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February 11, 2010 | Volume 4 | Number 2
February 11, 2010
Civility has become a popular topic for researchers, practitioners and organizations alike. Civility involves behaving in a respectful manner to others, whereas incivility involves behaving in a rude or discourteous manner that is disrespectful of others. In return, civility can improve collegiality and the overall work atmosphere.
You may think that treating colleagues with respect is a relatively easy task. In fact, being respectful is an implicit (and sometimes, explicit) responsibility of many professions.
Then why does it seem so difficult to have collegiality in workplaces? In a study by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, 10 percent of workers reported witnessing incivility on a daily basis and 20 percent said they were targets of incivility weekly. These findings are alarming in and of themselves, but even more so given the negative impact of these behaviors on employees and their organizations.
Research shows that employees who experience incivility tend to be more stressed, spend less time at work and have lower productivity. These employees may then begin to dislike their job, decrease their level of loyalty to the organization and eventually leave their job.
Despite the amount of research and articles on the importance of having positive relationships among colleagues, as well as the well-being and health of workers, there is a surprising lack of validated interventions or programs aimed at improving collegial relationships. There are even fewer programs that have undergone rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness.
The common argument for ignoring incivility at work is that these behaviors are relatively minor and innocuous. That is, if someone forgets to say “please” when asking a colleague for a favor, if they are sarcastic, or if they forget to invite a colleague out to lunch with the rest of the group, it isn’t really bad, is it? It isn’t as if anyone was bullied: It is just a little bit of rude behavior! Besides, considering the economic climate and the pressure is on to be cost effective and competitive, there is no time to worry about these trifling matters.
As innocuous an uncivil behavior may appear to be, these small, chronic hassles tend to have huge impacts on workers’ health. Also, in a seminal 1999 paper, Lynne Andersson and Christine Pearson argued that incivility can spiral and escalate into other more severe forms of “bad behavior” at work, reaching a tipping point such that they may evolve into behaviors such as aggression and violence.
Take the following example: Lucy ignores a suggestion by her colleague, Charlie, in an important office meeting. Charlie perceives her behavior as a snub and is offended. He then excludes the Lucy from a social event (either as an explicit retaliatory behavior or because he feels uncomfortable with her around). Either may continue or escalate these types of behaviors. If left unaddressed, the original uncivil behavior may escalate into spreading gossip, sabotage, or verbal or physical aggression.
Even if incivility has negative ramifications and can escalate into worse behaviors, can organizations really change these behaviors or are they entrenched in an organization (and within the employees)? Recently, a couple of research teams have been examining ways in which to improve relationships at work through reducing incivility and increasing respect and engagement.
Katerine Osatuke and colleagues developed CREW process (Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work). CREW was initially used to improve civility among colleagues within the USA Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA). They found that work sites that had implemented CREW training had significant improvements in their level of civility. Moreover, these improvements were higher than in the comparison units who didn’t receive the training and whose levels of civility remained relatively unchanged.
We’ve conducted a similar large-scale project in conjunction with a team of researchers at several institutes and hospitals in Canada. Our goal was not only to help health-care facilities reduce incivility, but also to improve collegial relationships within their work units and reduce burnout and rates of absenteeism. We implemented a team-based training program that was based on the CREW process.
We first surveyed units of health-care employees in 2008; we then helped some of the units implement the CREW training; we re-surveyed them in 2009; and finally, we compared their results with units who had not implemented the program.
The CREW program was very effective: In the units that received the training, their levels of civility, as well civility from supervisors and colleagues, improved after training. Employees had less burnout, were more committed to their organization and missed work less often after the training. Also, these improvements for the intervention groups were greater than changes experienced in the units that didn’t receive the intervention.
CREW had a positive impact on both the employees and on organization outcomes.
So far, we have seen that the bad news is that incivility is alive and well in organizations and this incivility can have a huge negative impact on both employees and organizations. The good news, however, is that we can improve civility and collegiality within organizations.
One of the first things that organizations can do to address incivility is simply to pay attention to it. Instead of labeling it being as unimportant or simply involving “personal issues that will sort themselves out,” we need to acknowledge that incivility is an issue and it has a significant impact on our employees, work groups and the overall organization.
We need to understand the extent to which (in)civility is operating in our organizations. We can talk to our employees; survey them; open the lines of communication, and find out what is happening in our organizations. We must listen to our employees and involve them (as well as top management) in any initiative to improve civility at work. Given the spiraling effect, once a workplace develops a culture of being uncivil, there likely needs to be direct action taken to correct things, for the health and productivity of all. We must create a workplace in which incivility is unacceptable and provide training to increase civility not only in other people, but also in ourselves. We can’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to behave civilly. Finally, top management must model civility so that it becomes the norm at all levels of the organization.
With these tips, we can all make civility a goal on our way to a supportive, encouraging (and healthy) workplace.
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