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The Water Cooler

A blog of fresh ideas and findings from organizational leaders and researchers on how they’re making work better, shared regularly.

Bringing civility back to the workplace

Bringing civility back to the workplace
Respect and incivility are each contagious as people reflect the treatment they receive. Research shows that individuals and organizations can influence workplace behavior in ways big and small by modeling and rewarding doing the right thing.

We each have a much bigger effect on one another’s emotions than we might think. The good and bad behaviors of those around us sneak into our subconscious. A seemingly small act of kindness or rudeness ripples across an organization, affecting people we work with, the people they work with, and beyond.

My research highlights how small civil and uncivil behaviors spread, for better and worse. In one experiment, we found that those simply around incivility are more likely to have dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts, although they may be unaware of the connection. Research has shown that people who are typically surrounded by jerks learn intuitively to act selfishly, even when cooperating would pay off. Our environment rubs off on us, and if our environment is toxic, we can expect to stay somewhat sick and to pass it on to others.

In a longitudinal study of all employees in a research and development department of a biotechnology firm, my colleagues and I documented that when employees are civil in small ways, their behavior is likely to be reciprocated and spread between colleagues. By being civil, employees contributed to a cycle that fostered greater civility among those with whom they interact. Small actions such as thanking people, humbly asking questions, and sharing credit can contribute to a cycle that fosters greater civility among the people in your network.

As Google’s recent research showed, a climate rooted in fairness, trust, autonomy, and cooperation can encourage better behavior. So what should organizations do?

  1. Interview for civility. Use structured interviews with behavioral question to check for conscientiousness and ethics. Check references thoroughly, but also go beyond provided references, chasing down leads and hunches. Be explicit about your organization’s values. Encourage candidates to decide for themselves: Do they truly want to work in an organization where these values reign supreme every day?
  2. Make civility part of your mission statement. Engage your team in a dialogue about what your norms should be. Then ask them to hold one another accountable. Train or coach employees, paying attention to how you offer feedback. Employ coaches for anyone who is failing to live up to your standards. Consider posting your mission statement somewhere visible so employees are reminded daily of your organization’s standards.
  3. Reward your good citizens. Align your evaluation system to your organization’s values. Make sure you’re motivating and reinforcing behaviors that help you achieve organizational goals. Recognize and reinforce actions that lead to results for the organization. Who do you depend on to help your team score your goals? Recognize the people who dole out assists. Create a culture in which employees are credited for the how. Encourage people to appreciate the acts that set them up for success.

Incivility is a highly infective and invasive, a pathogen that can quickly and silently sicken a team, department, or organization. Most people may not realize just how susceptible they are and the extent to which they are carriers of it. Fortunately, civility’s power to spread is just as great. It’s up to us to gird ourselves against rudeness, to fight back hard when it’s expressed, and to do everything we can to spread respect, kindness, and joy to those around us. Each one of us, through even the smallest of actions, has the capacity to create an atmosphere that’s energizing—and that can have a positive effect on colleagues’ behavior, creating wins for employees and your organization.

Christine Porath is an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Her new book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, shows how people can enhance their influence and effectiveness with civility. Combining scientific research with evidence from popular culture and fields such as neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, this book makes a compelling case for the power of civility to improve workplaces everywhere. It will be available in December.