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Let’s Choose to Be Civil

| December 4, 2018

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:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost time avoiding the offender.
  • 60% said their performance declined.
  • 71% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

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:

  1. Hire for civility. Avoid bringing incivility into your workplace to begin with. Some organizations consider the civility of their applicants in the initial interview process. For example, they look for behavioral clues such as talking too much and being unwilling to listen carefully in interviews. This can often be best identified by including an interview by the team the new hire will join.
  2. Implement the 10-5 rule. Ochsner Health System, a large health care system spanning southern Louisiana, has a simple rule for all employees: when you’re within 10 feet of someone, you make eye contact and smile, and if you are within five feet, you say hello. With the institution of this norm, civility spread, interaction between staff increased, patient satisfaction scores rose, as did patient referrals.
  3. Psychological safety. The focus of  the February 27, 2018 Tuesday Reading was psychological safety. There I noted that Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, was first to identify the concept of “psychological safety.” In a 2014 TEDxTalk talk, she said that “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” The term describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves and speaking openly. However, this is not an environment where there is no accountability. Edmondson sees psychological safety and accountability as separate qualities. Low psychological safety and low accountability are indicators of apathy. High psychological safety combined with high accountability result in learning, the state a team strives for so that it will be seen as both continuously learning and successful. A psychologically safe team will be a team with high civility.
  4. Leaders address problems that arise. Constant vigilance is required to keep an organization civil as it’s so easy for rudeness to creep into everyday interactions. Leaders have a key role in first keeping their own behavior in check and in fostering civility among others. First, since they are an example, leaders must be self-aware of their own actions and how they are seen by others. If staff see you and you are not civil, or you tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they may be more likely to be uncivil as well. Porath and Pearson suggest that you be diligent to model the behavior you want to see on your team as well as with those for whom you serve as a role model. And, as Murrell notes, “Ignoring bad behaviors does not make them disappear.”

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:

  1. Christine Porath, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,  Hachette Book Group, Inc., December 2016.
  2. Christine Porath, An Antidote to Incivility, Harvard Business Review, April 2016.
  3. Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, The Cost of Bad Behavior – How Incivility is Damaging Your Business And What to Do About It, Penguin Books, Ltd., 2009.
  4. Christine Porath, Why Being Nice To Your Coworkers Is Good For Business, TEDTalk, October 2018.
  5. Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, The Price of Incivility, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2013.Let’s Choose to Be Civil.