Incivility is often defined as a set of rude or disrespectful behaviors that go against mutual norms of respect. In recent years, these behaviors are becoming more widespread and they are silently damaging many organizations and people working within them.
Unfortunately, as managers are preoccupied with major forms of physical violence and psychological aggression they tend to underestimate more subtle forms of interpersonal mistreatment. Yet, behaviors that display disregard for others, including giving harsh responses, making negative faces, or ignoring someone, might occur at higher incidence than physical violence.
Research in management and psychology labels many of these low-intensity deviant behaviors workplace incivility. Although workplace incivility is subtler than physical violence or psychological aggression, its consequences are not. Implications of incivility include lower job satisfaction, psychological stress, and a decrease in employee physical health. But perhaps the most damaging consequence of incivility for organizations is employee exit.
To avoid this, organizations can implement two different strategies before or after the escalation of incivility. During the hiring process, managers can conduct a personnel screening to assess employees’ predispositions to engage in uncivil acts. After the occurrence and escalation of incivility, managers may signal “zero tolerance” policy for workplace mistreatment.
Despite the plausibility of these intervention strategies mentioned above, the ambiguous nature of many uncivil acts makes them particularly difficult to implement. For example, uncivil behaviors such as ignoring co-workers are difficult to recognize and designate as unacceptable behaviors, and this makes enforcement of specific organizational policies difficult.
My recent paper (co-authored by Richard P. Bagozzi of Ross School of Business, Quy N. Huy of INSEAD, R. Wayne Boss of Leeds School of Business, and David S. Boss of Ohio College of Business) offers a different suggestion on how to limit the harmful effects of incivility.
In the paper, we assume that workplace incivility cannot be completely eliminated, but its effects on employee turnover can reduced by taking into account individuals’ resources for coping with mistreatment. Rather thank asking: “what can managers do to eliminate incivility” we asked “what can managers do to reduce the negative consequences of incivility?”
We performed a two-stage survey of 618 nurses at a 550-bed teaching and research hospital in the south-eastern United States. First, we asked the nurses to rate the incivility presents in their workplace and their personal exposure to managerial interventions known to mitigate stress (team-building exercises and private informal meetings). Five months later, we asked how likely they were to look for a new job in the coming year.
Coping with Stress
Uncivil acts are more likely to result in harmful consequences for the victim when they are not followed by clarifications, apologies, or support. This is due to victims’ difficulty in making sense of perpetrator’s intentions, indecisiveness about how to react, and uncertainty about what could happen next.
To understand this mechanism, we should think in terms of emotional resources. Every time an employee becomes a victim of incivility, such as being ignored by co-workers or receiving rude answers, he or she looses important emotional resources. This resource depletion increases the victim’s stress level and redirect mental energy from workplace tasks to a psychological state of rumination.
In simple words, victims of incivility keep asking themselves: Did he/she really mean to ignore me? What did I do to offend him/her?
These demoralised employees may eventually quit - but in the meantime a spiral of mistreatment might have spread around the office. To solve this problem, we had hypothesized that incivility’s impact on employees depends on whether managers step in to help employees cope. Subjected to regression analysis, the survey results supported our hypothesis: employees who experienced managerial interventions to aid coping had less desire to leave. This was true regardless of incivility they were experiencing every day.
How to intervene: Team-building and Private Meetings
If high-stress workplaces can leave employees emotionally exhausted, private informal meetings and team-building meetings can replenish their emotional resources. Administrators at hospitals, as much as managers in high-tech companies, should regularly use these two interventions as a release valve.
In fact, team-building and private informal meetings with supervisors allow the organization to replenish resources among victims of incivility, as they involve remedial voice both as a mean of protecting personal resources and a way of accumulating additional emotional resources for coping. During these organizationally provided dialogues, managers and colleagues may learn about incivility experienced by the employee and offer her or him opportunities for clarification and support.
Team-building meetings are often structured as three-day events designed to build healthy, viable teams. A typical team-building event proceed as follows. During the first two days of the meeting, participants have the opportunity to get to know their co-workers and supervisors better through (1) disclosure of their personal life experiences and (2) common sharing of personality test results. Once a climate of trust and informality is achieved between participants, the team-building leader uses the last day to discuss unresolved relationship issues between participants (e.g., incivility issues).
Considering the fact that many perpetrators of incivility are not aware of their harmful actions, these three-day meetings may provide victims with an opportunity to express their discomfort with various acts of incivility that are perpetrated by various members of the organization, to clarify the intentions behind those acts, and to cope more constructively with the incivility that they experience. In sum, team-building exercises allow victims of incivility to discuss their feelings with the group, rather than trying to solve the uncivil situation alone.
Private Informal Meetings
Holding regular private meetings between employees and their supervisors is important for the opposite reason - their very informality lets employees unburden themselves of whatever might be worrying them, be it a professional or a personal concern. Many supervisors are often unaware of the existence of incivility problems among their employees and are unprepared to act when warning signs of incivility arise. Thus, these meetings provide an informal yet regular complaint system that may concretely assist managers in coaching employees targeted with incivility. Our findings show that holding these meetings at least “once each month” could neutralize the effects of workplace incivility on employees’ turnover.
Proactivity is the Key
Workplace incivility is subtle but can erode relationships between employees, reduce their job performance, and lower their psychological and physical health. From a practical point, it is extremely difficult to evaluate all the costs of incivility for organizations. To the best of our knowledge, one of its most damaging consequences is employee exit, which increases the significant cost of attracting and maintaining qualified personnel for organizations.
Unfortunately, all organizations might become uncivil if managers ignore employee emotions. Because of the subtle nature of uncivil behaviors, many managers erroneously assume that everything is fine between their employees because they haven’t heard otherwise. In addition, grievance systems are not a good solution because the ambiguous nature of uncivil behaviors makes them difficult to report to HR managers.
Thus, if you cannot eliminate incivility from your workplace, you can at least reduce its consequences by providing emotional resources to your employees. Team-building and personal management interviews are two way of doing it.
So, when in doubt, it is better to err on the side of being a little too concerned with your employees’ emotional well-being rather than ignoring their feelings.
Francesco Sguera, Assistant Professor at CATÓLICA-LISBON