Why Are Our Workplaces Getting Ruder?

Incivility costs us, personally and professionally. How can we deal with it?

Posted Jul 30, 2017

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

How often do you have to deal with people’s rude behavior at work? Perhaps they’re checking their personal emails in the middle of your meeting, needlessly keeping you waiting, belittling your best efforts, or even waging all-out sabotage. The reality is that most of us report that incivility is on the rise in our workplaces, and it’s costing us personally and professionally. So how can we deal with it? 

“Incivility is defined as rude, disrespectful, or insensitive behavior,” explains Christine Porath, associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Business and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, whom I interviewed recently. “The tricky part is that it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, so it’s all subjective; it’s how people feel based on someone’s actions.”

Over the past 15 years, Porath and her colleagues have polled thousands of workers about how they’re treated at work, and 98 percent have reported experiencing uncivil behavior, with around 56 percent claiming incivility is at least a weekly occurrence. It’s not that we’re surrounded by more jerks, but that our feelings of being stressed and overworked, our growing reliance on technology, and shifting cultural and generational norms are blunting our self-awareness and our energy for consistently civil behaviors.

And the cost of this rude behavior is adding up.   

Porath’s research has found that when you feel like your work environment isn’t trusting, respectful, or safe, you are more likely to mentally shut down and withdraw from others, less likely to be creative or to offer, seek or accept feedback, and prone to feel less engaged and to put less effort into your work. You’re also three times less likely to cooperate and collaborate with others — and over time, this can damage your relationships and your mental and physical health.   

In a poll of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, Porath also found that when people were on the receiving end of incivility at work, 48 percent intentionally decreased their work effort, 80 percent lost time worrying about the incident, and 66 percent said their performance declined. Worryingly, 25 percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers, and 12 percent said they left their job altogether. 

So what’s the best way to navigate incivility in our workplaces?  

“Most of the time incivility stems from people with greater power status, which means most of us are probably going to be unsuccessful at trying to report it, fight it, or change the other person’s behavior,” Porath said. “The best strategy to buffer the negative effects of incivility is to focus on boosting your own well-being.”   

Porath suggests that this is because when you’re thriving, you’re less likely to take things personally, less likely to get distracted by the negative emotions that follow, and more likely to be focused on progressing towards your own developmental goals. Think of rude behavior as a virus that you need to protect and inoculate yourself and your team from, so you don’t get sucked into a downward spiral of contagion.   

To protect yourself — and others — from incivility, Porath suggests the following approaches:  

1. Value Civility.

No matter how well behaved you think you are, we can all be a little kinder and more considerate. Seeking feedback from others on your actions can help you become more self-aware. You can also take the civility self-assessment on Porath’s website to gain insight into your own behavior and then master the basics of acknowledging people, smiling more, and listening effectively to make your workplace more civil. 

2. Take Control.

Help bring closure to uncivil behavior by journaling incidents and then letting them go — after all, you can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there. Then, invest your energy in learning opportunities to boost your sense of self and absorb your attention on things that are within your control. For example, find a great mentor to guide you, re-craft parts of your job around your strengths, connect with people who energize you, or take on a new hobby or sport outside of work. 

3. Gain Clarity.

In every interaction, you have a choice to lift people up or hold them down. You are going to be judged by the little moments, so to make the most of them, start each day by getting clear and answering this question: “Who do I want to be?” Even in the face of the most uncivil behavior, your attitude, mindset, and willingness can make a difference. In each moment, you get to choose who you want to be. 

4. Build Civil Workplaces. 

Recruit people for civility, and be explicit about your organization’s values when you hire. Make civility part of your mission statement, and engage your team in conversations about what these norms should be and hold each other accountable. Create a culture and measurement system in which people are credited for civil behaviors. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t give people honest and direct feedback. Give corrective feedback on bad behavior quickly and firmly. And by demonstrating civil behavior that shows others that you care, value, and respect them, they can be more receptive to what you have to say and respond better to negative feedback.  

What can you do to improve civility in your workplace?