Why We Need to Kick Incivility Out of the Office

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Georgetown's Christine Porath on civility at work.

Porath bookIf you feel like the “civil” in our civil society is somewhat less reliable than it used to be, the evidence suggests you’re right. And in few places is this more true than at work. Bosses treat employees with thoughtless discourtesy; coworkers vent to their peers and treat each other brusquely; and the recipients of such nastiness share the wealth by taking their unhappiness out on their customers and clients. It’s not everyone, and it’s not every day. But it’s too often. And it’s a big problem.

When left unchecked, not only does rampant incivility make our days more tense, it also leads to a loss of focus, a loss of productivity, a deliberate slacking off among disgruntled employees, and even serious health problems. Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University, has been studying the problem and looking for ways we can begin to alleviate it. Porath joined the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about her new book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How common is workplace incivility these days?

Christine Porath: All too common. Over the last two decades, it’s really spiked. You see more than 50% of people reporting that they experience it at least once a week.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the reasons why?

Porath: The number-one reason people give for being uncivil is they feel too stressed or overloaded. But I think in general, also contributing to this is technology. It’s much easier to have misunderstandings when you don’t have things like tone of voice or facial expressions to go on. Also, as we’ve gotten more global, people come to the workplace with different norms. You see a lot more challenges because of that.

Knowledge@Wharton: So stop texting your employees because they can’t tell what your tone is in a comment?

Porath: Yes, especially if it’s bad news or if it’s something stressful, or if it’s critical information; if it’s going to cause somebody to be upset or maybe be defensive, things like that. Really think twice about instances where people may be defensive.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m guessing that incivility can be a problem both in terms of employee-to-employee communication, and in terms of manager-to-employee communication.

Porath: Absolutely. We find that [the latter is] actually much more common — over two-thirds of the time, it flows from the top down.

“About two-thirds of the time, people will intentionally give less at work because they’ve experienced [incivility].”

Knowledge@Wharton: You ask an interesting question in the book: Can you really cure incivility?

Porath: I don’t think we’ll eventually solve it completely, but I absolutely think we can get a lot better. Everyone can take responsibility for it, and we can really shift it in organizations. I’ve definitely seen leaders in organizations go from being fairly uncivil to winning awards for best places to work. The first step is to make a commitment.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some of the data on the impact of incivility looks at the intentional decrease of work effort or time spent at work as a result of incivility. And I emphasize intentional.

Porath: Yes. About two-thirds of the time, people will intentionally give less at work because they’ve experienced it. They take it out on the organization, even though the organization often knows nothing about uncivil behavior.

Knowledge@Wharton: Yet a lot of the time, people will deal with it and stay at a company. In one statistic [you cite], only 12% left their job because of incivility.

Porath: Yes. That was just in one instance…. I think it results in a huge problem in turnovers — about as costly an outcome as organizations will have.

Knowledge@Wharton: So are companies more aware of it? You’d expect they would have to be. Bosses can see the incivility walking through the office on a day-by-day basis. And obviously, the data you’ve collected really confirms this problem.

Porath: That’s one of the most encouraging things that I’ve seen over the last couple decades. When I started this [research], leaders of organizations really weren’t paying attention to it. It wasn’t talked about. Now I see them really making an effort to try to get better in this area — at least, a lot of organizations are doing so. I think it’s one of these ideas where people want to move from good to great. You’re always going to have some problem people, or maybe problem areas in an organization, and it’s just about shifting them to be a little bit more civil.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk about the impact this has. It obviously would have a financial impact on the company itself, but in terms of the people that feel it, a lot of times when you as an employee are angry because somebody has not been civil towards you, it can be the customer who ends up feeling the impact as much as anybody.

Porath: Whether it’s intentional or not, over a quarter of people admit to taking it out on customers. What we’ve seen is that incivility is contagious. People become carriers of it. Even if you’re just working around it, it affects your mood. It gives you just a little bit more of an edge. We don’t realize that we take it out on people, whether it’s customers, other coworkers — we even take it home with us.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s a health issue for a lot of people as well, correct?

Porath: Absolutely. So what stress researchers have shown is that these more minor incidents, when they happen repeatedly, wear away at us. Over time, people are surprised, but it leads to things like heart attacks, cancer and other health issues. Again, we’re not aware of it at the time, but it really whittles away at people, and their health and wellbeing.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mention in your book that it is important to take a look at yourself and see whether or not you are causing some of these issues. It sounds like a lot of people don’t even really understand what is going on. They don’t see it happening, or recognize what they are doing as problematic, as it’s playing out.

Porath: That’s probably the number-one thing that I’ve learned over time. I started out thinking, “Gosh, there really are some jerks in the workplace and we need to correct things,” because I worked in a toxic workplace. Where I’ve landed now is that the vast majority of this really stems from people not being aware of how they’re being perceived, or how they’re affecting others. When I’ve surveyed people about why they’re uncivil, only 4% say, “Because it’s fun and I can get away with it.” I think that means that for the vast majority, we’re open to getting feedback and trying to do better.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is part of what’s leading to these changes the fact that HR departments are coming to understand that they need to hire not just excellent workers but also excellent people, and that culture fit really needs to be a key component when they add people to an organization?

“What we’ve seen is that incivility is contagious. People become carriers of it. Even if you’re just working around it, it affects your mood.”

Porath: I think that’s exactly right. There’s been some really great research coming out of Harvard that has shown that one toxic worker is much more costly than two superstars. The idea is that it really pays to recruit and select well, and that’s probably the place where I’d encourage leaders in organizations to invest in the most. That’s where I think they get the biggest return. Because unfortunately, again, this stuff spreads. If you select someone who is toxic, it’s not only going to probably affect their coworkers, it’s also going to infest the organization.

Knowledge@Wharton: If somebody listening to us right now is dealing with incivility, whether from a coworker or a manager, what are some of the ways they should think about addressing it?

Porath: Ideally, they’re getting information to the organization, whether that’s anonymously, through something like 360 Feedback, or not. [Often the situation] doesn’t change because the person who’s uncivil never realizes it. And because it flows down from people with higher power, higher status, most people don’t feel comfortable confronting the person. If you’re lucky, you’re able to give them feedback on what they’re doing well and what they can correct to have a better influence. But typically, I would say that whether it involves going through an HR department, going through 360 Feedback, or getting the information to a mentor who has more power and status, and who might be able to effect change, the goal would be to get people feedback on their blind spots. That’s really where the change starts.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also write that when you’re dealing with this level of incivility, you can’t overanalyze it, because that will have just as much of a negative impact as anything.

Porath: Yes, what we’ve seen in experiments is that it’s actually not the intentional getting-even “I’m not going to work as hard” responses that are really driving the performance losses. It’s really that it takes away people’s attention. They can’t focus as well. They’re less likely to see things that are literally in front of them. Their working memory is considerably slower. What happens — whether people are replying to it in their mind or thinking they don’t want to be that next person or what implications it might have for their career — the cognitive effects are extreme. That’s where we see the main drain on performance. So really, trying to let go of it and focus more positively on yourself and how best to move forward is key.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’ve gotten the sense that one of your least favorite phrases when you’re talking about dealing with business is “Suck it up.” You’re really not a fan of that, are you?

Porath: No. I mean, I was, because as a former athlete, you get used to that mentality. But I think that for people in their careers, it’s not very helpful — the idea of continuing to live with it. I think it’s really important that people focus on their future and how to improve their own situation. Otherwise, you just get sucked away. People can suck the life out of you, and that’s what we’re seeing. It’s very important that you take a proactive focus on yourself. I have to focus on me, focus on my future, bet on me, versus betting on change in the person. Because again, as you mentioned, so much of this comes from people with greater power. You may not be able to change them or the situation completely in an organization. But the one thing you can focus on is yourself and moving forward in the most positive way possible.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you talk about Google, and some of the things that they have done to try and alleviate this problem.

“[Often the situation] doesn’t change because the person who’s uncivil never realizes it. And because it flows down from people with higher power, higher status, most people don’t feel comfortable confronting the person.”

Porath: Yes. I think they’re a wonderful organization that’s done a lot, mainly around unconscious bias. Some of this is very subtle, in the sense that we want to strive for inclusiveness, especially given the diversity in organizations today. They’ve been a frontrunner, having trained well over 35,000 of their 50,000 employees; people have voluntarily taken classes on unconscious bias. They really tried to stamp this out — and I think, set an incredible example for organizations to learn from. The other thing is that for organizations that don’t have the resources to get at this, there’s a Google team called re:Work. If you go to their website, you’ll get lots of ideas, even videos on this. So organizations with fewer resources now have access to these kinds of tips and classes, and the research behind them to move forward positively.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the other companies you wrote about is right here in the Philadelphia area: The Campbell Soup Company, right across the bridge in Camden, New Jersey.

Porath: Yes, Doug Conant, when he was CEO, did just a wonderful job there. He literally stepped in — at the time they were not doing well with engagement, ranked one of the lowest in the Fortune 500 — and he really turned it around. He credits the idea of touch points — this notion of being tenderhearted with people, tough-minded on results. He held people accountable for performing very well, but he did so in a way that showed that he really cared about people. And that makes all the difference.

Just one quick example of that was, during his tenure as CEO, he handwrote 30,000 thank-you notes to employees. And he said it made all the difference. He’d walk around in different places in the world and see them hanging up. People were striving for that, and it set a good example for other leaders in terms of things that they could do to motivate and reinforce positive work behavior.

Knowledge@Wharton: You included in your book an interesting e-mail that was circulated by the CEO of a company back in 2001. And this is, I guess, the ultimate case of quick reaction. You’re chuckling, so you know exactly where I’m going with this. The gentleman’s name is Neal Patterson, who is the CEO of a software firm, Cerner Corporation. Seemingly, he didn’t think he was getting enough out of his employees. He wrote a scathing e-mail to them — and not only did this not work well with the employees, the media picked up on it. The value of the company plummeted. And obviously, Patterson, didn’t exactly wind up with a really good situation either.

Porath: No. Within three days, because an employee posted the memo on Yahoo!, the market cap of the company dropped $300 million. And his personal wealth dropped $28 million. He just lost it, and he certainly paid the price for it. And today, people are much quicker to post to social media. We have a lot more outlets for this — Twitter and other places. So I think it’s more relevant now than ever before. Employees will get even in different ways. … I hope that leaders think twice before sending an e-mail. Everyone, really. That’s the whole idea behind waiting and sending it — rereading, having someone else read it. But yes, he certainly paid for it.

Knowledge@Wharton: This becomes even more important in terms of culture as more companies are trying to build teams — whether it’s small teams working on a project, or implementing a team concept throughout the organization. If you want that to really take hold, you can’t have this type of incivility in your company.

Porath: No, because again, it spreads. You not only have teams that aren’t collaborating, giving their all, you also have a culture where people aren’t speaking up; they’re not sharing ideas. Really focusing on building a culture of trust and respect is key for teams, and that applies to all different industries: high tech, marketing, management, and especially health care. We’ve seen some really great studies focused on the consequences of when doctors or nurses, staff are not focused because of negative exchanges between people. There are a lot of issues around patient safety. There was some data collected where out of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 70% said that this kind of uncivil behavior affected patient safety; 27% said that it had led to a patient’s death.

“There was some data collected where out of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 70% said that this kind of uncivil behavior affected patient safety; 27% said that it had led to a patient’s death.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You suggest that providing coaching to help people in this situation is something that companies need to consider.

Porath: Absolutely. It really helps open people’s eyes around a specific behavior that they could improve in order to have a more positive effect on people. And, if you don’t have the luxury of having an internal or an external coach, one thing that is helpful is to use your teammates. Gather feedback from them. There’s a civility test that is in the book; it’s on [my] website, free. Use it. There’s a form for teams. It gets people talking about it. And that’s really eye opening, especially when we are coming from such different cultures and norms.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you mentioned, we probably won’t ever totally get rid of incivility and misunderstanding, but it seems there’s even more potential for it to increase because of the digital nature of our society. It would be better in some ways if a manager were always able to walk over and talk to each individual employee about each individual problem or what they’re looking for; it’s just not physically possible. E-mail is too easy for a lot of people these days.

Porath: It is too easy. And I think that that’s actually the number-one thing that people confess to on the civility test — that they use e-mail when face-to-face would be better. So it’s a bit of a cop out. What I’m talking about is when you have bad news, or you just want to shove something someone’s way that they’re not going to like, but you don’t want to have to face them and talk through it. That’s what we’re getting at. Certainly, we’re always going to be using e-mail a lot. I think part of what would help also is having face-to-face meetings somewhere along the way, so that people get to know you and they give you the benefit of the doubt. Then, when there’s a potential misunderstanding, they are less quick to judge or point the finger — less defensive.

Knowledge@Wharton: It sounds like you’re saying more companies need to take the approach — which some are already doing — of having the open office space, of adding cafes on their campuses, so that people can sit down and actually have a chance to talk with one another over the course of the day — not necessarily in the business setting. If these discussions can happen more naturally during a person’s day, that can end up quelling a lot of incivility as well.

Porath: Absolutely. Tom Gardner, the CEO and co-founder of the Motley Fool, did something really interesting a few years ago. He required his employees to learn each other’s names. He held them accountable by tying it to their annual bonus, which was a large chunk. Everyone had to do this. And if everyone didn’t pass this, then no one got the bonus. It took a little bit of time. There was one person who was struggling. But they ended up doing it, about 200 employees, which he said he thought was about the limit. But his whole concept was if people just learn each other’s names, they will feel more comfortable acknowledging them, saying hello when they bump into them in the café, in the elevator, that kind of thing. His whole idea was it will lead to more conversations, a more effective workplace. And it’s one of the best places to work. It consistently wins awards. So I think ideas like that — just getting people together, whether it’s a retreat or company events — increase the likelihood of everyone just feeling more comfortable and treating one another better.

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