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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.

How incivility shuts down our brains at work

How incivility shuts down our brains at work
Incivility is like being trapped inside a fog. Even if we're just witnesses, it can put us in a cloud of negativity and have profound effects on our mindset, attentiveness, and performance.

Dr. Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, spoke at the re:Work 2016 event about her research on how incivil behaviors at work can have major, negative impacts on wellbeing, creativity, and productivity.

A number of studies have shown that incivility steals cognitive resources and disrupts attention, whether someone is the direct subject or just a bystander. Incivility interferes with information processing and recall and impacts the ability to make decisions. In an experiment, subjects who merely witnessed an incivil act were 50% less effective on word problems and 28% less creative on brainstorming tasks.

To learn more about these effects, Porath and her co-researchers studied how incivility affects three different stages of the cognitive system:

  1. How attentive we are
  2. How we process information
  3. How we use information to problem solve

Using a word scramble exercise, subjects were asked to create sentences from a bank of 30 words. Half received a list with 15 rude trigger words like “interrupt,” “obnoxious,” and “disturb.” The other half received the same exact task, but their list contained none of these rude triggers. After being primed in this exercise, subjects were given tests to measure their attentiveness and those primed with the rude triggers were five times less likely to notice conspicuous events, 17% worse at recalling information, and 43% worse at finding math errors.

“Incivility chips away at people and performance,” Porath said. “Incivility hijacks focus. It robs people of their potential, even if they're just working around it. Civility lifts people. You will get people to give more and function at their best, if you're civil. You'll also build a culture that helps make the world better. So in every interaction, think, who do you want to be?”

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