In today’s busy workplace, it’s easy to overlook the factors that contribute to a negative working environment. Some firms even view bad behaviour or incivility as a fair exchange for productivity – or getting things done. But taking 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.

Workplace incivility is overwhelming

You may think that your firm is safe from incivility but statistics say otherwise.

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.

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

On average, managers report that 13% of their time is spent mediating personal conflict and the aftermath of incivility – that equates to seven weeks a year not dedicated to creating value. That’s expensive!

Six steps to building a civil workplace

So how do you create a civil environment in the type of workplace where people rarely have time for a tea break?

Here are six tips:

  1. Say “thank you”

In professional services, people are our most valuable assets and yet feeling undervalued is one of the most common complaints. Saying thank you quietly and sincerely for a great piece of work, successful completion of a big task, or an above-and-beyond contribution is so effective. Demonstrating appreciation should be integrated into company culture right from the top.  Nobody is too busy to make gratitude a habit.

  1. Recognise great work

Having a great piece of work recognised publicly satisfies our need for achievement, builds morale and motivates us to go further. Use team meetings, staff meetings, internal communications, speeches and events to pay tribute to individuals who have done an excellent job and created value for your firm. The return on your investment of time is immense.

  1. Put your phone away

Overtly negative behaviour is easy to recognise and therefore easier to call to account.

There are however, subtle types of incivility which become pervasive and contribute to a negative work environment.

One of these is using electronic devices in meetings which signals to all present that you are distracted, unable to listen actively and participate well.  Nobody needs to spend more time in meetings – so leave your phone alone, focus, collaborate generously and get the thing done.  If you’re waiting on an important call or email – flag this up front and leave the room to deal with it.

  1. Be on time

Being on time for internal meetings and other events is a sign of respect. What usually happens is that deadlines and client needs get in the way and we de-prioritise internal appointments. It’s a slippery slope however, and being late is contagious. Serial lateness can ambush organisational culture because it wastes time, devalues the precious time of othersand breeds negativity.  Don’t be late.  Arrive on time, with a smile and be ready to have your say.

  1. Remember names

Remembering the names of your colleagues is usually standard operating procedure. What can really contribute to an employee’s sense that they’re more than just therole they perform is remembering the names of their nearest and dearest … their partner, children, parents or pet. Not the entire extended family – just those they go home to at night. This incorporates their personal and professional identities and demonstrates your support of both.

  1. Random acts of kindness

In retail, companies talk a lot about the need to surprise and delight their customers. In professional services, surprising and delighting fellow employees is something we need to do more of.  Random acts of kindness can stop people in their tracks. Bringing back an extra coffee, being the person with a block of chocolate when it’s needed most, making your boss a cup of tea, solving someone’s printer crisis when you’re busy yourself… it doesn’t have to be big. Small thoughtful gestures connect people, make others feel valued – and it’s nice for you too.

The bottom line

When people feel respected and valued, their level of engagement and contribution is higher.  It’s important to remember that organisations with high engagement scores are 78% more productive and 40% more profitable than those with lower engagement. If people are our most important assets, then fostering the environment that inspires their loyalty and continued service is critical.

Last but not least, clients are drawn to a positive company. Customers do not frequent firms that allow their staff 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.


This article was originally published in The Law Society NSW The Big Picture: Issue 14, Sept 2015

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