It doesn't pay to be uncivil

How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions whittle away at people's health, performance and souls.

MEAN bosses might have killed my father. I vividly recall walking into a hospital room outside Cleveland to see my strong, athletic dad lying there with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there? I believe it was work-related stress. For years, he endured two uncivil bosses.

Rudeness and bad behaviour have grown over the past decades, particularly at work. For nearly 20 years, I have been studying, consulting and collaborating with organisations around the world to learn more about the costs of this incivility. How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people's health, performance and souls.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, argues that when people experience intermittent stressors such as incivility for too long or too often, their immune systems pay the price. They might also suffer major health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and ulcers.

Intermittent stressors - such as experiencing or witnessing uncivil incidents or even replaying one in your head - elevate levels of hormones called glucocorticoids throughout the day, which could lead to a host of health problems, including increased appetite and obesity. A study published in 2012 that tracked women for 10 years concluded that stressful jobs increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by 38 per cent.

Bosses produce demoralised employees through a string of actions: Walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their "role" in the organisation and "title"; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behaviour will hold back, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help.

I have surveyed hundreds of people across organisations spanning more than 17 industries, and asked people why they behaved uncivilly. More than half of them claim it is because they are overloaded, and more than 40 per cent say they have no time to be nice. But respect doesn't necessarily require extra time. It's about how something is conveyed; tone and non-verbal manner are crucial.

Incivility also hijacks workplace focus. According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 per cent tied disruptive behaviour - such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct - to medical errors, and 27 per cent linked such behaviour to patient deaths.

My studies with Dr Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, show that people working in an environment characterised by incivility miss information that is right in front of them. They are no longer able to process it as well or as efficiently as they would otherwise.

In one study, the experimenter belittled the peer group of the participants, who then performed 33 per cent worse in anagram word puzzles, and came up with 39 per cent fewer creative ideas during a brainstorming task focused on how they might use a brick.

In our second study, a stranger - a "busy professor" encountered en route to the experiment - was rude to participants by admonishing them for bothering her. Their performance was 61 per cent worse with word puzzles, and they produced 58 per cent fewer ideas in the brick task than those who had not been treated rudely.

We found the same pattern for those who merely witnessed incivility: They performed 22 per cent worse with word puzzles and produced 28 per cent fewer ideas in the brainstorming task.

Incivility shuts people down in other ways as well. Employees contribute less and lose their conviction, whether because a boss said, "If I wanted to know what you thought, I'd ask you", or because he screamed at an employee who had overlooked a typo in an internal memo.

Customers behave the same way. In studies I did with marketing professors Deborah MacInnis and Valerie Folkes at the University of Southern California, we found that people are less likely to patronise a business that has an employee who is perceived as rude - whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing a short negative interaction leads customers to generalise about other employees, the organisation and even the brand.

Many, however, are sceptical about the returns of civility. A quarter believe that they will be less leader-like, and nearly 40 per cent are afraid that they will be taken advantage of if they are nice at work. Nearly half think that it is better to flex one's muscles to garner power. They are jockeying for position in a competitive workplace, and don't want to put themselves at a disadvantage.

Why is respect - or lack of it - so potent? Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley's 1902 notion of the "looking-glass self" explains that we use others' expressions (smiles), behaviours (acknowledging us) and reactions (listening to us or insulting us) to define ourselves. How we believe others see us shapes who we are. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected. Civility lifts people. Incivility holds people down. It makes people feel small.

Even though a growing number of people are disturbed by incivility, I've found that it has continued to increase over the past two decades. A quarter of those I surveyed in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. The figure rose to nearly half in 2005, then to just over half in 2011.

Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. A surgeon told me that, until he received some harsh feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought he was a jerk. He was simply treating residents the way he had been trained.

Technology distracts us. We're wired to our smartphones. It's increasingly challenging to be present and to listen. It's tempting to fire off texts and e-mails during meetings; to surf the Internet while on conference calls or in classes; and, for some, to play games rather than tune in. While offering us enormous convenience, electronic communication also leads to misunderstandings. It's easy to misread intentions. We can take out our frustrations, hurl insults and take people down a notch from a safe distance.

In surveys, people say they are afraid they will not rise in an organisation if they are really friendly and helpful, but the civil do succeed. My recent studies with Assistant Professor Alexandra Gerbasi and researcher Sebastian Schorch at Grenoble Ecole de Management, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, show that behaviour involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace pays off. In a study at a biotechnology company, those seen as civil were found to be twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.

Civility elicits perceptions of warmth and competence. Princeton professor Susan Fiske and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, together with their colleagues, have conducted research that suggests these two traits drive our impressions of others, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the variation in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us. These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you and support you.

The catch: There can be a perceived inverse relationship between warmth and competence. A strength in one can suggest a weakness in the other. Some people are seen as competent but cold - he's very smart, but people will hate working for him. Or they're seen as warm but incompetent - she's really friendly, but probably not very smart.

Leaders can use simple rules to win the hearts and minds of their people - with huge returns. Making small adjustments, such as listening, smiling, sharing and thanking others more often, can have a huge impact. In one unpublished experiment I ran, offering a smile and simple thanks (as compared with not doing so) resulted in people being seen as 27 per cent warmer, 13 per cent more competent and 22 per cent more civil.

Civil gestures can spread. Ochsner Health System, a large Louisiana healthcare provider, implemented what it calls the "10/5 way". Employees are encouraged to make eye contact if they are within 3m of someone, and say hello if they are within 1.5m. Ochsner reports improvements in patient satisfaction and patient referrals.

To be fully attentive and improve your listening skills, remove obstacles. An executive of a multibillion-dollar consumer products company, Mr John Gilboy, told me about one radical approach he took. Desperate to stop excessive multitasking at his weekly meetings, he decided to experiment: He placed a box at the door and required all attendees to drop their smartphones in it, so that everyone would be fully engaged and attentive to one another. He did not allow people to use their laptops either.

The change was a challenge; initially, employees were "like crack addicts as the box was buzzing", he said. But the meetings became vastly more productive. Within weeks, they had slashed the length of the meetings by half. He reported more presence, participation and, as the tenor of the meetings changed, fun.

What about the jerks who seem to succeed despite being rude and thoughtless? Those people have succeeded despite their incivility, not because of it. Studies by Dr Morgan McCall Jr, a professor of management and organisation at the University of Southern California, including those done with Dr Michael Lombardo while they were with the Centre for Creative Leadership, show that the No. 1 characteristic associated with an executive's failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.

Power can force compliance.

But insensitivity or disrespect often sabotages support in crucial situations. Employees could fail to share important information and withhold efforts or resources. Sooner or later, uncivil people sabotage their own success - or at least their own potential. Payback might come immediately or when they least expect it, and it might be intentional or unconscious.

Civility pays dividends. Retired California judge J. Gary Hastings told me that when he informally polled juries about what determined their favour, he found that respect - and how attorneys behaved - was crucial. Juries were swayed based on thin slices of civil or arrogant behaviour.

Across many decisions - whom to hire, who will be most effective in teams, who will be able to be influential - civility affects judgments, and could shift the balance towards those who are respectful.

Given the enormous cost of incivility, it should not be ignored. We all need to reconsider our behaviour. You are always in front of some jury. In every interaction, you have a choice: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'It doesn't pay to be uncivil'. Print Edition | Subscribe