Taming the Uncivilized Beast

In a Weber-Shandwick survey, 67 percent of Americans indicated a need for civility training in the workplace.

By Jeff Cohen

Ed had two reputations. In financial circles, he was perceived as a confident, larger-than- life and creative CFO. At his company, he was known to direct reports and colleagues as the “equal opportunity abuser.” Arrogant and caustic, he often treated anyone who disagreed with him with hostility and sarcasm. After receiving this feedback, the president had heard enough about Ed’s incivility and brought in an executive coach to “straighten Ed out.” The coach was given three months (it took eight) to help Ed modify his acerbic behavior.

Ed’s story is not unique. Though most do not reveal such extreme behavior, incivility in business has become commonplace and endemic. Over the last decade, there has been a steady erosion of civility in our workplace that has affected not only the way people feel about their team members, but about how they feel about work itself. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (Jan.-Feb. 2012) referenced a study that found that half of today’s employees who have experienced incivility at work intentionally decreased their efforts and more than a third decreased the quality of their work.

The article goes on to say, “Those who have been the targets of bad behavior are often, in turn, uncivil themselves: They sabotage their peers. They ‘forget’ to copy colleagues on memos. They spread gossip to deflect attention.”

It follows that a corporate culture that allows incivility to flourish is likely to have high turnover, waning productivity, and latent hostility.

Just what constitutes incivility anyway? It runs the gamut from people swearing and shouting to a lack of common courtesy to downright nastiness that is unprovoked and unjustified. One of my clients was known as the “screamer” and created an atmosphere of fear and frustration. Often not a single event, incivility rapidly can become a norm, a common standard of behavior that is insidious and, worst of all, contagious. One day we wake up and find that everyone in the office is rude to one another, that the small niceties have disappeared and what is left is an environment that is unfriendly and hostile; in short, dysfunctional and anti-social.

Many of us have encountered such behavior, but where once it was an exception, today it is almost commonplace at work. Left unchecked, this behavior has huge consequences for the workplace. Public relations firm Weber-Shandwick released a survey in 2010 that found that 40 percent of Americans felt that incivility pervaded their workplace and 38 percent believed there has been an increase in incivility from just a few years ago. And—this is what top management can no longer ignore—a need for civility training in the workplace expressed by 67 percent of Americans.

Clearly, it is time to take action, but what sort of action is appropriate and will make an impact? Here are some tips for taming the incivility now rampant at many organizations:

Civility starts at the top: Top management, which always sets the tone, must look at themselves in the mirror, critically. How do you treat your subordinates—administrators to VPs. Are you dismissive? Do you denigrate them? Do you swear and shout? Are you numb to cultural differences? Many are unintentionally insensitive and by being so make it permissible as it trickles down the organization. Managers who have a “problem” need to be identified for private counseling and coaching to help them develop better habits. They may not be as egregious as Ed, but they may still require straight feedback and individual assistance.

Sensitize the organization: Work with your HR department to develop a campaign that is both visual and vocal. A CEO can make a statement by personally introducing a policy similar to your company’s sexual harassment procedures. Management throughout the organization must model civil behavior by talking the talk and walking the walk. Meetings are a great opportunity to both discuss the importance of civility and demonstrate it by acting civil. For example, whoever is leading the meeting needs to call out those who are rude or not paying attention. Cell phones are off!

Behavioral change and feedback: No one is inherently rude; there are often real causes for incivility, which may have their origins in deeply rooted personal problems or negative professional experiences. These individuals will need some help, preferably from an outside consultant, who can work with them to face their problem and learn to modify their behavior.

Make it part of good business practices: Remember, if employees are uncivil to each other, it is likely they behave the same way to customers and vendors. Treat it like safety; put it on the agenda. Sounds corny, but civility can be contagious, too.

Civility training: Institute a civility training program that is required for all employees. You will be surprised how many people don’t even realize they are acting in offensive ways and need to relearn what appropriate behavior is. It may seem awkward at first but will quickly become the new norm as employees embrace a friendlier workplace.

Make civility a criterion for selecting candidates: One company, Caiman Consulting, made civility a centerpiece of its culture. It doesn’t hire otherwise qualified candidates if it sniffs out signs of incivility. People not only like working there, but they are attracted to the firm as a place where they can blossom. Turnover is very low in a high-turnover industry. In the Harvard Business Review article, “minimizing incivility” was one of the differentiators that helped employees and hence companies thrive.

Incivility may be a sign of the times in the world of Facebook and iPhones, but we don’t have to accept it. If we do nothing about it, we will continue to experience declining productivity that ultimately will affect the organizations we have painstakingly built. Fortunately, there are remedies.

Jeff Cohen is an executive coach headquartered in New York with more than 30 years of experience and is considered a pioneer in the fields of executive coaching and organizational effectiveness. His clients have included senior executives at companies such as Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Estee Lauder, General Electric, KPMG, and Met Life. For more information, visit http://www.jmcohenassoc.com.

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