Summary: Civility in the workplace is declining. That’s bad news for individuals and organizations. Here’s why we should all be more civil at work and how.
You, who ignores emails, texts, and Slack messages.
You, who treats subordinates as mere task-completers, never addressing them by name or asking how they’re doing.
You, who forgets to say “thank you” and “please”.
You’re part of the reason why we have a problem with civility in the workplace.
No time to be civil
I know what you’re going to say. You’re too busy. You don’t have time to be nice.
Or maybe: You, yourself, are on the receiving end of rudeness! Your boss texts in the middle of meetings. Your coworker is constantly interrupting you.
Or even: You’re not sure how to be civil? Without guidelines or shared values, it can be hard to figure out what that means at your workplace.
It’s not you, it’s the decline of community
Whatever your reason for not being as kind as you could be, it’s not just you. According to Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, the rise of incivility is tied to a broader social phenomenon—the dissolution of communal and civil ties.
According to Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, this process of disconnection began when women entered the workforce and increased as technology advanced.
Women were the ones who invested time and effort into communal activities; when they started working outside the home, there was a loss of social capital.
Meanwhile, by privatizing our leisure time, i.e. turning once-communal experiences such as listening to music into private activities, technology deepened our isolation.
As we grew more and more disconnected, the less civil we became.
The lack of civility in the workplace is rising
And it’s only getting worse. Research shows that incivility has been steadily increasing for over two decades.
The fraying of workplace relationships, in particular, seems to have worsened with the shift to remote work: Loneliness and isolation are the largest reported concerns amongst remote employees.
Workers hired remotely during the pandemic told The New York Times that they felt “left behind, invisible and, in some cases, unsure about how to do their jobs.” One person described her job as “completely transactional”, with conversations limited to “exchanging information in pursuit of an immediate, work-related goal.”
Globalization and the clash of generations have also increased perceived incivility. Globalization makes being civil harder because what constitutes appropriate behavior in one culture might be considered rude in another. Similarly, what an older generation finds disrespectful might be acceptable for a younger generation.
Why civility in the workplace matters
Rude behaviors are damaging to individuals and organizations in a multitude of ways. Consider the research findings below:
Employees on the receiving end of rude behavior are more likely to develop health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and ulcers. A 2012 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, for instance, found that stressful jobs are just as bad for women’s health as smoking and obesity.
More than any issue you could be dealing with at work—including long hours and a heavy workload—having unkind colleagues is the most significant factor for longevity. (see “Your Co-Workers Might Be Killing You.”)
Workplace stress costs the US economy over $500 billion a year. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work estimates that over half of the 550 million workdays lost annually in the US are due to stress. Sixty to eighty percent of accidents are stress-related, as are 80% of doctor’s visits.
Stressed-out workers are more likely to quit their jobs, and hiring someone new can cost anywhere from 1.5 to four times the former employee’s annual salary.
A survey of 800 managers showed that rude behavior affects productivity. After being treated uncivilly, managers say they produce lower quality work. Almost half of them devote less time to work following a rude incident. The majority can’t stop thinking about it after it happens.
Incivility hurts performance, too, since it impairs cognitive thinking and the ability to pay attention. If you’re a nurse or a doctor, being disrespected at work may have life-threatening repercussions for patients.
Finally, incivility reduces psychological safety. When treated rudely, people are less likely to ask for feedback, try new things, and speak up about anything that seems wrong.
The case for civility in the workplace
Civility, on the other hand, has multiple advantages. Being civil, as opposed to neutral or rude, is linked to professional success.
Civil professionals have an easier time finding work because most people choose their collaborators based on whether or not they have previously enjoyed working together.
They also have more opportunities for career advancement because they are part of networks that give them access to ideas, information, and people that can help them achieve their goals.
Civility is linked to success in teams and organizations, too. In company cultures where civility prevails, there is more psychological safety, productivity, and innovation. Organizations that are civil also enjoy more financial success and lower turnover rates.
How to increase civility in the workplace
Being civil doesn’t just mean that you’re not a jerk. (…) Being truly civil means doing the small things, like smiling and saying hello in the hallway, listening fully when someone’s speaking to you.Christine Porath
While incivility is a global, decades-spanning phenomenon linked to various social factors, it is also a personal issue. We can increase civility in the workplace by becoming more civil ourselves. Here’s how.
1. Take a civility test
Take Christine Porath’s free online civility assessment to discover your strengths and where you need to improve.
2. Get feedback
Ask coworkers about things you do that bother them. Decide on one change you want to make based on their feedback.
3. Ask for help
Ask a coworker to help keep you accountable. Offer them ten dollars for every time they catch you doing the thing you want to stop doing. (Apparently, this is what author Marshall Goldsmith did to stop gossiping.)
4. Make time for self-reflection
Use journaling or meditation to reflect daily on your actions and the impact they have on others. Benjamin Franklin famously kept a journal to track his progress on the habits he was trying to build, such as moderation and humility. (Here’s a breakdown of his method if you want to give it a try.)
Guided audio sessions such as Caroline Miss’ evening meditation can also help you create a habit of reflecting on the day’s actions.
5. Take care of yourself
Eating well, exercising regularly, and getting a good amount of sleep are prerequisites for civility—it’s hard to be civil when you’re hungry and/or sleep-deprived. Research shows that cultivating a mindfulness practice, such as yoga or meditation, can also help you improve your interactions with others.
Have thoughts on civility in the workplace? Share your stories or comments below!
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