When a colleague rushes into the office every morning, she never says hello—even though she walks right by you. You ask a question during a meeting and a co-worker follows up his eye roll with a terse response. You write a well-researched report, but your manager’s blunt feedback focuses solely on the two minor mistakes.
If you complain about these things or try to report them, you’ll be dismissed as a baby. But psychologists say these incivilities shouldn’t be ignored, because experiencing them suppresses cognition, creativity and, ultimately, productivity. So, they argue, companies need to create civil cultures, where abrasive employees are confronted and helped. That’s where hiring a civility coach comes in.
It’s the Little Things
Unlike major issues such as sexual harassment, uncivil behaviours are small, low-intensity irritants, and the intention behind them is unclear. “You’re not sure what caused this behaviour: is it your fault or the other person’s?” explains Amir Erez, a professor at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. “People can also deny it very easily. ‘No, I didn’t mean to do that. Why are you so upset?’ ”
And what’s perfectly okay to one person can be rude to another. Michael Sliter, a senior consultant at Furstperson, a recruitment consultancy in Chicago, says people are more likely to interpret events as uncivil if they score high on neuroticism, which includes traits such as irritability, emotional reactiveness and a tendency to worry.
People who score high on agreeableness—which includes qualities like altruism, consideration and a willingness to trust—are less likely to perceive events as uncivil, Sliter adds.
You Can’t Think
Once people interpret something as rude (whether it comes from a peer or a person in power, or whether they simply witness it), their cognition suffers, says Erez. Specifically, he explains, incivility suppresses the working memory part of the brain, which is responsible for all analytical activities.
“Basically, you can’t think when things like that happen,” and your cognitive abilities suffer even when you try to ignore the incident, Erez adds. “I haven’t found yet that some people tolerate it better.”
That’s why experiencing rudeness leads to mistakes. His research found customer service representatives who are treated disrespectfully make mistakes in customer requests. “In medical settings, we found that emergency doctors and nurses couldn’t resuscitate [patients] properly [and] gave the wrong medication,” Erez explains. “It reduced their functioning by 50%.”
Researchers still don’t know why incivility disrupts working memory, but Erez theorizes people automatically direct their attention to these incidents because they perceive them as social threats: they try to make sense of what happened and how they should have responded, to the extent that they can’t focus on something else.
Rudeness also spurs conscious efforts to work less. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, has researched North American companies in various industries. She found 48% of employees purposely lowered their work effort, 47% purposely decreased time spent at work and 38% purposely decreased the quality of their work.
And rudeness is contagious. If people witness or experience it, they’re more likely to do it to others, shows as yet unpublished research by Erez.
Incivility also saps creativity, which is dependent on the ability to express unconventional ideas. If people’s ideas are belittled, they won’t be motivated to do better next time; they’ll likely become risk-averse and stop sharing anything, says Sharone Bar-David, president of Bar-David Consulting in Toronto.
The belittlement doesn’t even have to be verbal. “You can just make a little face or roll your eyes in a way that stops the others in their tracks,” she adds.
And, in many instances, people can’t even come up with creative ideas, shows research by Porath and Erez published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2007. They took two groups of people: one was exposed to rudeness from a manager or a peer; the other one received nice treatment. Both groups were then asked to come up with ideas about how to use a brick.
The group that had experienced incivility proposed conventional ideas, such as building a house or a wall with it. The other group offered more innovative suggestions, such as hanging it on a museum wall to serve as abstract art and decorating it as a pet to give to someone as a present.
The findings surprised Erez. “The way I thought about it before I started this research—which is very similar to how managers think about it—is that, ‘Okay, I insulted you, get over it, you need to work. It shouldn’t decrease your motivation,’ ” he explains.
While anyone can be uncivil, Bar-David has noticed patterns while coaching abrasive managers.
First, she says, these leaders aren’t aware of their problematic behaviour. “It’s incredible to see the size of the gap between who they think they are and how others perceive them.”
One of Bar-David’s clients recently had to collect feedback about his behaviour. A colleague told him he comes across as condescending because he often starts sentences with “I don’t know if you’re aware that….” “The colleague said [to him], ‘The minute you start a sentence like that, I feel little.’ Well, my client didn’t even know that he uses that phrase!”
Morgan McCall, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, has studied uncivil leaders who lack awareness. “They’ve been rewarded their whole career for the way they are, and they don’t describe themselves as uncivil. They describe themselves as tough or demanding or no-nonsense.”
Abrasive leaders also tend to focus on tasks, rather than relationships, when dealing with subordinates— they’re relationship-sensitive only with superiors, Bar-David explains. “They often feel that it’s win or lose; it’s a tough world out there and I’ve got to produce,” she says. “And there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety that goes into maintaining that.” So anybody who threatens the achievement of these leaders’ goals becomes a target, Bar-David adds.
Uncivil leaders rub people the wrong way via email, too. “My abrasive clients, without exception, have an email style that is terse, to the point, short on salutations and, as a result, gets them into a lot of trouble. And they’re totally unaware they’re writing in this style,” Bar-David explains. “In fact, they often pride themselves on being concise and swift communicators.”
Don’t Promote Jerks
A counsellor can help companies take steps to reduce incivility.
The first one, says Erez, is to create company-wide awareness about incivility’s impact and stop glorifying the image of the genius who can get away with intolerable behaviour because of his or her brilliance.
Also, encourage people to report incidents and confront problem employees with specific examples of their behaviour, advises Bar-David. “It’s not enough to say, ‘People perceive you as a bully’ or ‘We’re having complaints about your rough behaviour,’ because our guy or gal doesn’t know what that means,” she explains.
And when promoting people or hiring external candidates for management positions, place as much emphasis on interpersonal skills as you do on technical expertise, says McCall. This is the most powerful way to demonstrate you don’t tolerate incivility, he explains.
“People do not determine an organization’s values from the laminated cards that get passed around or the posters on the walls,” McCall adds. “They watch how their bosses behave [and] who gets promoted.”
Yaldaz Sadakova is associate editor of Benefits Canada. email@example.com
Get a PDF of this article.