Let’s first look at some of the research, then discuss why this might be happening.
Civility in the workplace: The research
This is from Christine Porath, who actually wrote a book called Mastering Civility. It’s presented in an interview she did with Wharton. She admits up top that 50% of employees in current studies are experiencing incivility at least once per week. It takes two forms: big hits, like someone blasting you about a project in an unprofessional way, or small nicks at you that build up over time. (Many of us have probably experienced both.) Here is something interesting:
There’s been some really great research coming out of Harvard that has shown that one toxic worker is much more costly than two superstars. The idea is that it really pays to recruit and select well, and that’s probably the place where I’d encourage leaders in organizations to invest in the most.
Here’s some of that research, FYI.
One good, one bad thing in that quote
It is bad to hire toxic people, and you shouldn’t do it. (I’m glad we realize this by 2017.) But “leaders investing the most” in recruiting/hiring is simply not normative at most places. It’s still “a HR thing.” That’s why for the “war for talent” eventually became “the war ON talent.”
OK, moving on … why does this happen? Why is there less civility in the workplace?
This is a complicated answer, but we can break it out.
Porath’s research says the No. 1 reason is people feeling stressed or overwhelmed, so they kind of “take it out” — pass the buck — to other people in the form of uncivil behavior. We do know that work stress, emotional exhaustion, and emotional burnout are all pretty real — so this checks out.
What these discussions tend to miss is the role of priority in all this. Stress is good — it’s actually a motivator — when/if priority exists. Unfortunately, that’s not common at most offices. Many aren’t clear on priority, even less on strategy and planning, and what typically happens is that each manager and each silo can define their own things as “urgent.”
But that creates the butting of heads. Manager A wants Timmy to do his six urgent things, but Manager B wants Timmy to do his four urgent things. Timmy cannot do all 10 things right now. So either a Manager A task or Manager B task goes No. 1. This will create problems. Now Manager A is pissed at Manager B, Timmy is pissed at Manager A, and Manager B is getting killed by his own manager about these urgent deliverables. You see how this micro-example would create less than stellar conditions for civility in the workplace?
It’s actually pretty normal at most jobs.
Can we fix this?
At the individual level, of course. You’d have to:
- Define priorities for your team
- Treat others as you want to be treated
- Do a “serenity prayer” before lashing out about a ball that was dropped
- Check in with your teammates
Those are just some basic civil, human things to do when you work with others.
At the organizational level, this is much harder to fix. Execs would have to care (not going to happen without a bottom-line tie to civility) and we’d need to loosen the reins on “pleasing the key stakeholders.” That mentality, along with a mandate for growth above all, have pushed us way off the civility in the workplace tracks.