The Cost of Incivility in the Workplace

If you feel that the workplace is an environment where people experience increasingly poor treatment by bosses and colleagues, you are not alone. In fact, surveys of thousands of workers conducted by business school professors at Georgetown University found that an astounding 98% of respondents claim to have experienced uncivil behavior in the workplace and fully half claim to be treated rudely at least once per week.

Most of us sense intuitively that a toxic workplace is not particularly good for us, but research shows that the impact of such environments is remarkably negative, for individuals and organizations—and these negative results even extend to people who simply witness rude, disrespectful or demeaning behavior even if they are not personally the victims of such behavior.

Such work environments create negative impacts on mental and physical health, reduce productivity, increase turnover, and actually compromise cognitive performance. When researchers have subjects engage in cognitive tasks after either being treated rudely or even witnessing such behavior, their performance on those tasks decreases by 35% over normal performance. This makes intuitive sense as no one is at his or her best when bullied, insulted, or otherwise mistreated.

Interestingly, uncivil behavior in organizations also tends to be “contagious,” with such behavior passing to other individuals, resulting in a negative loop, creating increasingly negative environments. Relatedly, mistreatment of employees tends to manifest negatively in subsequent work tasks. For example, research by Christine Porath at Georgetown found that after being the victim of or witnessing demeaning behavior, individuals engaged in brainstorming activities produced more aggressive and even violent words and ideas than those who brainstormed without having been exposed to such behavior.

Of possibly greater concern, the negative affects continue to impact employees after they leave the office, creating stress, impacting relationships, and degrading mental and physical health even in peoples’ personal lives.

So, what can be done about growing incivility in the workplace?

A recent Harvard Business Review article, offers potential solutions to mitigating the challenges of rude and demeaning behavior in the workplace. However, the author notes that based on many years of working directly with such organizations that it is very difficult for individuals to make meaningful change by themselves, noting that ignoring rude colleagues and/or addressing the negative behavior directly results in positive outcomes only about 15% of the time. On the contrary, positive change is much more likely if it is the result of a concerted, holistic commitment on the part of the entire organization.

What this means is that senior leaders in organizations are accountable for the workplace climate and, relatedly, are responsible for setting expectations for what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not. While one can argue that leaders have a responsibility to maintain work environments that are psychologically safe simply because it’s the right thing to do, doing so is also a means of generating higher productivity and performance while reducing turnover. Even in the absence of altruism, creating and protecting a safe and healthy organizational environment is a pretty smart thing for leaders to do.

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