The Toxicity of Incivility

Simple respect and courtesy needs to be expected behavior from all...always.

Posted Mar 06, 2017

On Point/flickr/used with permission
Source: On Point/flickr/used with permission

Our current political environment, as well as our present culture in general, has unfortunately devolved towards extreme incivility or rudeness on steroids!

Sadly and tragically, insults, rancor, demeaning comments, and the demonization of those perceived as “the other” seem to be much more commonplace today. Cable news, talk radio, and social media make matters worse. It has gotten so bad that even the American Psychological Association has found the need to create a civility working group (which they asked me to chair) to help develop policies and procedures to encourage civil discourse in all in-person and online communications. You know it must be pretty bad if even psychologists need a civility working group.

While we all likely want to live in a world of civility we all must do our part to help create a culture of respect and compassion for everyone we interact with both in person and online. To do this we must confront incivility with civility and thus not take the bait when incivility is directed toward us. This often takes a good deal of attention, commitment, and practice.

Recently, I attended an excellent lecture at my university presented by a well-known Georgetown University business professor, Christine Porath (see, her eight-minute TEDx style talk is really worth a view). She conducts research within business and medical environments regarding the costs of incivility in the workplace. Her research well documents and demonstrates the toxicity of incivility. Not only being a direct victim of incivility but just witnessing incivility toward others creates what she referred to as a cognitive fog of negativity resulting in significant reductions in attention, information processing, and problem solving abilities. Her research shows that these incivility induced cognitive challenges can result in really bad outcomes including patient deaths within hospital environments for example. Thus, even witnessing incivility at work can result in death. Remarkable!

When I asked Porath about her thoughts concerning implementation of civility principles in the workplace she spoke about the need to have a 360 degree feedback approach and the importance of shared and agreed upon civility expectations and values. Thus, we need to work hard to have buy-in from others about civil behavior as well as permission and comfort in providing corrective feedback to colleagues including bosses, subordinates, and peers.

Simple respect and courtesy needs to be underscored and considered expected behavior. We need to create cultures and climates that highlight, model, and expect civility and where incivility is not tolerated or allowed to occur using corrective feedback to push back on incivility.

We all must do our part. This is important and may be critical to our very survival. Can you do your part? Can you join team civility and be a civility ambassador or "civil engineer" in your professional and personal life?  

What do you think?

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Copyright 2017 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP


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