Incivility in the Workplace

What It Is and Why You Need to Manage It In Your Organisation

Let’s start by asking ourselves a few questions:

  • IN EMAILS: when I receive messages which seem off-task and abrupt, do I respond in the same manner?
  • IN MEETINGS: do I work on my computer or smartphone and ignore my colleagues?
  • IN CONVERSATIONS: do I make condescending or demeaning comments in the workplace e.g. correcting/ reprimanding someone in public, share anecdotes about co-workers that cast a negative light on their abilities, performance or personality, make rude comments?
  • IN PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIPS: if I find someone difficult to work with, do I roll my eyes or give him/ her dirty looks on occasion, or give the silent treatment?
  • IN SHARED WORKSPACES: do I leave my dirty dishes/ utensils in the office kitchen sink or neglect to pick up after myself in shared spaces?

Feeling uncomfortable yet?

Workplace incivility is a prevalent issue and presents a unique challenge because it is ambiguous in nature. It is defined by Anderson and Pearson (1999) as “…low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.” These behaviors are easily deflected – “I didn’t mean it”, “He had the wrong impression” or “She’s just oversensitive”.

By exploring these, we can gain insights into how we approach the issue of incivility in the workplace. Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of such uncivil behaviors. How did you react or respond?

Effects of Workplace Incivility

Those who are on the receiving end may cope in a variety of ways: avoiding or working around the person who is uncivil, engage in passive aggressive behaviors, and may engage in uncivil behaviors.

The accrued minor stresses of incivility may lead employees to miss work, lessen their loyalty to their organizations, lower their level of job satisfaction and prompt them to consider leaving their organizations. Even those who are onlookers can be negatively affected as well. There is a cost to organizations in lost productivity, increased conflict and absenteeism.

What Can We Do?

Although we cannot change others’ behaviors, following are four practical steps to help ourselves, our colleagues and organization create a more civil and respectful workplace:

  1. MODEL: the best way to communicate the importance of civility in the workplace is to intentionally model civility ourselves. Always treat people with respect, put that phone away during meetings, lower our voices in shared offices and remember our manners no matter how we feel about our colleagues;
  2. COLLABORATE: when working in teams or departments, work collaboratively with colleagues on rules for engagement, then hold each other accountable to keep those rules. Set the culture of civility that you all agree upon and stick to it, especially when under the pressure of deadlines or other stresses;
  3. STRATEGIZE: Seek strategies or interventions that will address gaps in individual and group interpersonal skills. For instance, develop conflict management or communication skills training programs, work with staff members whose behaviors challenge those around them and plan ahead to head off possible problems before they begin;
  4. CREATE THE CULTURE: On an organizational level, support the creation of a culture that encourages respect and civility. This can be developed in part by establishing policies and codes of conduct aimed specifically at encouraging respect and discouraging incivility.

Managing and curbing the rise of incivility requires comprehensive strategies and collaboration both at the individual and corporate levels. The development and maintenance of a positive and productive work environment is critical for both personal and organizational success.

Dr Jeannie Trudel is President of CHC-Christian Heritage College and has grown organisations for more than two decades.