Editor’s Note: This is the 5th in a series of articles about The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. See also Kirsten Cronlund’s article, A Powerful Collection: Book Review,, Giselle Nicholson’s Innovativeness as Positive Deviance, and Amanda Horne’s articles, Virtuous Organizations and Positive Deviance.
On the day that I was preparing a draft of this article, the headlines on the front page of our newspaper included, “Toxic culture hits swim team,” and “Sticks and stones: schoolchildren explain bullying factors.” That bullying and toxic cultures make the front page shows how our communities and workplaces are increasingly expecting behaviors that are considerate, caring, kind, compassionate, courteous, polite, and respectful. We want people to be good citizens, to value and appreciate others, to take an active interest in the well-being of others, and to act responsibly in relationships.
We want people to be civil towards each other.
Civility is the subject of Christine Porath’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. She presents the state of empirical research into civility in the workplace along with a summary of the benefits of civility and the costs of incivility. She calls for more research into civility in workplaces, noting that there has been less empirical research into the benefits of civility than into the costs of incivility.
Benefits of Civility
The benefits of civility at work are compelling:
- Positive emotions are heightened, both in the giver and receiver. A broaden and build effect takes place, as described in Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions.
- When people are treated with respect, they feel more valued in their organizations, which in turn affects their ability to work well and contribute with energy.
- Relationships and trust are strengthened.
- Thriving occurs.
- Energy and enthusiasm are heightened.
- Performance at work improves, both as people rate their work and as their managers rate their work.
- Staff are more likely to be altruistic, courteous, helpful, and encouraging.
- Staff are more connected with co-workers; they feel valued and appreciated, which improves collaboration, a sense of safety in the team, and comfort with giving and receiving feedback.
“Civility is the lubricant that fosters good teamwork.”
Porath also draws on a meta-analysis of a related subject, supportive peer relationships, which reveals that co-worker support provides a buffer in times of stress. There is a correlation between supportive peer relationships and improvements in attitudes towards work, performance, and well-being.
The Downside of Incivility at Work
The costs of incivility to workers include:
- Negative feelings such as fear, anger, sadness
- Intentions to quit
- Reduced satisfaction with work
- Loss of sense of meaning
- Mental, physical, and psychological effects of stress
- Feelings of threat, loss, and humiliation
In a 2007 experimental study, Porath and her colleagues found incivility reduced people’s work performance, creativity, and collaboration. “Even with one-time, relatively low-intensity incidents [of incivility], participants who had been treated rudely were not able to concentrate as well.” They suffered short-term memory loss, recalling 20% less. These effects also occurred for staff who merely witnessed uncivil behaviors.
“More than 60% of people who work in uncivil environments experience stress.”
“Over 80% feel used up by the end of the day.” (They feel emotionally exhausted, burnt out, with reduced motivation and enthusiasm.)
Interestingly, the study involved exposing participants to an uncivil event on their way to the experimental study, which demonstrates that acts of incivility outside one’s work unit can have a substantial impact. The implication is that a leader’s good work within a team can be undone by incivility in other parts of their organization.
In two studies where there were no acts of incivility, 90% and 73% of participants respectively offered to help others. However, when uncivil events were introduced only 35% and 23% of participants respectively offered to help others.
“Uncivil environments drain emotional and cognitive resources necessary for learning and performance.”
“92% of customers who witnessed an employee acting uncivilly toward another employee spoke negatively about the firm to others based on this incident.”
What causes incivility? Porath offers ideas such as narcissism, aggressiveness, stress, low EQ, and people who suffer from social inhibitions. However, some people do not deliberately set out to act uncivilly. There are different cultural norms, and what is uncivil in one culture or workplace may not be viewed as uncivil in other cultures. The personality of the receiver might also play a role: people have different thresholds for tolerating uncivil behavior.
How to Build Civility at Work
Porath offers this advice:
- Leaders set the tone, so they need to advocate and model civil behaviors.
- Commit to a culture of civility across the whole organization. Make civility an organizational priority, set guidelines, teach civility, and create group norms.
- Hire for attitude.
- Train people in emotional intelligence.
- Improve the quality of the social environment.
- Walk away, speak up, let go, act with dignity: choose the appropriate situational behavior.
- Reward good behavior, and penalize bad behavior.
We can also look to Chapter 29 of the same book on High Quality Connections (HQCs). HQCs are short-term positive dyadic interactions that result in the same benefits as acts of civility. In this chapter we can learn ways to improve HQCs, which also involves increasing civil behaviors. They include:
- Be aware of the other person.
- Stand in their shoes, see their perspectives.
- Express appreciation and gratitude.
- Have an attitude of warmth and acceptance towards others.
- Offer support, care, help, and empathy.
- Be respectful.
- Be playful, and have fun together.
Heart and Soul
For a workplace to retain its soul, health, productivity, quality work, and strong team relationships, the building block is respect and civility. Each day, we need to ask ourselves: “How can I be an active participant in creating these important foundations?”
Porath, C. L. (2011). Civility. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship
Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., Dutton, J. E. (2011). High-quality Connections. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship
Porath, C., Pearson, C. “The Price of Incivility”. Harvard Business Review, January 2013
Porath, C. L. & Pearson, C. (2013, January 18) “You’re Rude Because Your Boss Is Rude.” Harvard Business Review blog.
Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mattice, C. (2009). Towards Positive Relationships with Workplace Bullies. Positive Psychology News.