Incivility at Work

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When at work, have you ever been ignored or talked over? Have people spoken to you in a condescending tone, or been just plain rude? These are all examples of what organizational psychologists refer to as incivility.

Women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities are the most likely targets for incivility, but they are not the only ones who experience it. According to some estimates, around 90 percent of people have encountered incivility some time during their work life. Incivility is expensive, too, with an annual cost to organizations around $14,000 per employee.

All of this has prompted researchers to explore why people engage in uncivil workplace behaviors. Christopher Rosen, of the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues recently conducted a study on this very topic. They tested the underlying assumption that people are most likely to behave in an uncivil manner when they are targets of incivility themselves.

To examine this possibility, the authors collected data from employees multiple times a day over two weeks.

They found that employees who experienced incivility felt emotionally spent. This was because of the energy needed to understand why they were targeted and how they should respond. When this happened, they were likely to instigate incivility themselves.

There were some exceptions. The impact of being targeted was stronger when the organization had a highly political environment. And, employees who were sufficiently motivated were unlikely to treat others in an uncivil manner, even if they had been targeted themselves.

The findings in this study demonstrate several important points. First, incivility begets incivility. All else equal, when people are targets of uncivil behavior, or when they observe those dynamics, they are more likely to engage in incivility themselves. Equally important, people are not passive recipients of their future; instead, when sufficiently driven, they can overcome other factors and treat others in a civil manner.