“You stand for what you’re prepared to put up with.”

This is a favourite saying of a wonderful mentor of mine and it’s the essence of her success as one of Australia’s most respected cultural sector CEOs.

What she recognised and practised – long before the world’s academics measured it – is that not only does your leadership live or die by the behaviours you tolerate – your organisation’s success depends on it too.

In today’s busy workplace, it’s easy to overlook bad behavior or incivility and consider it a fair exchange for productivity – or getting things done. But… the path of least resistance in the short term is now proven to allow dysfunction to take root and erode the value of your business.

The rate of incivility

In 2013, a study into workplace incivility revealed that the issue was endemic. After researching the topic for 14 years and analysing 14,000 employees, two academics, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, found that 98% of all employees had experienced incivility – and half of those experienced it more than once a week.

One explanation for these high statistics is that the effects of bad behaviour are not limited to those taking part in an unpleasant exchange. In fact, incivility has been shown to affect the performance of victims, bystanders and their teams.

Simply the act of perceiving incivility (towards oneself or towards others) causes individuals to become defensive and respond with incivility. In this way, emotional and behavioural contagion occurs – reducing performance across all indicators and destroying employee engagement.

What is incivility?

Overt incivility or rudeness is easy to spot. Behaviours to flag include:

  • bullying
  • aggression
  • public humiliation
  • insulting comments
  • excluding colleagues from groups
  • cutting colleagues off in conversation, and
  • ignoring the presence or contribution of fellow employees.

This antisocial conduct is usually obvious. However, covert incivility is easier to overlook because it is sometimes unintentional. When the behaviours become consistent, this type of incivility is destructive by stealth. It pervades workplace culture, eroding morale and engagement.

Some behaviours to look out for are:

  • setting unrealistic or unachievable goals
  • bottlenecking workflows and stopping people from doing their job,
  • taking credit for success (and reassigning failure)
  • subtle put-downs
  • chronic lateness
  • using electronic devices in meetings
  • projecting negative emotions onto colleagues and
  • ignoring the needs of others.

The 3 consequences of incivility

There are three significant consequences of incivility.

1. Creativity suffers

People employed in companies where incivility is present were found to be 30% less creative than those in a well-functioning workplace. They were also found to have 25% fewer ideas.

Are you prepared to put up with behaviour that makes your company 25% less competitive than its rivals?

2. It costs money

Incivility corrodes engagement and that has financial repercussions.

  • Organisations with high engagement are 78% more productive and 40% more profitable than those with lower engagement (Hewitt Associates LLC, 2009).
  • Incivility lowers the input of discretionary effort and lowers profits.
  • Good people leave in search of a better work environment. Organisations bleed intellectual capital and incur the high cost of replacement. Productivity is also lost in this process.
  • Dealing with incivility is a huge time waster for managers. Managers report that 13% of their time is spent remediating incidents and their aftermath – that equates to 7 weeks a year not dedicated to creating value. That’s expensive!

3. Loss of clientele

Clients and customers can tell when something is wrong even if you think the incivility in your workplace occurs behind closed doors – “it’s just the vibe of the thing.”

Customers do not buy from organisations that allow their people to be treated badly. If you want someone to feel good about giving you their business, then they need to know that no one was harmed in the making of your service.

How to combat incivility

  1. Make civility an explicit value and part of workplace and team culture
  2. Model civility
  3. Teach civility
  4. Hire civility
  5. Don’t put up with and tacitly endorse incivility. Eradicate it from your organisation.

Harbouring a serial offender is a proven mistake – even if they are a high performer. Bad behaviour destroys value. It is contagious, it smothers creativity, destroys morale, steals time and plunders the coffers.

Nip it in the bud now.  You and your organisation stand for what you’re prepared to put up with.


Further Reading
Foulk, T. (2015). You should really be nicer to your colleagues – rude behavior is contagious. The Conversation, 22 July.

Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013). The price of incivility. Harvard Business Review. Jan-Feb. https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility

Sutton, R. (2007). The no asshole rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. New York, NY. Warner Business Books: Hachette Book Group.

AON Hewitt. (2009) What makes a company a best employer? Retrieved 12 Sept 2015 http://www.aon.com/attachments/thought-leadership/pov_Best_Employer_Position_Paper.pdf

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