The importance of civility: How we treat each other at work matters

The late Rodney King once asked, “Why can’t we just get along”?

Sheldon Lubar founder and chairman of Lubar & Co., in Milwaukee, addressed the audience regarding this question at the recent BizExpo conference. He commented on how we have lost our way and are at times, no longer civil to each other. He said we must respect each other and understand that none of us are always right or always wrong.

Lubar believes that the founders of our great country sought to create a nation of “civility.” A nation where the elected leaders could recognize both sides of all issues and through honest and informed debate could and would resolve their differences fairly.

Lubar finished his presentation by challenging the audience. “We need people like you and me to stand up and declare we have had enough,” he said. “We must insist on civility.”

I recently observed small signs of hope that make me feel confident that we can achieve a level of civility again. While at George Watts, I noticed a group of teenage girls having lunch. The hope for civility can be found in this group of Girl Scouts. They were being tutored in the art of proper dining manners. Each young lady was instructed as to which utensil to use and how to properly unfold and fold their napkin. When the first course arrived, they daintily maneuvered their salad forks, while holding the proper posture. Our generation and the ones that have followed have lost some of those simple manners that were so important to our parents.

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. 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, but even moreso given the negative impact these behaviors have 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, there is a surprising lack of validated interventions or programs aimed at improving collegial relationships.

The common argument 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 that bad, is it? It isn’t as if anyone was bullied. It’s just a little bit of rude behavior, right? Considering the economic climate and the pressure to be cost effective and competitive, there is no time to worry about these trifling matters!

However, in 1999, Lynne Andersson and Christine Pearson argued that incivility can spiral and escalate into other more severe forms of bad behavior in the workplace, reaching a tipping point such that they may evolve into aggression and violence.

Katerine Osatuke and colleagues developed the CREW process (Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work). CREW was initially used to improve civility among colleagues within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They found that work sites that implemented CREW training had significant improvements in their level of civility.

The CREW program was very effective in the units that received the training. The 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.

One of the first things that organizations can do to address incivility is simply to pay attention to it. Instead of labeling it as being 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 must listen to our employees and involve them (as well as top management) in any initiative to improve civility at work. 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. We can’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to behave civilly. Top management must model civility so that it becomes the norm at all levels of the organization. n

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and chief executive officer of Fox Point-based SMA LLC and The Negotiating Edge Coaches & Trainers. He can be reached at (414) 352-5140.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display