Christine Porath Ph.D.

Thriving at Work

The Incivility Bug

And what you can do to inoculate yourself.

Posted Sep 27, 2017

 Used with permission
Source: Free image: Used with permission

Have you experienced rudeness? Have you witnessed or read about insensitive treatment? Was a group you are affiliated with disrespected? Over the years, 96 percent of people I’ve surveyed have experienced workplace incivility; over 99 percent report witnessing rudeness at work.

When these experiences occur, you are programmed to see more rudeness. Your performance—and your civility—likely decline, too.

Incivility is a virus that spreads, making the lives of everyone exposed to it more difficult. Incivility might start in one office, and before you know it, it’s down the hall, up three floors, and in the break room, infecting someone who may have contact with clients and customers. Left unchecked, incivility can drag down an entire organization. It makes people less kind, less patient, less energetic, and less fun. Those exposed to incivility also contribute less.

If we catch incivility outside the workplace, we tend to bring the negative effects into the workplace. Online rudeness, disrespectful social media, road rage, and other forms of incivility are tough to shake. A seemingly small act of rudeness ripples across communities, affecting people in our network with whom we may or may not interact directly.

On a non-conscious level, people become aware of the concept of rudeness when they’re around it in any form, even when they aren’t the target of it directly. A node in the brain is activated, and this activation rapidly spreads across the neural network to nearby nodes. A rude email you read might activate nodes in your brain associated with memories of other encounters in which you experienced or witnessed rudeness. In your mind, the activated concepts—in this case, rudeness and incivility—become more accessible; they come to mind and can shape your judgments and decision-making.

Recent research shows that exposure to rudeness in the morning can contaminate employees’ perceptions of subsequent social interactions, leading them to perceive greater workplace rudeness throughout their workday. Those perceptions of rudeness led to lower performance and goal progress as well as greater avoidance and withdrawal.

Our minds are very sensitive; it doesn’t take much for incivility to affect us—even a single word thrown our way can make a big difference in how we behave. For example, participants who were primed with hostile words by researchers were more likely to give much longer shocks to the learner. When you’re exposed to hostility or aggression, you behave differently. Incivility sneaks into your subconscious. It’s easy to see how plagues of incivility can take shape and spread.

While most of us aren’t doling out shocks during our workdays, we have ample opportunities to interrupt other people as they’re speaking.  Researchers in another study showed that people exposed to words related to rudeness would more often interrupt someone during a lengthy conversation than someone exposed to words related to politeness. The results were stunning: While 67 percent of participants exposed to rude words interrupted the conversation—some more aggressively than others—only 16 percent of participants exposed to polite words chose to interrupt.

Just because someone exposes you to rudeness doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be uncivil to others, though. When you follow a rude experience with a polite one, the polite one “overwrites” the rude one, loosening the hold it has on your mind.

Next time you witness or are a victim of rudeness, “reprogram” your mind by purposefully exposing yourself to something more positive. Talk to a friendly civil colleague for a few minutes. Read an inspiring story, an uplifting example of human generosity, or an email that evokes a spirit of kindness. These activities don’t merely serve as a kind of balm; they inoculate you against the “virus” of incivility.