"Incivility sucks something out of all of us. It takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ride. It siphons cognitive resources. It even eats away at physical health. Ultimately, we become a fraction of ourselves. We don’t show up to the same extent. If you’re experiencing incivility, don’t brush it off."
As I was finishing Christine Porath’s book, Mastering Civility, Travis Kalanick was forced to resign as CEO of Uber. Ultimately, despite his astounding successes in upending an industry and building a powerful company, his incivility and his role in creating a culture of incivility resulted in his demise.
I find the story of Kalanicks’ rise and fall simultaneously troubling and encouraging. Troubling that his behavior was tolerated for so long; encouraged that, ultimately, it was not. Incivility, over time, became intolerable and Uber’s culture eroded its performance. Christine Porath, I’m sure, was unsurprised. Her research suggests that this was predictable.
Porath’s newest book helps us to better understand why incivility matters, and how we can work to create greater civility. Her work, like the story of Uber, is both troubling and optimistic.
The Big Idea
The Destructive Power of Incivility—and the Antidote
"In a study of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior (defined as ‘abusive personal conduct,’ including condescending, insulting, or rude behavior) to medical errors they knew of and 27 percent tied bad behavior to the deaths of their patients."
Got your attention? This statistic, one of many results of studies that Dr. Porath conducted, certainly got mine. Here’s more:
- Fortune 1000 firms spend 13 percent of their time at work—the equivalent of seven weeks a year—mending employee relationships and dealing with the aftermath of incivility.
- Only 20 percent of consumers who had witnessed employees treating each other with incivility said they would continue to use the firm’s products.
- The mere exposure to rudeness disrupts our ability to pay attention and reduces performance.
- Once people are exposed to rudeness, they are three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half.
The bottom line? Incivility is deeply disruptive—it drains our cognitive resources and influences our capacity for civility.
So, what can we do? We can consciously behave in ways that promote civility. We can foster civility in the organizations we lead (whether we are formal or informal leaders). And, civility can “overwrite” incivility. When we consciously act with civility or expose ourselves to civility when faced with incivility, we release ourselves and others from incivility’s grip.
Porath’s manifesto is filled with ways that leaders can create civility. They are, for the most part, elements of mindful, conscious leadership—the essential antidote to incivility. Conscious leadership in an environment where incivility is tolerated is not so easy. Porath makes the case that it’s worth the effort both because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s good for business.
Civility Can Be Simple: The Low-hanging Fruit
"In the workplace, civil behaviors can be extraordinarily small. A colleague can smile and say hello to you in the hallway, an associate can ask an assistant to please do a task and thank her after she completes it. Leaders can behave civilly by engaging others in conversation rather than ordering them around, or by taking time to applaud subordinates when they do a good job."
In addition to tackling more strategic and systemic actions that leaders can take to create or restore civility (e.g., hiring, coaching and measurement practices,) Porath spends a chapter on “fundamentals.” These are “the small behaviors that we frequently overlook that allow us to connect by being more attentive.” Each of these is something we can do by behaving just a bit differently in any given moment.
Here’s each of those three behaviors—with a bit of context.
- Smiling: While we know how a smile feels, I still found the research surprisingly powerful. Smiling is a mood booster—for the smiler and the person who is the recipient. It’s contagious, too. And, since it’s hard to fake a smile, if you want to smile more, do it from the “inside-out.” Think of something that genuinely makes you happy and allows you to smile.
- Building relationships with subordinates: Acknowledge, connect with, relate to the people who report to you. While this sounds obvious—in reality, it often is missing. How do you start your day? What rituals do you have through which you connect with your team? Do you take the time with your team members? How do you override distance when you have a virtual team?
- Listening: “At its core,” writes Porath, “civility is about connecting in human ways with others.” Perhaps the most powerful way to connect is through attentive, thoughtful, and full listening.
Whether you are responding to incivility or actively creating a culture grounded in civility, don’t forget these fundamentals.
"Incivility usually arises not from malice but from ignorance. I started my research thinking that jerks out there were intentionally ruining workplaces; I now see that most bad behavior reflects a lack of self-awareness. "
One of the most important findings around incivility is that it is often more situational than personality-driven. This suggests both that most people are capable of greater civility—and that incivility is not limited to people who are “jerks.”
What this also means is that, especially when we are under stress, we may unknowingly act in ways that might be perceived as lacking civility. We also might not even be aware that some of our behaviors might be interpreted by others as lacking civility. (How often do you respond to e-mail when you’re in a meeting? Text in the middle of a conversation? Interrupt? Forget to say thank-you?) Given that 98% of people polled by Porath say that they have experienced incivility, and over 60% say it’s a weekly occurrence (a radical increase from the late nineties when the figure was 25%,) it seems that more people are behaving in ways that lack civility more frequently.
Becoming aware of one’s own behaviors and impact on others, and at the core, managing stressors more effectively, is key to reducing incivility. As leaders, this also suggests that creating workplaces that acknowledge and manage stressors more effectively is also critical.
Porath provides an assessment tool that allows us to rate ourselves against an extensive list of behaviors. I strongly recommend completing the assessment. It was humbling for me to answer the questions and realize that my sense of myself as consistently demonstrating civility might be inaccurate. The results are organized against different categories of behavior—which helped me to see how others might be experiencing me. I also appreciated the suggestions for ways to address civility deficits.
Understanding the destructive power of incivility has had the effect of making me more conscious of the urgency of this issue. It also made me aware of the need to speak up when confronted with incivility and make a commitment to ensuring that the spaces that I inhabit—at home and at work—pay greater attention to civility.
I hope you take the assessment, read the book, and let me know what you will do to increase civility.