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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Addressing Workplace Incivility

Nothing says ”teen movie” quite like the presence of a mean girl or jock stereotype causing problems for the main character. Much of Hollywood depicts an exaggerated version of these issues, but workplace incivility can poison an environment of respect and fairness.

Treating co-workers with kindness and inclusiveness creates a safe and enjoyable workplace. But what happens when unwanted behavior occurs?

When employees are treated poorly at work, it shows, as:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their quality of work
  • 66% had lower performance
  • 78% decreased their commitment to their organization

According to research conducted by professor Christine Porath, it also negatively affects employee engagement and retention – endings no employer wants to see. If you see incivility at work, call for a “rewrite” by following these tips.

Be attentive

Just as a manager monitors activity going in and out of their department, they must also observe the behavior and actions of their employees. Sudden shifts in demeanor can be a sign that something has gone wrong within your team. Ensuring your employees have a way of communicating problems is key, as you are responsible for the care and well-being of your direct reports.

Uncivil behaviors can take many forms and vary in severity. Incivility may target a certain gender, race or religion, while others relate to the general level of respect we provide each other. Some key uncivil behaviors include:

  • passive hostility or aggression
  • territorial behavior
  • distrust or difficulty with other’s opinions and feedback
  • sabotage due to surveillance or teamwork meddling
  • exercise or abuse of power
  • humiliation or sarcasm
  • bullying
  • gossiping
  • stereotyping
  • aggressive or arrogant tone

Identifying these types of behavior along with discovering the sources of incivility can help employers restore stability.

Determine the source

To build workplace affinity, a manager must understand when and where incivility can occur:

  • Lack of rapport: Unfamiliarity with an employer, co-worker or supervisor could lead to incivility through miscommunication.
  • Lack of information or perspective: If an employee lacks a certain amount of information, a misfire could occur, leaving that employee vulnerable to impudence based on something out of that worker’s control.
  • Stress: This causes many unfortunate reactions among employers and workers. Saying something offensive or acting inappropriately is often a problem in high-stress situations.
  • Frustration: Similar to stress, frustration can play an indirect part in incivility, as someone might say or do something uncivil brought on by frustration.
  • Assumption: While not best practice, assumptions in the workplace occur often. For example, Mike puts his name on his leftovers, but Danny disregards the name on the Tupperware and eats some delicious leftover pasta. In doing so, Danny creates a culture of incivility through his apathy toward Mike’s property.
  • Poor time management: Lack of organization can also create uncivil situations. Not placing a priority on meeting deadlines can hurt employees in the long run by inattentiveness and ignorance of co-workers, supervisors or direct reports.

Problems aren’t limited to these sources either. Genetic makeup is said to have plenty of pull on how employees speak and react in certain situations. Uncivil behavior can damage the immune system and put a strain on families. With incivility harming more than office morale, how do employees and employers overcome it?

Tackling the problem

Unwanted actions can be unexpected. The breathe, consider, respond (BCR) model outlines how an individual can take a moment to collect his or her thoughts and avoid undesirable reactions in a heightened emotional environment.

  • Breathe: Take five to 10 seconds to collect your emotions and thoughts regarding the behavior. In a tense situation, you should excuse yourself and clear your mind before returning to the conversation.
  • Consider: Are all the details available to assess the situation accurately? A common cause of incivility is lack of information, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when more information is needed or review what you already know.
  • Respond: A calm, collected manner is best for responding, even if the offensive conduct was delivered in the same way. You are responsible for your professionalism in any situation.

This is just a response mechanism to a single count of uncivil behavior. When discourtesy occurs on a more regular basis, it’s time to begin evaluating your work environment as a whole. Many of the sources of incivility above may already be in your organization and if a single incident occurs, leadership could spend up to seven weeks mending and dealing with the aftermath. A manager that fosters civility within the workplace creates a trickle-down effect for its employees.

Manage yourself: Set the tone for your employees. Be aware of your actions and how you respond to situations.

  • Model good behavior: Turn off that cell phone in meetings, practice active listening skills and follow up on your promises.
  • Ask for feedback: Understand how your workers feel about working for you.

Manage the organization:

  • Hire for civility: Avoiding incivility in the first place plays a role in addressing the problem. Consider including your team in interviews to gauge a potential candidate. Your team might catch something you missed.
  • Teach civility: With a quarter of employees not recognizing uncivil behavior, understanding the concept is key. Consider using videos or switching roles as a teaching tool for employees.
  • Create group norms: Expectations regarding behavior can produce concrete norms for civility.
  • Reward good behavior: Does your review system only punish negative actions? It might be time to reassess your evaluation techniques to create a system of recognition for civil behavior.
  • Penalize bad behavior: This doesn’t mean unwanted behavior gets the slip. Identify and correct troublesome deeds immediately. Companies that avoid taking action lose respect among their employees.

Creating a system that champions civility pays off in many ways. Employees are healthier, more resilient and better able to focus on their work. Thriving individuals create a thriving workplace. Improving a manager’s civility, increasing the well-being of employees and managing the organization are key ways to reduce unwanted behaviors. It’s time for everyone to play nice on the work playground.