I don’t get mad very often. I’ve always been surprised when people around me get furious at what seem to me to be fairly innocuous events or interactions.
But one category of behavior can really spike my blood pressure: rudeness. Just so we’re talking about the same thing, by rude I mean operating in a way that disregards the comfort, rights, or feelings of others. So, for instance: Cutting into a line in front of others who have been waiting patiently. Interrupting a colleague in a meeting to dismiss his idea as foolish. Telling a customer service person she’s “an idiot.”
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this. Chris Porath recently sent me an excellent article she co-authored with Christine Pearson for the Harvard Business Review, The Price of Incivility. Based on data collected from over 14,000 people at all levels in organizations throughout North America, Porath and Pearson PSO +0.1% have found that the incidence of incivility at work is disturbingly high – and that it’s on the rise: “In 2011 half [of workers] said they were treated rudely at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998,” they note.
Because workplace rudeness is so widespread these days, we may have gotten somewhat inured to it – expecting, on some level, indifferent sales clerks, snarky co-workers, and mean bosses – but Porath and Pearson offer sobering statistics on the negative impact of this behavior. In one poll of 800 workers, they found that, among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:
- Four in five lost work time worrying about the incident, or were less committed to the organization.
- Two thirds said they lost work time avoiding the offender, or that their performance declined.
- Almost half intentionally decreased their work efforts or the time they spent at work.
- Over a third intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
- A quarter admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.
- More than one in ten said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
So, why has the workplace gotten so uncivil – and what can we do about it?
The Wikipedia article on rudeness defines it as displaying “disrespect by not complying with the social “laws” or etiquette of a group or culture. These laws have been established as the essential boundaries of normally accepted behavior. To be unable or unwilling to align one’s behavior with these laws known to the general population of what is socially acceptable is to be rude.” I suspect that as “social laws and etiquette” have become so much more elastic over the past two generations, it has become more OK not to comply with those laws. For example, if a sales clerk in 1960 told a customer to “stop hassling me,” that person would have been fired immediately. Now, he or she would perhaps be reprimanded…or perhaps it would go unremarked. Fifty years ago, such a response would have been considered completely socially unacceptable. Now…not so much. But even though such behavior is more widely accepted, as the above statistics show – we still don’t like it.
The good news is, you as a leader can have a big impact on the civility level of your team. Porath and Pearson offer a number of really helpful suggestions in their article. I’d like to offer two additional approaches that I try to use every day, and that I regularly recommend to clients:
Assume positive intent: I write about this fairly often, because I’ve found it so enormously valuable. One of the excuses we use to be uncivil toward each other is that “the other person has it in for me,” or “is trying to make things hard for me.” If, however, when others inconvenience or upset you, you assume instead that they are basically well-intended people but may not understand the impact they’re having on you, you’ll be much less likely to automatically respond to them in an aggressive way – and the situation is less likely to escalate. For example, if someone doesn’t fulfill a commitment they’ve made to you at work, and you assume they don’t care, are lazy, or have intentionally snubbed you – you’ll probably be rude to them…and they’ll probably be rude back. If, however, you assume that they intended to do what they said they would do, but that something got in the way – you’ll most likely approach them in a calm, curious way…and working out the situation will be relatively easy and civil.
Think how you would feel. I have often stopped myself from writing or saying things that could be taken as rude by others by first reflecting on how I’d feel if someone said or wrote that thing to me. This is especially useful when writing emails. Sometimes we toss off an email message that seems OK as we’re writing it, but if we were to re-read it before sending, imagining how we’d respond on receiving it, we would definitely edit it! I’m convinced that if leaders were to communicate to others only those things they’d feel OK having communicated to them, it would have a huge positive impact on our overall workplace civility level, increasing commitment, productivity and creativity.
What instances of rudeness and incivility have you experienced on the job? How did you respond – and how did it work?
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