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How Rudeness Stops People from Working Together

Three business people sitting at a table and looking at their laptops.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. In this article, the author explains how rudeness can stop team members from working together.

Incivility can fracture a team, destroying collaboration, splintering members' sense of psychological safety, and hampering team effectiveness. Belittling and demeaning comments, insults, backbiting, and other rude behavior can deflate confidence, sink trust, and erode helpfulness — even for those who aren't the target of these behaviors.

Harvard Business ReviewA recent study documented how incivility diminishes collaboration and performance in medical settings. Twenty-four medical teams from four neonatal intensive care units in Israel were invited to a training workshop designed to improve quality of care. As part of the training, the teams needed to treat a premature infant whose condition suddenly deteriorated due to a serious intestinal illness (it was only a simulation; no infant's health was endangered). Staff had to identify and diagnose the condition and administer proper treatment, including CPR. Teams were told that an expert from the United States would be watching them remotely (with video) and would occasionally comment and advise them. That "expert" was a member of the research team. Half the teams received messages from a neutral expert who spoke about the importance of training and practice using simulations but did not comment on their work quality. The other half received insulting messages about their performance and the "poor quality" of Israeli medical care.

Researchers filmed these simulations and had objective judges evaluate them. The teams exposed to rudeness displayed lower capabilities in all diagnostic and procedural performance metrics, markedly diminishing the infant's chances of survival. This was mainly because teams exposed to rudeness didn't share information as readily and stopped seeking help from their teammates.

I frequently see that situation echoed in my research: People who lack a sense of psychological safety — the feeling that the team environment is a trusting, respectful, and safe place to take risks — shut down, often without realizing it. They are less likely to seek or accept feedback and less likely to experiment, discuss errors, and speak up about potential or actual problems. Even without an intimidator in the room, they work in a cloud of negativity and are unable to do their best.

Once incivility occurs, it's easy for negative thoughts to seep into people's heads and stay there, translating into negative behavior. In experiments I've done, I've found that once people are exposed to rudeness, they are three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half. It makes sense: When someone behaves poorly or offensively, bad feelings spread and behaviors escalate, sometimes becoming aggressive or dysfunctional.

Even relatively minor incidents — when people thoughtlessly put down others, for instance, or publicly question their capabilities — leave an imprint, whittling away at them, their performance, and their well-being. As a mathematical model developed by Yale psychologists Adam Bear and David Rand shows, people who are typically surrounded by jerks learn intuitively to be selfish and to not deliberate over their actions. They wind up acting selfishly even when cooperating would pay off because they don't stop to think.

A little civility goes a long way, enhancing a team's performance by increasing the amount of psychological safety that people feel. One experiment of mine showed that psychological safety was 35% higher when people were offered a suggestion civilly than uncivilly (i.e., in an interaction marked by inconsiderate interruption). Other research has shown that psychological safety improves general team performance. Studying more than 180 of its active teams, Google found that who was on a team mattered less than how team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions. Employees on teams with more psychological safety were more likely to make use of their teammates' ideas and less likely to leave Google. They generated more revenue for the company and were rated as "effective" twice as often by executives.

Leaders set the tone. A study of cross-functional product teams revealed that when leaders treated members of their team well and fairly, the team members were more productive individually and as a team. They also were more likely to go above and beyond their job requirements. It all starts at the top. When leaders are civil, it increases performance and creativity, allows for early mistake detection and the initiative to take actions, and reduces emotional exhaustion.

Civility helps teams to function better in large part by helping employees feel safer, happier, and better. In my study of over 20,000 employees, those who felt respected by their leader reported 92% greater focus and prioritization and 55% more engagement.

By creating a civil climate, you can enable greater collaboration marked by people who reciprocate respectful behavior. Recent research by Google's Kathryn Dekas and colleagues shows how the climate affects organizational citizenship behaviors. If you want people to collaborate better and give more, consider the climate, the leader's role modeling, and the team norms.

It's important to note that you can't simply impose civility. Engage employees in an ongoing conversation, defining precisely what civility means. You will garner more support and empower employees to hold one another accountable for civil behavior by involving them in the process.

Organizations of all kinds can benefit from talking about civility with employees. In the Irvine, California, office of law firm Bryan Cave, managing partner Stuart Price and I led employees through an exercise in which they could define collective norms. We asked employees: "Who do you want to be?" And we asked them to name rules for which they were willing to hold one another accountable — what norms were right for their organization. In just over an hour, employees generated and agreed on 10 norms. The firm embraced these norms and bound them into a "civility code," which they prominently display in their lobby. As Price attests to, the civility code was directly responsible for the firm being ranked number one among Orange County's best places to work.

It's not enough to frame norms; you have to train employees to understand and respect them. When asked why they were uncivil, more than 25% of people in a survey I conducted blamed their organization for not providing them with the basic skills they needed, such as listening and feedback skills. If your employees aren't behaving well, and you've already gone through the trouble of hammering home the organization's civility message, ask yourself, "Have I equipped them to succeed?" Don't assume everyone knows how to be civil; many people never learned the basic skills.

Some leading companies offer formal civility training. Microsoft's popular "Precision Questioning" class teaches participants to question their own ideas; develop approaches to healthy, constructive criticism; and act with emotional agility even in tense situations. At a hospital in Los Angeles, temperamental doctors are required to attend "charm school" to decrease their brashness and reduce the potential for lawsuits. The charm school teaches doctors that they must set the tone for their medical residents.

Paying attention to your team's level of civility is worth the effort. It enhances collaboration and performance. Consider adjusting norms as needed or providing training if members are missing the mark.

Christine Porath is an associate professor of management at Georgetown University, the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.


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