Civility in the workplace is quickly becoming a topic of concern among HR leaders. The more it’s studied, the clearer it is that civility is not just a matter of “being nice.”
It’s an important part of everyday company culture.
The opposite of civility — incivility, or rudeness — is on the rise and has devastating consequences, we’re learning. Science Daily calls incivility in the workplace “the silent epidemic.”
New research shows that incivility, even a little bit, even when it’s not directed at you, can derail job performance.
“Witnessing rudeness in the morning can hurt a person’s job performance all day” and diminish the person’s ability to do their best work on a longer-term basis, according to a Wall Street Journal article this week, “The Big Impact of a Little Rudeness at Work.”
This finding comes from a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, adding to “a growing body of research showing the serious costs of rudeness,” the Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Mitchell writes.
Worse, incivility “is as contagious as the common cold.”
Fortunately, the flip side of that is true, too. Positive social behaviors like expressing gratitude, showing kindness or compassion and building workplace friendships spread just as quickly and have the power to transform not only an individual’s day but eventually an entire organizational culture.
Read on for the latest thinking on civility in the workplace and how to make your workplace kinder, one interaction at a time.
7 Things to Know About Civility in the Workplace
First, what exactly is “incivility”?
The technical definition researchers often use is “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm.” More colloquially we can also define it as rudeness, carelessness, brusqueness, ingratitude or, sometimes most harmful, an absence of communication whatsoever.
But a directive to “not be rude” is not a goal that inspires real behavioral change.
1. Positive gestures are key to building civility in the workplace.
Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, believes leaders and employees alike can enhance their influence and effectiveness with civility. In an interview with Globoforce last year she described how civility is more than an absence of rudeness:
“Not being rude is about being neutral. And what I’m hoping people will do is be civil in the sense of positive gestures — being respectful, showing dignity, being courteous and being kind in ways that lift other people up. By being uncivil you hold someone down through actions, but by being civil, you can really lift them up. It’s about going beyond neutral and affirming mutual respect and decency and helping others around you.”
2. Happiness, and in turn civility, grows through a sense of community.
The NYT Sunday Review essay “Happiness Is Other People” explores how humans actually depend on other people and a sense of community to be happy, yet the trend now is toward “finding happiness from within.”
“… while placing more and more emphasis on seeking happiness within, Americans in general are spending less and less time actually connecting with other people. Nearly half of all meals eaten in this country are now eaten alone. … The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey shows that the average American now spends less than four minutes a day ‘hosting and attending social events,’ a category that covers all types of parties and other organized social occasions. That’s 24 hours a year, barely enough to cover Thanksgiving dinner, and your own child’s birthday party.
“Self-reflection, introspection and some degree of solitude are important parts of a psychologically healthy life. But somewhere along the line we seem to have gotten the balance wrong. …
“Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a ‘necessary condition for happiness,’ meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.”
3. Incivility takes a huge toll on people — and the bottom line.
Christine Porath, the Mastering Incivility author, tells Globoforce:
“In experiments, what I’ve learned is, not only does it decrease performance, but people aren’t nearly as innovative, even if they just witness incivility. In team settings, it causes people to shut down, such that they don’t share information or speak up as much. They don’t discuss errors or inform each other of potential problems.
“And then the other issue is that even witnesses, as well as people who experience it, are far less helpful. They’re actually three times less likely to help someone else, and their willingness to share drops by more than 50 percent. So incivility pulls people off track, even for those people who are trying to push forward.”
4. Civility in the workplace is up to leaders.
Christine Porath again:
“When I’ve asked people why they are uncivil, more than 25 percent of people report, ‘Because our leaders are.’ So they’re clearly role modeling.
“People tend to bucket individuals either as warm or competent. But when you’re civil, people see you as both warm and competent. If you really want to connect with your employees or team, you should focus on leading with warmth. Most people are in a hurry to prove their competence, but warmth actually contributes significantly more to people’s valuations. So you can think about warmth as the pathway to influence, and it’ll facilitate things like trust, information and idea sharing.”
5. Sometimes the simplest gestures count toward workplace civility.
Panu Liira, a senior partner at Reaktor, explains why every employee’s first day on the job at his company starts with a social gathering:
“On every new employee’s first day on the job, we always start by having a cup of coffee and a korvapuusti, a Finnish cinnamon bun — because what’s the rush? The paperwork has already been filed, and the new hire has already met a bunch of their colleagues. So now let’s get to know each other as people!
“At Reaktor we’re genuinely interested in the people we work with and believe everyone can be themselves at work. No matter how informal and personable your interview process, every candidate will be in ‘candidate mode’ until they’ve signed their offer letter. This small first-day ritual might not be the most dramatic gesture, but it’s an effort to shake new hires out of that inevitable mind-set and welcome them to the team. … And it’s often one of the things our employees remember the most about their first days with us.”
6. We build civility through better workplace conversations.
In the Forbes article “These 8 Questions Can Help Coworkers Build Common Ground,” Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes that improvements to our conversations with coworkers can strengthen our bond and strengthen workplace culture.
“Most of our workplace conversations are about politics, personal health matters and relationship issues, according to a recent study of 1,000 U.S. workers, ranging in age from 18 to 74,” Rabasca Roepe writes.
Instead, try starting a conversation with questions like:
- What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?
- What’s the last book you read?
- What podcast are you listening to right now?
- What are you currently watching on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu?
- What did you love to do as a kid?
- What was your first concert?
- What did you study in school?
- What’s your secret talent that few people know about?
It can even be a conversational exercise at the top of a meeting:
- In two to five words, what intentions do you hold for today’s meeting?
- What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the last week?
- What are you feeling most grateful for?
- What is the best thing that happened to you this past weekend?
- Share something you’re proud of that you’d like the group to know.
7. The fastest way to a more civil workplace? “Thank you.”
“Gratitude is related to civility because the behavior of saying ‘Thank You’ is a small action that can lead to respect of others,” according to a Wallace Centers of Iowa blog post on a workplace gratitude challenge. “When we are thankful, we take time to appreciate the value of others and we see the world as bigger than ourselves.”
A Templeton Foundation study in 2012 found that the workplace is the last place gratitude gets expressed.
Workplace leaders have the power to change that dynamic by setting an example — today. Thank an employee for their work, and encourage managers and shift supervisors to find reasons to thank their team on a regular basis. It makes a difference!
Let’s make the incivility “epidemic” a thing of the past.
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