Alan A. Cavaiola Ph.D.

Impossible to Please

Incivility in the Workplace

Yes, and it's beating the heck out of us at work

Posted Aug 02, 2015

Photo by Dreamstime. Used with permission
Source: Photo by Dreamstime. Used with permission

by Alan Cavaiola, Ph.D.

In the June 21, 2015 New York Times, there was an very interesting article written by Dr. Christine Porath, who is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Her article entitled, “No Time to Be Nice: We’re rude at work and it’s hurting profits, health and happiness” explores the impact of “mean bosses” and nasty co-workers and how the stress generated by these types of individuals can impact on their co-worker’s immune systems by increasing levels of glucocorticoids. Cortisol is the stress hormone which results in a number of health problems including increased appetite and obesity. Dr. Porath recalls how her father had been victimized over the course of several years by two uncivil bosses and how this resulted in his developing cardiac problems.

 Porath quotes a 2012 study in which women who worked in stressful jobs had a 38% increased risk of cardiovascular disease when tracked over a 12 year period.  We know that stress is not good for us, but Porath’s research has elucidated various types of stressful conditions within the workplace that contribute to our developing stress-related health conditions. In one of her research studies she surveyed 605 people in 17 different industries and found the following “rude behaviors” by bosses as most cited: interrupts people, is judgmental of those who are different, pays little attention to or shows little attention to others’ opinions, takes the best tasks and leaves the worst for others, fails to pass along necessary information, neglects to say “please” and “thank you”, talks down to people, takes too much credit for things, swears, puts others down.   The following were “rude behaviors” workers noted in themselves: hibernates into e-gadgets, uses jargon when it excludes others, ignores invitations, is judgmental of those who are different, grabs easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others, does not listen, emails or texts during meetings, pays little attention to others, takes others’ contributions for granted, belittles others non-verbally, neglects to say “please” and “thank you”.  So are these rude behaviors a reflection of “corporate culture” or our culture at large, in which we seem to have withdrawn from friendly or civil interactions with others and retreated into technology by focusing more on our i-phones and i-pads than on those around us.   

When we had written Toxic Coworkers back in 2001, we had described how toxic bosses, supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates could generate stress through a means of behaviors that were often reflective of various personality disorder traits.  Interestingly though, just prior to the release of our book, a Gallup poll had come out stating that one of the things that people liked best about their jobs was their coworkers. At first, this seemed antithetical to our research, which surveyed approximately 1200 individuals in 10 different occupational settings. But then, we realized how those coworkers that we enjoy working with are the people we joke around with, or look forward to telling them about what we did over the weekend. They are the stress buffers while toxic coworkers are stress generators.  They seem to thrive on creating drama and subjecting others to rude or uncivil behaviors such as those described by Dr. Porath.  Her research however, further indicates that over 40% of employee feel they have no time to be nice because of work overload.  However, as Porath points out, “…respect doesn’t necessarily require more time. It’s about how something is conveyed: tone and non-verbal manner are important.” 

Incivility has other detrimental consequences. Workers find that they miss important information or not able to process it efficiently when they are “under the gun” of a harsh or insensitive boss or coworker.  Even customers are less likely to patronize businesses where they are treated rudely. This type of behavior impacts on a company’s bottom line, just as employees who leave to work elsewhere impact negatively because of the time it often takes to interview applicants and train new employees.

Porath found that incivility in the workplace often results from ignorance and not necessarily is done out of malice.  I recently had the opportunity of reviewing an outstanding doctoral dissertation written by Jennifer Ellison.  Her research examines how personality structure or traits can determine the outcome of workplace mediation.  She was specifically interested in whether specific personality disorder traits would respond favorably or not to mediation efforts. There were several noteworthy findings of her research. First, those with particular personality disorder traits (e.g. narcissism, histrionic, borderline), were indeed less likely to view mediation attempts as satisfactory. Another interesting finding which supports Porath’s contention that workers are sometimes “ignorant” rather than malicious, was that many workers who participated in mediation had no clue as to how they were coming across to others or how uncivil they were acting.  One of the common factors to most, if not all of the personality disorders (as described in the DSM-5) is that individuals with these disorders often lack insight or awareness of the character traits.  So the narcissist may view themselves as confident or self-assured rather than as being self-centered and egotistical.

We are aware of several corporations and other organizations that require that their managers attend what some refer to as “finishing school”, which basically offers training in how to play nice and get along with others.  This along with companies that offer mediation such as described in Ellison’s research may provide valuable steps in reducing incivility in the workplace.