Getting Incivility Under Control

Does incivility take a toll on today’s workplace?

Well, if we’re to believe the findings of a recent study out of Michigan State University, the answer is yes—and maybe more than we’d like to think.

ThinkstockPhotos-579244800To capsulize, the researchers, who have published their work (titled Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility) in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that experiencing rude behavior reduces employees’ self-control and leads them to act in a similar uncivil manner. (In doing their study, they asked 70 employees to fill out a survey relating to incivility and its effects three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays.)

Of course, this finding is not all that surprising. As human beings, we’re easily influenced by those around us. Right? Probably the more interesting finding is the unintentional nature of so-called “incivility spirals”—i.e., when acts of incivility lead to subsequent acts of incivility.

As Russell Johnson, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University and the study’s lead author, explains …

“When employees are mentally fatigued, it is more difficult for them to keep their negative impulses and emotions in check, which leads them to be condescending and rude to colleagues. This happens even for employees who desire to be agreeable and polite; they simply lack the energy to suppress curt and impatient responses.”

That’s certainly a troubling thought, especially if you work at an organization in which incivility is clearly visible at the highest levels.

The study also found that incivility spirals occurred in workplaces that were perceived as political (i.e., where co-workers “do what is best for them, not what is best for the organization”).

Because the “intentions and motives of others are less clear” at such organizations, the researchers report, employees have a harder time understanding why they were targeted and how best to respond.

You’ve got to think, I might add, that this inevitably would take a serious toll on employee effectiveness and productivity.

In response to what they found, the researchers emphasize the need for managers to provide employees with clearer feedback on “the types of behaviors that are desired,” both informally through day-to-day interactions and formally through the performance-management process.

Certainly great advice. But is it enough to prevent incivility from spiraling out of control?