by Jim Bruce
Two weeks ago, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I wrote about gratitude – the importance of expressing gratitude, how to cultivate a practice of showing gratitude, and about the impact our showing gratitude has on others. After completing that essay, I watched the CBS Friday (November 15) Evening News. The last of the evening’s news items was about a man who served in the Vietnam war as a helicopter gunship door gunner. On Christmas Day 1970, he was given a letter written by a young school girl. One line in the letter stood out: “I want to give my sincere thanks for going to fight for us.” The airman carried that letter with him, reading it every day. He said that the letter got him through the war, and that he still reads it often. The power of expressed gratitude, even from someone you don’t know, is far greater than you might think!
Today, we want to explore another of those simple words, civility, that we need to stop and think hard about. What does civility, the result of being civil, really mean? What is the cost of incivility, or not being civil, both personally and organizationally? And, how do we create a civil environment wherever we are?
What is civility? Christine Porath, Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University is an expert on civility. She conducts research on civility, teaches and writes extensively on the subject, and helps organizations create a thriving civil work environment. In her TEDTalk, Why Being Nice To Your Coworkers Is Good For Business, Porath begins by first defining “incivility.” It is disrespect or rudeness and includes many behaviors from mocking or belittling someone, to teasing people in ways that hurt, to telling offensive jokes, to arriving late to meetings, to texting in meetings, to harassment, etc.
To Porath’s list, Audrey Murrell, Associate Dean and Director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration, in an essay titled Stopping the Downward Spiral of Workplace Incivility, adds public rebukes, demeaning language, taunting, yelling and insulting remarks. Murrell also notes that “There is alarming evidence that incivility at work is pervasive and on the rise.” She continues: “Incivility represents a form of psychological harassment and emotional aggression that violates the social norm of mutual respect.”
It’s complicated because much of what is uncivil – e.g., texting while in a discussion in a meeting, being yelled at, etc. – to one individual may be fine to another. It is all in the eyes of the beholder and whether that individual feels disrespected. Although we may not have intended to show disrespect to someone by our actions, when we do it may have consequences.
So, how many individuals have been touched by a significant incivility? Porath’s research has shown that it is almost impossible to be untouched by incivility during one’s career. Over her career, interviewing thousands of workers, she has found that some 98% of those interviewed have experienced uncivil behavior and that 99% have witnessed it. In 2011, half of the people she surveyed said that they were treated badly at least once per week.
And, that leads to asking what the cost of not being civil is? This question led Porath and her colleague, Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, to conduct a number of research surveys about how incivility affected performance. These surveys were prompted by Pearson’s theory that small, uncivil actions might lead to much larger problems like aggression and violence, and that incivility might affect performance more broadly.
Their first study involved business school alumni working in several organizations. Each participant was asked to write a few sentences about one experience where he or she was treated rudely, disrespectfully or insensitively, and to answer several questions about how they reacted. What Porath and Pearson found was that incivility made people less motivated: 66% reduced their work efforts, 80% lost time as they worried about what happened, and 12% left their jobs. When the results of the study were published, several things happened: Cisco took the study results and estimated that if these results held for Cisco, incivility was costing them $12 million per year.
Further studies by Porath and Pearson and others provided additional insights associated with workers who had been on the receiving end of incivility:
In addition, studies found that creativity suffers. In one set of experiments individuals treated rudely were 30% less creative than individuals in the study who were not treated rudely. Also, they produced 25% fewer ideas than others and the ideas they did have were less original.
It gets worse. Individuals who witness incivility are impacted as well. For example, witnesses to incivility were less likely than others to help out even when the person they would be helping had no connection to the uncivil person. Only 25% of the subjects who had witnessed incivility volunteered to help compared to 51% of those who did not witness the incivility.
In a study reported in Fortune, managers and executives of Fortune 1000 firms spend 13% of their work time (that’s equivalent to seven weeks each year) mending employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the impacts of incivility.
Given the results of these studies, one has to ask how we help our organizations become more civil? Here are four suggestions:
As a leader you set the tone for your organization. If you want your organization to be civil then you need to set the example through your own behavior and by calling out incivility whenever you encounter it. And, give those around you permission to call you out for any lapse in your own behavior. That will serve as a strong motivation to you to be on your guard as well as motivation to your staff to maintain their own behavior.
Personal experience has shown me that being civil is important to me personally and to the success of organizations I’m associated with. Everything I know suggests that it should be important to you and your team as well. Take the time necessary to become sensitive to the incivility that is occurring around you, learn how you can effectively respond, and take action.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Further reading and watching: