It’s a subtle increase in poor manners at work–not exchanging greetings like, “hello” or “goodbye”, and failing to use please and thank you. It’s refusing to hold the elevator door for stragglers, or ignoring colleagues and interrupting them at meetings.
Workplace incivility, as it is otherwise known, refers to behaviour that is rude or discourteous and conveys disrespect to others. It is different from outright aggression or bullying, which is more intense and clearly intended to target another.
According to researchers, Michael Leiter at Acadia University, Heather Spence at University of Western Ontario and Arla Day and Debra Gilin Oore at Saint Mary’s University, there are a myriad of reasons for the uptick in rudeness.
In their recent study, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, they cite reasons that range from employees having to cope with a faster job pace which precludes niceties, to a general lack of empathy and self-awareness on the job. People just don’t seem to care, or realize the impact they have on others.
No matter what the reason, workplace incivility takes a toll on organizations and staff alike. For example, one manager used her Smartphone to answer email during meetings, where staff presented business results. Increasingly, to avoid wasting time staff put less and less effort into preparing the presentations. The decline in quality went unnoticed and the problem was compounded by other staff, who took the manager’s lead and texted during meetings.
Incivility is contagious, especially when a leader engages in the behaviour. Plus, it invites retaliatory behaviour in a vicious cycle of tit-for- tat, with one staff person treating a rude co-worker, in kind.
At its worst, uncivil behaviour can escalate from rude treatment of others to bullying, harassment and even violence.
Everyone suffers when incivility occurs at work. Staff complain of increased stress, anxiety and depression, while organizations suffer from increases in absenteeism and low morale. Worker grievances and complaints rise and sabotage against the organization is more likely.
Changing an uncivil workplace culture is possible, but it takes effort from both staff and management. First, staff need to look at their own behaviour. Most people know right from wrong and have good manners. Saying: “Everybody does it”, won’t work if incivility is to be eradicated.
A commitment to not treating others rudely is important.
Also, staff can practice empathy by walking a mile in another’s shoes. For example, ask: “How would someone feel if they were interrupted in mid-sentence in a public meeting”? Or, what is it like, if a staff person, sitting with a group of colleagues, finds out that everyone, but her, has been invited to a co-worker’s home for a BBQ, on the weekend?
Discuss the tone at work. Take note if colleagues seem to be treating each other more abruptly. Acknowledging workmates, listening, making eye contact, thanking people and holding the elevator door, can make a difference in the tenor of a workplace.
At the same time management plays a key role. Incivility is not due to a troublesome, or out-of-touch personality type, nor is it tied to the kind of job being done (e.g., security or construction). The researchers assert that it occurs because the behaviour is implicitly sanctioned by the manager or emanates from the manager’s own behaviour around the office or the plant.
If supervisors are unclear as to what they expect regarding collegial behaviour, or they have an authoritarian leadership style, workplace incivility predictable. Leaders who sanction rude behaviour by demonstrating it themselves, or allowing it to continue, ensure an uncivil tone.
However, managers who take an active stance by demonstrating respectful behaviour, inspire staff to follow suit. Intervening when witnessing rude behaviour helps, and it aids workers in mustering the courage to speak out too.
Training staff in civil behaviour and identifying rudeness when it occurs is important. Success has been found in working with staff to understand what uncivil behaviour looks like, what is actually expected, and how to help each other create a more respectful workplace.
Maintaining good manners, it seems, is not just a pleasantry, it’s becoming a workplace imperative.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.