Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP

Do the Right Thing

Even Psychologists Need Help with Civility Guidelines

The APA just passed civility expectations and they might be onto something big.

Posted Aug 11, 2017

In recent years a lot has been written and discussed about the lack of civility in the workplace as well as in society in general. Engaging in behaviors that are aggressive, hostile, sarcastic, demeaning, and insulting appear to be so much more common in our world and sadly, have become normalized. The proliferation of incivility on social media, talk radio, cable news, and the remarkable uncivil behavior among famous people in politics, athletics, entertainment, and business just makes matters much worse. 

What people may not realize is that workplace incivility has been found to take a significant toll on employee stress, productivity, turnover, creativity, and so forth having a significant impact on employee mental and physical health too. Tragically, workplace incivility is associated with fatal errors in hospital environments as well as other serious consequences like critical and sometimes life-threatening errors in many industries.

used with permission from
Source: used with permission from

Psychologists have not been immune from these growing incivility trends. Although one would expect that psychologists would be the last professionals to have any troubles with incivility given the nature of our profession, the American Psychological Association (APA) has sadly and paradoxically struggled with this issue like everyone else. The recent challenges associated with some psychologists engaging in torture at Guantanamo Bay and the resulting Independent Review (IR) or Hoffman Report brought these issues to a head recently such that incivility between some psychologists reached a point of needed intervention.

The APA created a civility working group (in the spirit of full disclosure, I was asked to chair this group) and charged them to “develop aspirational civility principles as well as procedures for all forms of direct in-person communication and online messages and postings within and on behalf of APA.” Over the course of about 18 months the committee researched best practices in workplace civility efforts and ultimately came up with an implementation plan that included, among other things, a clear and concise statement of civility expectations for the organization as well as clear definitions of civility and incivility. It was voted on and approved by over 90% of APA council representatives at their meetings at the APA national convention in Washington, DC. 

The civility expectation and guidelines state the following:

As psychologists, we seek to embrace and practice the ethical principle of “respecting the dignity and worth of all people” and create a climate of civility, respect and inclusion throughout the APA community.  We strive to accomplish this goal by interacting and communicating with others in a spirit of mutual respect and an openness to listen as well as to consider all points of view.  While we may disagree on important issues, we debate and express our ideas in a collegial, civilized and professional manner. Corrective feedback will be provided constructively, respectfully and compassionately whenever members don’t behave civilly in order to maintain a comfortable, safe and professional environment in which to conduct the work of the Association. Finally, we understand that individuals from different cultures and groups may have varying customs and beliefs about what constitutes civil or uncivil behavior.  We expect all to be respectful and mindful of these differences and norms.

Additionally, operational definitions of civility and incivility are now encouraged to be distributed on at least an annual basis that include the following definitions:

Civility Operational Definitions

1. Think carefully before speaking
2. Differentiate and articulate facts from opinions
3. Focus on the common good
4. Disagree with others respectfully
5. Be open to others without hostility
6. Respect diverse views and groups
7. Offer a spirit of collegiality
8. Offer productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning,      insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways
9. Create a welcoming environment for all
10. Focus corrective feedback on one’s best and most desirable behavior

Incivility Operational Definitions

1. Interrupting and talking over others who have the floor
2. Overgeneralizing and offering dispositional character criticisms and attributions
3. Using language that is perceived as being aggressive, sarcastic, or demeaning
4. Speaking too often or for too long
5. Engaging in disrespectful non-verbal behaviors (e.g., eye rolling, loud sighs)
6. Offering false praise or disingenuous comments (e.g., “With all due respect    but…”)

APA also created a role of “Civility Ambassador” who is someone assigned to every committee, listserv, and so forth to be the point person for civility efforts.  

Although it is still too early to determine if an organizational culture shift towards more civility is sustainable, there are a number of hopeful signs. First, having a civility working group to develop policies and procedures to encourage and support civility at all levels of an organization brings much needed attention to this topic and helps to keep everyone mindful of the need and importance of civility as well as the problems and dangers of incivility. Second, developing very clear civility expectations with operational definitions of civility and incivility helps to avoid any confusion or misinterpretations about what is and is not civil behavior.  

APA's efforts to improve civility might actually become a best practice that other groups and organizations could use taking a page from this APA playbook. Time will tell but hopefully, psychologists can and should be on the leading edge of developing a civilized professional organization. 

In addition to being psychologists, perhaps they can be referred to as "civil engineers" as well. 

Helping to create a more civil community and culture is critically important and everyone can and should do their part to help. It is good that psychologists are taking a strong position on this issue that will hopefully help many to go and do likewise. 

So, what do you think? 

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Copyright 2017, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP


Felblinger, D. M. (2009). Bullying, incivility, and disruptive behaviors in the healthcare setting: identification, impact, and intervention. Frontiers of health services management, 25(4), 13.

Hoffman, D. H. (2015). Report to the special committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent review relating to APA ethics guidelines, national security interrogations, and torture. Sidley Austin LLP.

Porath, C. (2016). Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Porath, C. L., & Erez, A. (2007). Does rudeness really matter? The effects of rudeness on task performance and helpfulness. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5), 1181-1197.

Pearson, C., & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York: Penguin.