Introduction to Workplace Civility

Introduction to Workplace Civility
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Failing to smile at co-workers, or even just a tendency to smirk at a client’s unusual request, may not seem like much at first glance. But these seemingly innocuous behaviors can be costly in the long run. It’s important then to be appraised of the nature of civility, its behavioral indicators, and why its practice is imperative within an organization.

In this article, you will be introduced to the concept of civility, and the idea that even a little consideration can go a long, long way. Signs of uncivil behavior, its costs and rewards, as well as the case for promoting civility in the workplace will also be discussed.

What is Uncivil Behavior?

Civility represents the social norms and rules that must be followed in order to positively and productively relate with others. When people hear the word “civility,” words that come to mind include respect, courtesy, tolerance, consideration, and a rational approach to conflicts. Behaviors that threaten positive and productive relations with other people, therefore, constitute uncivil behaviors.

You can be uncivil without meaning too — for instance, you simply assume that what’s acceptable in one social context (say, at your old workplace or at your home) is acceptable across all contexts. Or you can be uncivil intentionally, e.g. you verbally attack a co-worker because you can’t be bothered to provide reasonable accommodation.

What behaviors can be considered as uncivil? There are many. Below are just a few examples:

Failing to acknowledge another person’s presence: Ignoring other people’s greetings and well-wishes; going past a co-worker without so much as a nod or a greeting.

Using abusive language:  Being verbally abusive or using crude language

Gossiping: It’s uncivil behavior to both instigate and spread rumors against another person, regardless of whether the “news” seems accurate or relevant to the accomplishment of the task at hand.

Discounting employee contribution: Discounting means deliberately downplaying or ignoring the importance of another person’s statement or work contribution. For instance, some members in a team may tend to cut off a person that they do not like during a brainstorming session. Taking credit — or worse, compensation! — for work that you did not do is also an example of discounting behavior.

Bullying and intimidating co-workers: Threatening violence against co-workers who would report timesheet irregularities to management; leveraging the power of cliques in order to ostracize particular individuals.

Sabotaging individual and company efforts:  Intentionally not informing a co-worker who is competition for a promotion of the exact time a client will arrive in the building.

Discriminating against a particular individual or group:  Attacking an individual based on intrinsic characteristics such as race, gender, age, mental ability, and physical appearance.

Practicing insensitivity against co-workers’ needs: Inability to pay attention to the feelings and needs of others e.g. not giving a grieving co-worker time off before demanding workplace attendance. Insensitivity may also come in the form of engaging in activities distracting to co-workers, e.g. taking a cell phone calls while in the middle of a meeting, not cleaning up the whiteboard as one leaves the training room, and demanding attention from subordinates outside of the prescribed working hours.

Practicing poor etiquette in dealing with correspondence: Ignoring phone calls and emails, using company email to send private messages, and discussing individuals in mailing lists as if they are not there.

It’s worth noting: civility goes beyond mere good manners.

Civility is about effective self-awareness and effective social awareness. You can’t be an effective practitioner of civility until you recognize your place in the general scheme of things, and you develop an appreciation for the unique contribution of all else around. It’s a delicate balance between pursuing self-interest and practicing self-control in order for others and the organization to pursue their interests well.

Three Reasons Why You Should Be Civil

The case against the stronger forms of uncivil behaviors, such as bullying and racial discrimination, is easy to build. After all, violence in the workplace can get an employee fired, if not arrested and sent to prison.

But how about the softer, yet no less important, acts of civility? Are there compelling reasons to give one’s boss a warm “hello” every morning? Are there tangible benefits to making sure that you don’t dump your folders in your neighbor’s work station? For the more subtle acts of consideration, the case for engaging in civil behavior seems harder to present. But not impossible!

Consider the following three reasons why you should practice civil behavior:

There’s no escaping other people! Cliché as it may sound, no man is an island. You may be a self-starter and a person who takes pride in being able to work with minimal supervision. You may be blessed with innate talent that makes you indispensable in an organization. But you’d still need to rely on suppliers to create a product that will impress both stockholders and consumers alike. You still need the trust of your team mates in order to execute an idea. And, whether you admit it or not, the positive regard of those who work with you will do a whole lot for your self-esteem. Unless you learn how to play nice, you’ll never be able to make it very far. Or at least, your path towards success will be littered with landmines you could do without.

In short, your survival in the modern world, a world where everyone is linked together (probably more so than in the past few decades), depends on civility!

There are many benefits to practicing civil behavior. Civility is not lacking in the WIIFM factor, or the “What’s In It for me?” factor. Some of the benefits of civility to an organization or an individual employee are even proven by empirical research.

To begin with, civility helps create a positive working environment. Motivation theories support that happy and relaxed workers are productive workers — and willing to go the extra mile for their company. On the flipside, disrespect and inconsideration on a jobsite is highly stressful, and can contribute to workers’ low morale. Indeed absenteeism and low employee retention is common in companies where incivility is the norm. You can also expect that time better spent finding workable solutions to problems gets wasted in name-calling, “scapegoating” and face-saving.

But as importantly, the deliberate practice of civility can help a person grow as an individual. Civility teaches emotional intelligence — a person learns to control anger and frustration until an appropriate time comes to express them, he or she understands that there may be more important things at stake than a petty argument during a boardroom meeting; he or she reaches goals set for self and others. Managing uncivil behavior also teaches social skills such as conflict management and negotiation, skills which can be applied across many areas of life.

Lastly, it’s the right thing to do. If anything else, civility is recommended because it’s the right thing to do. Most of the world’s accepted religion, philosophies, and belief systems advocate consideration for one’s fellow man — indeed, isn’t the golden rule “do unto others what you’d like others to do unto you”? To quote Richard Boyd, associate professor of government in Georgetown University, “To fail to be civil to someone — to treat them harshly, rudely or condescendingly — is not only to be guilty of bad manners. It also, and more ominously, signals a disdain or contempt for them as moral beings.”

Violence and ill-will against other people, regardless of degree, never brings anything positive to a work environment. Indeed, even the current political landscape advocates tolerance and equality, cooperation and mutual support. The world is already past the age where it’s each man for his own, where self-interest in pursued at all cost. We can afford to be more polite and above irrational reactions.

Dealing with Difficult Personalities

A huge source of stress at work is the need to adjust to different personalities. Each person is unique, and even when you’re dealing with a responsible and emotionally mature co-worker, friction is inevitable simply because the other person will never be 100% similar to you. But the stress of interacting with co-workers gets multiplied a hundredfold when the other person doesn’t just have a different personality, but also a difficult one.

What may be considered as a difficult personality?

The answer is subjective; a difficult personality for one person need not be a difficult personality for another. But usually, people perceived as difficult are those who manifest inflexible extremes of personality traits.

For instance, while being controlling is a desirable trait in a manager (after all, a manager’s job is to control what is happening in a workplace!), being excessively controlling would just make the people under the manager’s care feel stifled and even abused. Recognition of the need to consult co-workers about major company decisions is a good thing. But when an employee consults everyone else on almost everything, to the point that the constant “consultation” is already dependency in disguise, then the person becomes difficult to work with.

When working with a difficult personality, most people’s immediate response is an unhelpful one: a response aimed more at relieving personal stress than creating a more workable relationship. For instance, there is a tendency to avoid dominant personality types, lecture the overly dependent, and exact vengeance on the passive-aggressive. The result is an endless cycle of dysfunctional relating that creates more problems than it solves.

Civility is one of the best ways to deal with difficult personalities in the workplace.

Civility sets the stage for effective communication — in many ways, dealing with difficult personalities is simply a matter of setting and negotiating boundaries. After all, difficult personalities are not “bad people.” They just have a fixed way of relating and may need feedback from peers in order to adjust.

As importantly, civility creates a positive atmosphere which allows people to see beyond the obvious implications of people’s behavior. For instance, many supposedly difficult personalities are simply people who have needs that are not being functionally addressed. You may see your co-worker as annoying when he or she simply craves attention and recognition. It’s also possible that your difficult co-worker is merely channeling anger and frustration from their personal life into their workplace. When you engaged in civil behavior with your co-worker, you provide more opportunities for supportive interaction and empathy — which opens the door to fixing your problematic interaction with one another!

Cost and Rewards

While incivility can be perceived as innocuous behaviors, they can significantly affect the company’s bottom line. Incivility has direct impact on company productivity, sales, and customer retention among others. Civility, on the other hand, can improve all these areas considered as relevant in the running of a successful organization.


More About Civility in The Workplace

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