaking in a raised voice
- Making cutting remarks when you are angered
- Slamming doors
- Interrupting or talking over people
- Giving dirty sideways glances
- Making teasing remarks that stings
- Checking your phone during meetings or while you are talking to someone
Become an Upstander, and not a Bystander
A bystander is someone who witnesses incivility or harassment and does not stood up for the person on the receiving end. This is an active choice, and it makes you reinforcer. By not addressing the issue, your silence communicates that this behaviour is okay.
On the other hand, an Upstander is someone who observers or experiences incivility or microagressions and speaks up in order to stop the behaviour from happening again. We know speaking up is not easy. Not speaking forms part of flight in the old “fight or flight” mode. When someone threatens you, it causes your adrenaline to rush and your survival instinct is to fight or run. Those might be the only option for animals, but humans have a third option:
Work through your fears:
- Try self-reflecting – what are you afraid of when speaking up? Did you have a bad experience when you spoke up in the past? Do you fear retaliation? Write down all your responses
- Do a reality check – for each answer, ask yourself “what have I seen happen at work that supports this fear?”
- You may find that nothing at your current employer supports your fear, but if you do have supporting information (because you’ve seen it happen), the next step is coming up with a plan to worth through it
Speaking up one time might not be enough to change the behaviour. So next time it happens, speak up again, and the time after that.
Check your Online Communications
The internet is rife with incivility; everyone has either received or sent a nasty email, comment or blog post. The problem is when you write online communication, you are looking at a screen and not a person, so it becomes more difficult to empathize with the recipient.
The rule of thumb is you should try not to send emails when you are:
- Angry, stressed, or anxious
- Having a disagreement
- Delivering bad news
- Reprimand someone
- Discussing consequences
Don’t write something you wouldn’t say to a person’s face. Save it in drafts and reread it with a cooler head before you send it.
Stand up for each other if an uncivil email comes through. You might go talk to the sender, or respond back — just to them specifically if it was a group email — replying to all is an incivility in itself.
How Managers can Promote Civility
Negative behaviour, poor performance, bad customer service are all issues every manager has to deal with. When people communicate, get along and respect each other, everything flows more smoothly.
- Set expectations for everyone, including yourself. Meet with employees individually to discuss your expectations for behaviour, and hear theirs, or you might do it in a meeting. Either way, it should be a two way communication
- Discuss civility expectations in your interviews with new hires
- Create policies on civility and respect and ensure accessibility and placement of prominently located copies (e.g., bulletin board, employee handbook)
- Provide training and resources on civil and respectful workplace behaviour (e.g., interpersonal conflict resolution, anger management)
- Provide support and training for staff who are most likely to experience difficult behaviour or complaints during the
- course of their work (e.g., from difficult customers/clients)
- Implement diversity training throughout the organization (e.g., on mental disability issues)
- Treat incivility as a performance problem. If they aren’t meeting the expectation despite the resources you have provided, then move to disciplinary procedure to address the behaviour problem
- Consider dispute resolution alternatives (e.g., ombudsperson, informal third-party intervention, formal mediation)
- Maintain the confidentiality of employees’ personal information in all communications
- Adopt non-discriminatory language in all communications
- Manage conflict in an effective and timely fashion, and ensure follow-up with all parties involved
- Promote and reinforce respectful leadership behaviour
Creating a Civility Code
- In conjunction with HR, Managers can gather their employees and ask “what does civility mean to you?”
- Allow 10 minutes of brainstorming and then let the group share their answers.
- Write all the answers somewhere everyone can see them i.e. whiteboard or a screen projection. This is key because it will help the group to see that many of them have said relatively the same things.
- Work through the answers to find themes. Use these to create a Civility Code that everyone helped to create.
- After running the code by your Legal department, it can then be used to kick start meetings, added to performance reviews, etc.
Example of a Civility Code (from Johns Hopkins University)
- We will share ideas, raise questions, and express differences of opinion in a civil manner and without fear of reprisal or insult or denigration.
- We will listen respectfully while others share their ideas, allow the speaker to complete his or her thoughts and be open to considering new approaches.
- We will not raise our voices at each other in public or in private;
- We will not use a public forum to intentionally create discomfort, disruption or embarrassment for our colleagues regardless of position, rank or title.
- We will not curse or use terms that are derogatory to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or religion.
- We will be sensitive to the impact of tone, language and content of our written communication, including electronic communication.
- We will respect confidentiality, avoid gossip, and take care not to spread untruths or to undermine the professional credibility of our colleagues.
- We will be respectful of each other’s time.
- We will greet and acknowledge each other, regardless of position.
- We will be open to the contributions and talents of persons who may not look, sound, speak or act as we do.
- We will praise in public and share constructive criticism in private.
- We will remember that “please” and “thank you” are always appropriate.
- We will respect meeting starting and ending times.
- We will not engage in acts of or make threats of physical violence.
- We will treat everyone equitably and with respect regardless of their title and place the same expectations for civility regardless of position, rank or authority.
- Harvard Business Review (2013, January). The Price of Incivility – https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility
- Johns Hopkins University’s Civility Initiative – https://krieger2.jhu.edu/civility/index.html
- Business Insider (2018, September). 14 things people think are fine to say at work — but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive – https://www.businessinsider.com/microaggression-unconscious-bias-at-work-2018-6?IR=T
- McKinsey & Company (2016, December). The hidden toll of workplace incivility – https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-hidden-toll-of-workplace-incivility
- Legacy Business Cultures (2015, March). 10 Actions You Can Focus on to Influence Culture of Respect, Civility in your Workplace – https://legacycultures.com/10-actions-you-can-focus-on-to-influence-culture-of-respect-civility-in-your-workplace/
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