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Can leaders demand civility in the workplace?

4 min read


How civil is your workplace? Recent research from Weber Shandwick indicates that more than 4 in 10 Americans have experienced workplace incivility, and 38% of Americans believe that the workplace is becoming more uncivil and disrespectful than a few years ago.

Workplace civility is a global issue. For example, in 2006, a British court awarded a Deutsche Bank employee £800,000 in damages for a “relentless campaign of mean and spiteful behaviour designed to cause her distress.”

There are hard dollar costs to workplace incivility. In AICI’s recent Civility Counts white paper, research from civility experts Christine Porath and Christine Pearson described pervasive declines in workplace productivity due to incivility. Intentional decreases in work effort (48% admitted this), time at work (reported by 47%), and work quality (38% fessed up to this) were reported. 80% lost work time worrying about uncivil incidents, 66% said their performance declined, and an amazing 78% reported a decline in their commitment to their organization.

See Porath & Pearson’s HBR article “The Price of Incivility” for further insights from their research.

Who is to blame for the lack of workplace civility? In the Weber Shandwick study, 65% of respondents put the responsibility on the shoulders of workplace leaders. That’s in line with my assessment; I believe leaders condemn or condone behavior in the workplace, by proactive action or intentional disregard or something in between.

The benefits of civility are well-documented. The impact of the U.S. Veterans Affair’s “Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workplace” initiative demonstrates higher civility in VA facilities equated to fewer employee complaints, fewer sick leave hours, higher patient satisfaction and higher employee satisfaction over a four-year period.

What can leaders do to increase workplace civility? Can leaders affect employee behavior? Absolutely. It requires a leader’s intentional effort to create clarity and boundaries, then hold everyone accountable for civil behavior.

My culture clients have had success with these steps. First, create standards of values with behavioral definitions. One client defined their value of personal integrity by stating, “Ethics and integrity is how we earn the trust and respect that is critical to our success. Our customers trust us to be their advocate. Our suppliers trust us to be a equitable partner. As peers, we trust each other to uphold the highest standards of conduct every day.”

The observable, tangible, measurable behaviors for this value include “I communicate honestly”; “I follow the law”; “I immediately report concerns to management or the ombudsman”; “I cooperate with and maintain the privacy of any internal investigation”; and “I ensure personal alignment with the company code of conduct and the policies that apply to my position.”

These behaviors are stated in “desirable, proactive” terms. You’re not telling folks what NOT to do. And, if you see rude behavior or bullying or teasing, it is easy to engage in a conversation about redirecting people to desired behaviors.

With values clearly stated, defined and behavioralized, leaders then must be role models of these behaviors. The integrity of your civil workplace is built upon the constant demonstration of valued behaviors by anyone in a leadership position.

Once leaders are consistently demonstrating desired valued behaviors, leaders can then ask employees to model these behaviors, as well.

Accountability can only come with clarity, demonstration and constant observation. Positive consequences encourage aligned, civil behavior while redirection or, where needed, negative consequences can quash misaligned, uncivil behavior.

What are your experiences with workplace civility? What’s working to make your team members consistently civil to each other and to customers? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Corporate Culture Survey: What is it like to work in your company culture? Contribute your experiences in my fast, free Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis are available on my blog‘s research page.

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