Spring 2017
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CTDO Magazine

An Absence of Civility

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rudeness, toxicity, and disrespect are common in workplaces.

Civility can help organizations navigate the uncertainty and volatility that comes with escalating cultural and technological changes of fast-paced business environments. Unfortunately, nearly two decades of research from Christine Porath, an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, finds that workplace civility is quickly disappearing. She reports that nearly half of those surveyed in 1998 felt they were treated rudely at least once a month, a figure that rose to 55 percent in 2011 and 62 percent in 2016.


The sixth installment of the Civility in America survey concurs with Porath's findings that civility is a mounting issue. In the 2016 report, nearly all respondents, 95 percent, say that civility is a problem, with three-quarters (74 percent) saying civility has declined in the past few years.

What's the cause of incivility?

Some believe that a global, multigenerational, diverse workforce may be causing cultural clashes that bubble beneath the surface. "Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. Greater diversity has made it more challenging. Norms vary by culture, generation, and gender—as well as industry and organization," writes Porath in the McKinsey Quarterly article "The Hidden Toll of Workplace Incivility."

Others point to technology and the media. For starters, while offering convenience, technology's ability to make people accessible 24/7 is stressful. Electronic communication also leads to misunderstandings. What's more, Porath notes that the language and treatment of others publicly on the radio, television, and social media have colored our sense of norms. And these norms easily transfer to our treatment of others in the workplace.

What's the cost of incivility?

Whatever the cause, disregard and disrespect for co-workers, clients, and customers takes a toll on workplace performance. Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries that Porath recently polled with Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, 47 percent who said they were treated poorly deliberately decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work. According to Porath, "nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility somehow settles the score—with their offender and the organization."

Not surprisingly, collaboration significantly shrinks when civility declines. In experiments, Porath found that when employees are exposed to rudeness, they are three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half. "When people feel disrespected, it eats away at them—and their potential. Engagement, teamwork, knowledge sharing, innovation, and contributions wane even among those who choose to work around the slights," says Porath.


What's the solution to incivility?

So, what can organizations do to diminish escalating incivility? For starters, companies need to weed out toxic people. That's the easy part. Mastering Civility also advises organizations to make company norms of civility well-known to employees.

However, when asked why they were uncivil, more than 25 percent of those Porath surveyed blamed their organizations for not providing basic skills. To teach employees civility skills, she recommends companies offer training on giving and receiving feedback (positive and corrective), working across cultural differences, and dealing with difficult people. Coaching on negotiation, stress management, crucial conversations, and mindfulness can help as well.

Further, organizations need to make it safe for employees to hold managers and colleagues accountable for living up to civility norms. To help on this front, they can develop a set of civility metrics to assure that behaviors are sustained.

Employees who feel that they're being treated respectfully are more motivated to share information, further collaboration, and embrace change. Insisting on civility is simply a smart business investment.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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