By Christine Pearson, Ph.D., Thunderbird Professor of Global Leadership
The corporate world has an incivility problem, and it’s getting worse. We text during meetings, spread rumors about colleagues, fail to respond to e-mails, leave messes for the next person to clean up, and forget to say “please” and “thank you.” Sometimes we act covertly. If we’re important, we can keep other people waiting, demean them publicly and talk in condescending tones. These seemingly inconsequential acts of workplace incivility often go unnoticed, unreported and uncorrected. But more than a decade of research with University of Southern California Professor Christine Porath, Ph.D., for our new book, “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” shows that the toll on a company’s bottom line can be immense.
Expensive but largely unseen side effects occur when one employee treats another in a disrespectful way. When these inconsiderate words and deeds are left unchecked, they have a tendency to spread fast, far and wide. Our research shows that 96 percent of workers have experienced incivility firsthand. Some perpetrators are unaware they have caused offense, but others are habitual offenders who act with reckless disregard for other people’s feelings.
“Some of the hotshots around here roll their eyes when they don’t agree with colleagues’ views, or they turn their backs and start doing other things,” one supervisor in a service firm told us. “They check text messages or organize their calendars while they’re sitting around the table at a meeting.”
Another manager at a Fortune 50 company described a time when his supervisor passed out Wal-Mart job applications at a daily planning meeting. “He explained that if we didn’t start making our numbers immediately, several of us were going to be looking for new jobs soon,” the manager told us. “He didn’t give us any tools or methods to improve. He just used intimidation.” Targets of incivility respond in predictable ways. They eagerly wait for offenders to fail and look for opportunities to help push them over the edge. They also punish their organizations. They work fewer hours, let the quality of their performance slip and waste company time fretting about the bad behavior or looking for other employment. About 12 percent of the time, they quit their jobs.
Even if they choose to stay, targets of incivility become less loyal. “Although they may not leave the organization, they can and do sit in the boat without pulling the oars,” a senior vice president at a Fortune 50 firm told us. “And that may be worse than leaving.” Dollar figures can be attached to these consequences of incivility.
Cisco Systems, which consistently ranks among the elite of Fortune’s 100s best companies to work for, used our research to calculate its cost of incivility at about $8 million per year. In response, the company has launched a civility program aligned with a strong culture of mutual respect. Cisco has built that culture by consistently recruiting the right employees, setting clear expectations, training employees in civility and role modeling appropriate behavior.
When any transgression occurs, the civility program gives managers what they need to assess the situation, confer with experts and provide timely decisions and guidelines to contain and curtail incivility. Individuals in less progressive organizations often must take matters into their own hands. This can be difficult when the offender has more power than the target. Our research supports eight possible strategies to consider:
1. Recognize the personal toll. It hurts to be demeaned, disregarded or disrespected. Recognize that your workplace effectiveness is likely to drop. Pay special attention to taking care of yourself, and try to surround yourself with friends and family members who build you back up.
2. Appeal to a higher authority. If you want to put an end to bad behavior, you must find an advocate who has the organizational power to do something about it. Some people also appeal to a higher spiritual authority for strength.
3. Back off. As much as possible, avoid face-to-face interaction with habitual offenders.
4. Reframe your thinking. Put the incivility into context. Look at the bigger picture, and identify other things about your job that you like. Do whatever it takes to rise above the negative behavior.
5. Grow. Reflect carefully about how the incivility transpired, how it affected you, how you have drawn strength, and how your experience has changed your thinking or behavior.
6. Decide to stay put. Many targets decide to stay put. If that’s your decision, it is important to recognize that you have made a choice. Don’t stay because you fear that you have no other options.
7. Leave. Getting away from an offender or leaving an environment that condones incivility could improve your day-to-day experience and your career.
8. Negotiate with the offender. Don’t confront an offender. Don’t provoke. And don’t expect to “win.” If you’re considering a follow-up with your offender, think like a negotiator. Know your limits, prepare, and proceed with a goal of mutual gain. Recognize that in many cases – especially with a habitual offender in a position of authority over you – such an approach comes with risks that should be weighed carefully.
Workplace incivility is one of today’s most substantial economic drains on business, but the problem is largely preventable. Companies such as Cisco show that an unflinching focus on civility pays off.
Thunderbird Professor Christine Pearson, Ph.D., is co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It” (Portfolio Hardcover, July 2009). Her research has been cited in more than 400 newspapers and magazines, and has been featured on international radio and television broadcasts.
Are you an offender?
About 96 percent of Americans have experienced incivility at work. Here’s what it looks like:
– Taking credit for others’ efforts
– Passing blame for your own mistakes
– Checking e-mail or texting during a meeting
– Sending bad news through e-mail so you don’t have to face the recipient
– Talking down to others
– Not listening
– Spreading rumors about colleagues
– Setting others up for failure
– Not saying “please” or “thank you”
– Showing up late or leaving a meeting early with no explanation
– Belittling others’ efforts
– Leaving snippy voice mail or e-mail messages
– Forwarding others’ e-mail to make them look bad
– Making demeaning or derogatory remarks to someone
– Withholding information
– Failing to return phone calls or respond to e-mail
– Leaving a mess for others to clean up
– Consistently grabbing easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others
– Shutting someone out of a network or team
– Paying little attention or showing little interest in others’ opinions