Managing Incivility in the Workplace
By Jeannie Trudel
Have you been the target of incivility in the workplace? What about the other way around - have you engaged in uncivil behaviors at work? Workplace incivility is a prevalent problem in many organizations and across varied industries. It is defined by Anderson and Pearson (1999) as “…low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.”
What does incivility in the workplace look like?
Uncivil behaviors include making condescending comments, writing demeaning notes or emails, disrupting meetings, reprimanding someone publicly, talking behind someone’s back, giving someone the silent treatment, not giving credit where credit is due, sexually harassing employees, rolling your eyes, and yelling at others. Being uncivil also includes excluding someone from a meeting, neglecting to greet someone, cutting people off while they are speaking, leaving a jammed photocopier or printer for another to fix, leaving a mess in the kitchen, listening in on another’s phone call, ignoring a colleague’s request, using disparaging language or voice tone, making inflammatory remarks, etc.
Most of the above described behaviors appear to be minor and may be overlooked on occasion, but over time and with frequency, have detrimental effects. Workplace incivility is a unique challenge in organizations because it is ambiguous in nature, and difficult to identify. It is too easy to deflect a claim of incivility on the basis of “I didn’t mean it”, “He just had the wrong impression”, “I was not trying to be mean” or “She is overly sensitive”. Further, uncivil behaviors do not usually merit managerial or organizational sanctions. Very few incidents of incivility are officially reported and dealt with on an organizational or management level. Yet, these behaviors can make an employee feel uncomfortable enough to derail an employee’s ability to move forward, career-wise.
Effects of workplace incivility
Over time, the accrued minor stresses of incivility may lead employees who are targets to miss work, lessen their loyalty to their organizations, lower their level of job satisfaction and consider leaving their organizations. Workplace incivility also affects mental health and well-being of employees. Even those who are onlookers can be negatively affected as well. Targets of incivility cope by using different strategies, which include conflict avoidance in different forms: working around the person who is uncivil, passive aggressive behaviors, and changing work habits or paths. Employees also lose work time due to worry and stress. These strategies can impact both the individual and the organization in terms of productivity, career progression, and employee retention.
Conditions that may lead to expressions of incivility
When an organization experiences pressures to change such as budget cuts, management changes, workforce reduction, increased monitoring of employees, the likelihood of negative behaviors including incivility increases. The prolific use of email and voicemail appear to facilitate uncivil behaviors as well. Informal organizations with less clearly defined behavioral boundaries may promulgate uncivil behaviors. These workplaces are characterized by informal attire, free expression of emotions and lack of formality in interpersonal relationships.
Uncivil behaviors may be considered a cause, trigger or outcome of a conflict episode. Responses to uncivil behavior do, in large part, determine if such behaviors escalate in subsequent exchanges. The proliferation and escalation of workplace incivility are in part, determined by individual responses to perceived negative actions. Trudel and Reio (2011) found that individuals who use a more collaborative style of conflict management are less likely to engage in uncivil behaviors and also less likely to be the targets of incivility. Those who have a more forceful or aggressive conflict management style tend to be more likely to be uncivil and be targets of uncivil behaviors.
How can career development professionals help?
We, as practitioners, can offer recommendations to help curb and manage workplace incivility. Employers value good interpersonal skills which include managing workplace relationships and conflict. As career professionals, we can help employees and their supervisors develop skills and strategies that promote collaboration. Here are some specific ways we can help organizations create a more civil and respectful workplace:
Seek strategies or interventions that will address gaps in individual and group interpersonal skills. For instance, develop conflict management or communication skills training programs that focus on developing employees in behaviors consistent with the collaborative conflict management style.
Offer other training interventions that could also include mediation or conflict management trainings for supervisors, managers and other leaders. This may be helpful in equipping organizational leaders to identify and manage uncivil behaviors or conflicts before they escalate.
Help develop other HRD interventions including mentoring and coaching of employees, particularly those in management positions, to improve performance and interpersonal skills, helping them model civility and the integrate conflict management style, as well as building their skills in identifying incivility before it proliferates in the organization.
As career development practitioners working in organizations, consider incorporating leadership programs that emphasize collaborative strategies and appropriate modeling behaviors.
On an organizational level, support the creation of a culture that encourages respect and civility, which is critical. This can be developed by recommending to management, establishing policies and codes of conduct aimed specifically at encouraging respect and discouraging incivility. Left unchecked, uncivil behaviors erode the norms of civility and become part of an organization’s culture.
A positive and productive work environment
It is clear that organizational factors play an important role in encouraging or curbing workplace incivility. However, these do not detract from personal factors such as the expected accountability of individuals’ behaviors and the influence of individual personality traits in workplace interactions.
Managing and curbing the rise of incivility requires comprehensive strategies and collaboration both at the individual and corporate levels. The development and maintenance of a positive and productive work environment is critical to both career and organizational success.
Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of Management Review, 24, 452-471.
Johnson, P. R., & Indvik, J. (2001). Slings and arrows of rudeness: incivility in the workplace. Journal of Management Development, 20, 705-713.
Pearson, C. M., Andersson, L. M., & Porath, C. L. (2000). Assessing and attacking workplace incivility. Organizational Dynamics, 29, 123–137.
Trudel, J., & Reio, T. G., Jr. (2011). Managing workplace incivility: The role of conflict management style-Antecedent or antidote? Human Resource Development Quarterly, 224(4), 395-423.
Jeannie Trudel, Ph.D., is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, College of Adult Professional Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University. She also teaches in the graduate and undergraduate business programs. She conducts trainings in conflict management, mediation, diversity and anger management for corporate and non-profit organizations. Formerly a practicing attorney in Australia, she has served as court-appointed/ approved mediator in Los Angeles, Boston, and Louisville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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