Addressing Workplace Incivility

September 19, 2015
Mike Stallard

Creating a workplace culture where people feel valued involves more than actively showing appreciation. It also involves eliminating behaviors that make people feel devalued.

One of the worst culprits for making people feel devalued is disrespectful, condescending and rude behavior. Obviously, physical aggression is wrong. Less obvious is verbal abuse, especially if it is not clear that the instigator intended to harm the target. Remember the childhood phrase “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me?” The truth is, words can and do hurt.

Most of us have witnessed managers berating the views of lower-ranking employees during meetings. These senior managers may reject others’ ideas without explaining their reasons why. Likewise, they may assert that their views are obviously superior without allowing a dialogue on the pros and cons of their position or on the alternatives. This approach is just one example of incivility in an organizational culture.

Uncivil behavior can take many forms. Here are a few:

  • Angry outbursts, tantrums, yelling, screaming, and cursing at someone
  • Giving someone the silent treatment, ignoring or excluding him
  • Constantly interrupting someone
  • Violating someone’s personal space to intimidate him
  • Publicly ridiculing someone
  • Intensely cross-examining someone to belittle him
  • Putting down or being condescending toward someone

Generally, any actions meant to humiliate, intimidate, undermine, or destroy a colleague in the workplace must be forbidden. These include acts of omission such as withholding resources (time, information, supplies, support, etc.) for the purpose of sabotaging another person’s efforts.

Disrespectful, condescending, and rude behavior must be eliminated from the corporate culture if we are to engage and energize people. When a leader exhibits uncivil behavior or allows someone else in his chain of command to perpetrate it, he needs to let that person know that it damages connection and is unacceptable. It should be made clear that continuing such behavior will bring about the perpetrator’s removal, regardless of the person’s “importance” to the company.

Unfortunately, patronizing behavior at work is too common. The American Psychological Association Center for Organizational Excellence reports that 98% of Americans polled in a 2013 study reported experiencing incivility on the job, and 26% of workers have quit a job because of an “uncivil workplace culture.”

Unchecked, uncivil behavior in the workplace spreads. Second-in-command leaders tend to adopt the leadership practices of their bosses, whether they are civil or uncivil. The only way to eliminate this corrosive behavior is for leaders to model civil behavior and take action to remove people who have proven themselves incapable of reform.

Is uncivil behavior a problem in your workplace? Be part of the answer rather than part of the problem.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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