Stopping The Downward Spiral Of Workplace Incivility


Rudeness. Sarcastic comments. Bickering. The withholding of compliments. Inappropriate joking.

And worse — public rebukes, demeaning language, taunting, yelling and insulting remarks.

These behaviors are examples of the downward spiral of workplace incivility. There is alarming evidence that incivility at work is pervasive and on the rise. Examples of business leaders who are described as “terrifying people to work for” abound. Scott Rudin was said to have gone through 250 assistants in five years. Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting Company, was known for outbursts like hurling a videotape at an employee. Former president and COO of Goldman Sachs Gary Cohn was said to use extreme behaviors such as yelling or the silent treatment for those who displeased him.

What exactly is incivility? Incivility represents a form of psychological harassment and emotional aggression that violates the social norm of mutual respect. Whether it is done with or without conscious intent, workplace incivility is costly to the bottom line and the emotional psyche. It is also entirely preventable.

Frequently, workplace incivility goes unaddressed until the negative consequences escalate to unacceptable levels. Some managers argue that the individualistic or “me-only” personality common in Western cultures, when combined with strong pressures to perform, hyper-competitive workplaces, or tensions between individual rights versus norms of mutual respect, contribute to rampant incivility in the workplace. Be that as it may, there is no denying that the rise of incivility is one of the most serious contemporary issues facing organizations. According to a study that was reported by Fortune magazine, U.S. firms spend 13 percent of their time addressing the incendiary fallout of workplace incivility.

Workplace incivility creates a wide range of negative effects including lower employee engagement, reduced work effort, increased worry or anxiety, withdrawal, lower individual satisfaction, and reduced organizational commitment. In extreme cases, affected employees leave the organization and customers who witness incivility take their business elsewhere. Each of these outcomes has negative repercussions on employees, customers and other valuable organizational stakeholders. The long-term impact of workplace incivility can create a toxic culture that is challenging to correct. It can also be financially costly in terms of time spent managing conflict at work and in accounting for increased employee turnover, expensive litigation and the negative impact on the customers’ experience and the overall company reputation.

Make no mistake, workplace incivility is not subjective. It is not merely a matter of differences in opinion over what is acceptable or appropriate behavior. Research shows that the misuse of power is often at the core of the harmful, negative interactions. The target of incivility is more likely to be of a lower status than the perpetrator. It should come as no surprise then that the employees who admit to committing workplace incivility report that they modeled their behavior after the leaders of their organization. The actions (or inactions) of company leaders can signal that rude and discourteous behavior is acceptable. In excessive cases, leaders who reward and promote the habitual perpetrators of workplace incivility create a culture of deviance that has long-term detrimental consequences for the work environment.

Because the dynamics of power and leadership are central to workplace incivility, ignoring bad behaviors does not make them disappear. Abusive supervisors, narcissistic leaders and passive aggressive managers create adverse conditions. The little acts of incivility that go unchecked by authority figures, which are known as micro-aggressions, can spiral into bullying and even workplace violence.

We must acknowledge that responsible, proactive leadership is essential for preventing the spiral of workplace incivility. Principled leadership is essential because unlike violations of sexual harassment or discrimination, there are no explicit laws against incivility. As such, incivility frequently goes unreported until the situation has blown up.

Leadership should establish norms of zero tolerance for incivility. Leaders must be positive role models for civility in their words and in their deeds. When incivility occurs, leaders must step forward to correct it and not ignore it, even if the behavior is exhibited by top-level or high-potential performers. This can be accomplished best when leaders reinforce cooperative behavior and model the ethical use of power among staff. For example, some workplaces have adopted explicit practices whereby leaders can acknowledge acts of cooperation among employees or have sponsored programs that allow coworkers to reward each another for positive and supportive actions.

Workplace incivility is not random but it is preventable. Research in this area is clear that the spiral of incivility can escalate into more severe forms of mistreatment, antisocial behavior and workplace aggression. To turn back the rising tide of hostile behavior, leaders must act. It is incumbent upon them to serve as responsible and proactive role models to both prevent and correct the disruptive and dangerous spiral of incivility.

Audrey J. Murrell is Associate Dean and Director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration.


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