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The Case for Civility at Work

Being nice to employees isn't just nice—it's necessary to having a healthy organization

A group of people shaking hands in an office.

CHICAGO—It's a condition that impairs people's productivity, motivation, cognitive ability and overall well-being—and it's spreading quickly among employees everywhere. It's rampant in workplaces but not confined to them: You can pick it up in schools, communities and even online.

"Incivility is a bug, and it's contagious," said researcher Christine Porath at a Masters Series session at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition last week in Chicago.

That's right. Simple rudeness and disrespect can pass from person to person like a virus, said Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2017). And the human and financial toll on companies can be devastating.  

Porath's Story

Porath became interested in the topic more than 20 years ago, when her father developed health problems that she said resulted from the stress of having a toxic boss. At the time, she thought his experience was the exception rather than the rule—until she witnessed rampant incivility in her first job out of college at a sports marketing firm.

"I spent a year going to work every day and hearing things from co-workers like 'Are you an idiot? That's not how it's done' and 'If I wanted your opinion, I'd ask,' " Porath said.

That environment led her to quit her job and launch an academic career studying incivility. She is now a leading authority on the effects of bad behavior on employees and organizations.

Mean People Suck Life from Employees

In a study of business school alumni, which she conducted with colleague Christine Pearson, Porath found that the collective impact of small, insensitive actions, like criticizing people's work in front of their teams, was profound.

"What we found was that incivility made people far less motivated," Porath said. In fact, among those who were subjected to it, 66 percent cut back their work efforts, 80 percent lost work time, and 12 percent left their jobs.

After learning of these findings, leaders from multinational tech conglomerate Cisco extrapolated from the results to estimate that incivility was costing their company a stunning $12 million a year.   

What Porath found in subsequent research was even more remarkable: When people simply witnessed incivility—for example, seeing a professor yell at someone for being late—their performance and creativity suffered. In addition, those who observed bad behavior were three times less likely to help a peer.

"Witnesses performed much worse," she said. "Incivility really affects our minds in some pretty profound ways."

Civil Actions

Fortunately, there is a cure for the scourge of incivility: It's called "being nice."

The silver lining to Porath's research is that, like nastiness, civility and positivity can also "go viral." Here are some tips for making that happen:

Manage your energy. "The No. 1 reason … people say that they're rude is because of stress," she said. In other words, being nice starts with being nice to yourself. That includes getting plenty of sleep, eating well and exercising.

Know that jerks don't come in first. In one study, nearly 50 percent of those surveyed admitted to being concerned that being nice might actually hurt their chances of succeeding. Not so, according to Porath.

"We spent decades studying why … leaders fail," she said. "The top reason is an insensitive, arrogant, aggressive style." While that approach sometimes works in the short-term, it is often the reason for executives' ultimate demise. Eventually, their workforces become demotivated and unwilling to rally behind them.

"The thing that people want most is respect," she said. "It's more important than useful feedback, recognition and even growth opportunities."

Lead by example. "When we survey people about why they are uncivil, 25 percent say it's because their leaders are," said Porath, who often hears workers say they don't feel listened to or acknowledged.

Leaders have about 400 opportunities to interact with others—what she calls "touchpoints"—each day. "The key is to be agile and mindful in each of these moments," she said.

Send thank-you notes, smile when you walk by and consider asking people to ditch their phones in meetings to foster more genuine connections. It's also critical for leaders to seek 360-degree feedback to understand how others perceive you.

Hire nice. The negative impact of one toxic employee more than wipes out any gains he or she may make with even superstar performance, Porath said. When it comes to recruiting, "Do your homework." Spending the time to find a civil employee is worth the investment of time and effort.

Ultimately, creating civil cultures requires work from the bottom up and the top down, but it's worth the effort. "What I know from my research is that, when we have more-civil environments, we're happier and healthier," she said. "Let's put an end to the incivility bug and start spreading civility."


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