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  • Writer's pictureJilian Houghton

Combatting Incivility in the Workplace

The beginning of a presidential race always seems to be marked by the unleashing of an arsenal of memes, flinging accusations from every corner, and engaging in a lack of respectful discourse. It's no wonder that when I stopped following the day-to-day dramatics of the political arena the greatest impact it had on me was a renewed lens of positivity.


Due to the nature of our work I wanted to know what the research says about the effect being exposed to negative messaging has on workplace relationships. And that took me down a rabbit hole that spit me out at the intersection of workplace civility and conflict.


Let's start by defining incivility as being unkind to the people around you. This can manifest in a million different ways, from belittling and teasing to simply ignoring someone. (Of course, it can also escalate as far as physical aggression, but we're going to just operate under the assumption that you and your employer won't tolerate that in the workplace, right?) We can easily identify when it's happening TO us, and can often spot incivility when we are an outside observer, but less frequently when we are the offender. Deciding exactly what incivility is can be difficult, because it is often rooted in the eye of the beholder.


Are we engaged in a culture of incivility?

As you evaluate where your organizational climate of communication ranks on the spectrum of civility to incivility, it's important to note that overall our

society is trending toward increased incivility. In a recent survey of front line workers across 25 industries, 76% of respondents said they experience incivility at least once a month, in 2005 it was just 55%. In the same survey they also interviewed those who observed front line workers, 70% said they witnessed incivility at least 2-3 times per month.* What would this statistic be for our teachers? Our first responders? Our local government employees?


If at least three quarters of us are experiencing incivility in some capacity, that certainly sounds like the definition of a "culture of incivility”.


Why is incivility becoming our norm?

  1. Stress. As we face a rapidly changing workforce, work environment, and economic landscape, it's a natural reaction to experience stress. And if our bodies are locked into a fight, flight or freeze mode making our nervous systems work in overdrive, it makes sense that sometimes that results in uncivil interactions at work.

  2. Exposure to negativity (in any form). Just being exposed to rude words affects our ability to process and recall information. And incivility breeds more incivility, so witnessing rudeness — like reading an argumentative blogpost or scrolling nasty comments on social media — comes with a cognitive price, interfering with our working memory and decreasing our performance. They found this to be true in NICU teams who were measured on diagnostic and procedural performance while being exposed to rudeness. Those experiencing rudeness in their teams had lower scores than the control group.*

  3. Weakened Community. If employees aren't feeling heard and valued it will have ripple effects. Let’s couple all of that with the communication pitfalls we often experience thanks to technology. It connects us every second of the day but doesn’t necessarily BUILD connection. Autocorrect makes our text seem overly critical, a slack message was taken out of context or our tone was misconstrued in an email.

  4. Self-awareness. We try to cover this at every opportunity in our trainings. So many workplace relationship challenges stem from ignorance–not hate. People simply lack self-awareness. According to research by Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, 95% of people think they’re self-aware but only 10%–15% actually are. That means 80%–85% of people misunderstand how they’re perceived and how they affect others.*

Because everyone deserves good workplace relationships, incivility must be addressed head on. But if that isn't a good enough reason for you, incivility takes a toll on your organization's bottom line. When the community witnesses others being uncivil to employees they’re willingness to come back actually drops by 35%, they lose trust in the organization.*


The Good News: You can help internally and externally

  1. Set expectations. We can’t expect people to be civil to one another if we haven’t defined what that looks like and how we will implement it. Decide how people will interact with one another and create an accountability structure to support that.

  2. Set down your paradigm. Our paradigm is our lens to the world. It is informed by the expanse of our experiences, culture, gender, age, and every moment leading up to this one, meaning our lens is completely unique and no two people have the same paradigm. We interpret interactions and situations through this lens, filtering it through our personal set of paradigm glasses. When we can set those glasses aside and take the time to understand how someone else is viewing the situation then we can begin to engage in civil dialogue or at least gain a better understanding of what motivates their incivility.

  3. Make a Plan and de-escalation training. You can’t decide in the midst of an abrasive customer interaction that you’re going to learn to set down your paradigm and de-escalate. That decision needed to happen long before you got there. Implement de-escalation systems and procedures that are simple, straightforward and eventually, second nature to your employees.


Is there hope for how to protect and empower our employees?

There's always hope, so long as it accompanies action. Incivility is contagious, but so is civility and its power to spread and permeate every aspect of our society.


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