Getting to the Cause of Incivility

Getting to the Cause of Incivility
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Cases of incivility in the workplace do not exist in a vacuum. Most of the time, incivility is caused (or at least maintained) by a bigger problem — perhaps in the system, perhaps in the individuals involved. Going straight to the root cause of the problem is one of the best ways of managing incivility in the workplace; it has a better chance of preventing further incidences compared to merely addressing symptoms. It also helps staff members get a bigger picture of the problem behavior.

In this article, you will learn about the importance of getting to the cause of incivility, and some tools that can help in understanding the elements behind incivility in your organization.

Examining the Root Cause

One of the laws of physics is that an object doesn’t move unless there is a force acting upon it. In the same vein, incivility in the workplace is rarely ever an isolated event. There are factors that directly and indirectly cause the act of incivility, and if the incident is a recurring event, there are factors that maintain it. Analysis of the root cause of incivility in the workplace may even reveal systemic issues that the whole company must address immediately.

It is recommended therefore, that managers and staff members don’t just address the symptoms of incivility, but instead start the hunt for its root cause. As mentioned in a previous module, managers from Fortune 1000 companies (companies which you would expect have better programs on organizational development) spend a significant amount of time attending to disputes and disagreements among their subordinates. By targeting the cause, managers can use their time for better things, and employees are less likely to get stressed by an environment that lacks consideration.

It’s important to note: identifying the root cause of a problem is a science, and it demands knowledge, skill, and experience. On many occasions, cases where the causes seem obvious are not really straightforward. For example, intimidation in the workplace may not only be about an employee with anger issues. It can also be about a manager who exercises favoritism, a company culture of passivity and lack of systems in the company that will penalize disrespectful behavior.

To better understand the root cause of incivility in your organization, you must apply scientific tools and techniques of analysis. You must also be willing to make tentative, but intelligent hypotheses, subject to scrutiny and study. More importantly, you must understand that the cause of incivility in an organization is not always other people— in systems, such as organizations, every person contributes to the status quo. You are part of the cause of any act of incivility in your workplace, either by your action or your inaction.


Very rarely is forgiveness included in soft skills training for the workplace. Many dismiss it as a spiritual concept that has no place in the corporate environment. But the reality is, regardless of your religious beliefs or faith orientation, the ability to both ask forgiveness and receive forgiveness can go a long way in creating a positive relationship among co-workers.

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is the process of closing anger, resentment, and feelings of victimization that comes after real or perceived offense.

Many personal and interpersonal development gurus advocate what is called active forgiveness. Active forgiveness is the deliberate effort to start the forgiving process even though negative feelings from having been offended or victimized remain. It’s basically saying: “Nope, I don’t feel like bygones are bygones yet. But, I am going to make a decision to forgive and work on my feelings later.”

Note that forgiving doesn’t mean that you condone the other person’s negative behavior. Nor is it an admission of weakness. Instead, forgiveness is saying that you are willing to move on to a less emotional state and find ways of re-building a relationship. Forgiveness is a healing exercise, both for the person who forgives and the person who is forgiven.

How can you start to forgive someone who has hurt and/or wronged you? Consider the following tips:

Understand that holding on to a grudge is not healthy for you. You deserve to live a full life free from emotional baggage and reactivity — letting go of anger and resentment clears your mind and allows room for more positive thoughts and emotions. Not forgiving is tantamount to saying that the offense you’ve experienced is more powerful than your capacity to heal your life.

Humanize the monster. What the other person did to you may seem like the act of the devil incarnate, but in most cases, people’s motivations are less black than they seem. Perhaps your co-worker has a tendency to gossip because he or she was a neglected child and craves attention from having a juicy tidbit to share. Maybe your co-worker is just not used to dealing with a personality like yours. Or it could be that they did what they did because they genuinely thought they’re doing the right thing. Seeing the other person as a human being instead of a monster will make it easier for you to appreciate what prompted the behavior that offended you so much in the first place.

Remember your own transgressions. You are not perfect! For sure, you’ve hurt and offended other people as well, deliberately or by accident. Perhaps you may even be hoping for the forgiveness of another person yourself. When you can appreciate how every person can make a mistake, you’ll be open to other people’s mistakes.

Know that you can choose to forgive even if the other person won’t admit their fault. What if you never hear an admittance of guilt or an apology from the other person? Does this mean that forgiveness is impossible? Of course not! Forgiveness is not dependent on what the other person does. You can choose to let go of a grievance even if the other party chooses to hold on to his or her own.

Lastly, if you want to work on your forgiveness of another person, actively find ways to get rid of your anger and resentment. You can use thought stopping techniques to curb angry thoughts when they come unbidden. You can choose not to join in your co-worker’s bashing. Better yet, you can go to the person who caused you pain and communicate that you have forgiven him or her. It’s possible that your gesture will not be appreciated and that’s okay. But it’s also possible that for the other person, your forgiveness means the world.

Benefits of Resolution

Identifying the root cause of acts of incivility in the workplace, and resolving it competently, has the following benefits:

It points to what needs correcting. Analyzing cause-and-effect is basically looking for feedback: you want to know what works in a company, and what needs to be eliminated or improved upon in order to make the workplace more conducive to productive and happy employees. When employees are skilled in troubleshooting issues early, the time lost from interpersonal skirmished can be lessened.

It creates a culture open to change. It is company culture that is rigid and resistant to change that often gets into trouble. But when you are constantly analyzing root causes of uncivil behavior in your organization, you communicate a positive attitude towards implementing changes that is the best for everyone. Done correctly, it may even instill among employees the skill in thinking about issues in a systemic way, and hence problems may get addressed even without management telling the staff what to do.

It prevents small issues from escalating into big conflicts. Research has consistently proven that small issues, when left unattended, can escalate into a bigger issue that will cost the company more and create more damage. This is called the “glass window effect” — even small cracks in glass window can result to the whole window breaking eventually. Getting to the root cause keeps things on a manageable level, and ensures that little skirmishes do not progress to disasters.


More About Civility in The Workplace

Introduction to Workplace Civility
Effective Work Etiquette
Costs and Rewards of Workplace Civility
Conflict Resolution at The Workplace
Negotiation and Workplace Incivility
Writing a Workplace Civility Policy
Implementing the Workplace Civility Policy