"Why you gotta be so rude?" The rise of the 'vicious cycle' of workplace incivility

August 15, 2021

Listen to this article

"Why you gotta be so rude?" The rise of the 'vicious cycle' of workplace incivility

Workplace incivility is on the rise and a new study found that employees who experience or witness incivilities are more likely to be uncivil to others, a worrying trend that could intensify as people return to in-person work.

What the researchers say: "People have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication as much and that can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it because people are out of practice of not having to have difficult conversations," said the study’s co-author. "These spirals that we're seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world."

Uncivil behavior at work can range from criticizing someone in public, rude or obnoxious behavior or withholding important information, to more subtle acts such as arriving late to a meeting, checking email or texting during a meeting, or ignoring or interrupting a colleague.

Incivility can mean different things to different people, so it can be easily overlooked or missed.

"Incivility is typically ambiguous and not very intense, but it has harmful effects all the same," the researchers noted.

This study is the first comprehensive review of its kind to analyze the factors that predict uncivil behavior in workplaces. They focused on the instigator's perspective to better understand incivility and how to stop it at its source.

Among the findings:

  • Employees who have more control over their jobs are less likely to reciprocate incivility. Researchers suggest that employees with greater job control have more freedom in deciding when and how their work tasks are completed, offering them the time and energy to seek social or organizational support, mentally and/or physically detach from work, reflect on the situation, or confront their uncivil colleague.
  • Employees whose immediate team or workgroup engages in more civil behavior are less likely to reciprocate incivility.
  • Employees who are older are less likely to reciprocate incivility.

In a remote working world, the researchers said, incivility could more easily go unchecked as people hide behind Zoom boxes or chat messages and it can be difficult to discern intent from text without body language or tone of voice. Even as people return to work, organizations may choose to adopt a hybrid model where employees may only come in for team-based work.

"There will inevitably be some conflict as people might be meeting coworkers in person for the first time or they'll be working together again in the same physical space," said the second co-author. "Relationships will need to be renegotiated in different kinds of ways and the likelihood that people are going to be able to address these situations in a conducive manner as compared to before the pandemic will decrease."

As the researchers noted, it’s key that organizations provide support to employees who've experienced incivility.

"They're at a high risk of starting these vicious cycles," they said. "Providing support is not only the right thing to do but it stops that behavior from spiraling through the organization."

So, what? Obviously, it’s important that complaints about uncivil behavior shouldn't be discounted and organizations should have policies and practices in place that take incidents seriously and address them in a way that curtails them from continuing. Just like bullying—the neurogenetics of which are very similar to incivility.

However, I think it’s wrong to focus the blame for bad behavior on employees. Few people are willingly nasty or uncivil to others. Incivility at work is created by the context of the workplace (including the home in the case of remote working).

Increasing work stress is a large part of that context. Before the epidemic work stress had increased by some 200% during the prior ten years. Remote working has made it much worse. Until we effectively destress the work environment—either on-site or remote—we will have increasing behavioral problems.

The researchers are undoubtedly correct to note that the lockdowns and remote working have gotten people unused to using good communication skills. To be honest, some never learned them (good dialogue and communication is learned and not innate to humans). The increasing reliance on technology is also partly to blame. You don’t have to be civil to a machine and the way you communicate with your apps or with AI can become your standard communication style.

We can reduce incivility and bullying in four ways:

  • Adopt a more transformational (people not goal-focused) leadership style
  • Rehumanize work—reduce the time spent interacting with machines and increase that spent interacting with people
  • Teach, and insist on, good dialogue skills—especially praise
  • Destress the work environment.

For more on workplace incivility click here. For bullying click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.