Reversing the workplace civility crisis

By Lew Bayer. 

We are smack in the middle of a civility crisis.

With research on both Canadian and U.S. companies showing a whopping 98 per cent of people have experienced uncivil behaviour on the job, rudeness in the workplace is systemic and epidemic. Evidence that the incivility virus impacts — amongst other things — our productivity, our ability to work together, our creativity, and our health, is growing every day.

For employers in the manufacturing sector, where innovation, thinking skills, and change-readiness are essential to survival, incivility in the workplace represents a significant cause for concern, operationally and financially.

Consider, for example, that, according to Business Insider, four out of five people are dissatisfied with their jobs. How do you think this dissatisfaction manifests? If your response encompasses negative impacts to retention, engagement, productivity, stress levels, and profitability, you’d be correct.

A Canadian study by Bar-David Consulting and Canadian HR Reporter shows incivility affects the following key business indicators, as reported by human resource professionals:

• 90 per cent say it hurts collaboration;

• 78 per cent say it affects talent retention;

• 52 per cent say it affects brand reputation;

• 92 per cent agree incivility has negative effects on productivity; and

• 80 per cent report an impact on absenteeism.

But when we knuckle-down and examine workplace culture, we frequently find — and an increasing body of research validates — the root cause of most workplace stress can be attributed to disrespectful behaviour, including verbal, nonverbal, situational, and contextual aspects. And, when we begin to understand what causes incivility, and when we start to track the nature and frequency of uncivil behavior, we begin to see patterns.

Many of these patterns are well-ingrained behaviours and habits of mind. Further, many of these negative and uncivil patterns are unwittingly endorsed through, and facilitated by, the organization’s processes and procedures.

Shockingly, in a recent study of a diverse occupational sample of 180 workers on the Canadian Prairies, 40 per cent polled reported experiencing at least one of 45 specific acts indicative of psychological harassment or bullying on a weekly basis for at least six months. An additional 10 per cent of the sample reported experiencing five or more such acts on a weekly basis for at least six months.

It is indisputable that workplace incivility causes stress. A quarter of employees say work is their main source of stress and 40 per cent say their job is ‘very or extremely stressful.’ Clearly, if we are not alarmed that up to half of our work teams are experiencing this type of stress on a daily and weekly basis, we should be.

So, you may be wondering: Why are our workplaces so stressful? Good question. And there is not an easy answer. The reasons vary, of course, depending on the workplace, and on the people involved. Certainly, chronic change is a contributing factor, as can be downsizing, restructuring, labour shortages, outsourcing, demographic shifts, economic insecurity, technology, or trends in work style (job-share programs, telecommuting, etc.).

The mistake many organizations make is assuming that having a respectful workplace policy in place will offset the impacts of the stress caused by incivility. Expecting that we can change deep-set attitudes, thinking patterns, and behaviours just by posting anti-bullying posters in the lunch room, or requiring employees to attend a half-day seminar, is just not realistic.

While these policies can be helpful in terms of addressing steps to take after incivility has occurred (in fact, most provinces have legislated a requirement for employers to have one), simply having them does not guarantee a more respectful workplace. They are, instead, just one part of a comprehensive plan.

Creating a culture where civility thrives is the only way to prevent the stress caused by uncivil behaviour such as harassment, bullying, discrimination, and any of the day-to-day rudeness stemming from poor communication skills and low social intelligence.

The key issue is that many leaders still do not understand what civility is. They chalk it up to ‘niceness’ or ‘kindness,’ or to soft skills and then underestimate its value.

Plainly and simply, civility is a conscious awareness of the impact of one’s thoughts, actions, words, and intentions on others. It is combined with a continuous acknowledgement of one’s responsibility to ease the experience of others (through restraint, kindness, non-judgment, respect, and courtesy), as well as a consistent effort to adopt and exhibit civil behaviour as a non-negotiable point of one’s character.

It is a measurable competency, underpinned by just four key skill areas — all which can be taught: Social intelligence, cultural competence, systems thinking, and continuous learning.

As a 20-plus-year practitioner in the field, it is always surprising to me how few employers are willing to consider implementing a civility initiative in their workplaces. A recent poll found that two-thirds of employees believe there is a strong need for civility training; while another study found that 83 per cent of employees believe a civil work environment is very important to their wellbeing, health, performance, and job satisfaction. What we’ve been doing to-date isn’t working. Yet, old habits die hard.

If you are one of the few who is considering building a culture of civility in your workplace, your leadership team must understand that civility at work is, at first, a values (defining character statement) proposition, in that the organization must choose and define civility as a core value. Then, it also becomes a value (having worth) proposition, in that leadership must be able to devise a persuasive argument as to why employees should buy into the notion of a respectful workplace.

Everyone in the organization must have some understanding of what civility means in terms of day-to-day life on the job. Ideally, every individual in the organization (and, at the very least, the change-makers) must be convinced that embedding a culture of civility into the workplace is of value — to the individual, to the team, to the customer, to the organization, and even to the community. They also must believe that civility presents the best solution for resolving whatever organizational culture problems may have been identified.

There are two core elements to a successful civility change initiative.

First, we must understand and acknowledge that, to take root, a civility change initiative must be strategic, well-planned, and long-term, and there must be a clarified rationale for civility in the workplace. Just like most change initiatives, incorporating civility into your workplace culture is going to take some time, money, and energy. You’ll likely have to delegate people and resources, and you’ll have to manage both the process and the people sides of the change.

To be successful, you will need a plan that includes identifying stakeholders, assigning roles, completing assessments, setting goals, implementing the plan, delivering alignment communications, planning and delivering training, and evaluating. How complex and costly each of those components are will depend on the context and on your business priorities. To be clear, when we talk about how complex a civility initiative might be, we are referring to how many components are included in the plan. This is different from the level of difficulty or how complicated the initiative might be. Civility as a change initiative might be complex in that there are a lot of components to consider, but it isn’t necessarily complicated.

Second, we must understand and acknowledge that the work will be ongoing and continuous. The reality is, due to the fact the situation, the people, the priorities, and the conditions in a workplace are constantly changing, you are never truly finished with civility as a change initiative. And this is an extremely important realization. I believe that this realization is one of the biggest barriers most organizations face in moving forward with civility initiatives.

But, if you can get past this hurdle, you will be successful. And the rewards are often immutable, measurable, positive, and significant.

Based in Winnipeg, Lew Bayer is an internationally-acclaimed author and civility expert. In addition to serving as distance faculty with Georgetown University, she also teaches at Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, as well as the Canadian Management Centre.