Is an Uncivil Culture Costing Your Company Money?

April 20, 2021

Last week I had a flashback — full-on, no holds barred, cognitively, emotionally and physically. A former consulting client called to see if I would work with him and his company again. As he described his current situation, his whole demeanor reminded me – through my flashback – why I stopped working with him and his company: incivility.

Many people see civility in a culture as a matter of simply practicing common sense. I disagree. In a workplace culture, what you are communicating — say, a drop in key metrics or the need for change — isn't as important as how you communicate it (where and when you have the conversation, your tone of voice, etc.). Yet leaders too often focus on the what instead of the how. Focusing on the behavioral norms of how information is communicated leads to a workplace culture with civility.

In research done by Christine Porath, collecting data on incivility over the past 21 years from more than 20,000 people across the U.S. and Canada, 98% of employees said they have experienced incivility, and 99% have witnessed it. In 1998, 48% of employees reported being treated rudely in the prior month. In 2016, that number rose to 62%. There are many possible explanations for that increase, such as employees being asked to do more with less and people feeling less respected. But whatever the reasons are, there are dire consequences when a workplace culture lacks civility. Another study looked at 800 managers and employees across 17 industries. Among employees who felt on the receiving end of uncivil interactions:

  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

More broadly, workplaces that allow incivility experience:

  • Decreased creativity: In an experiment we conducted with Amir Erez, a professor of management at the University of Florida, participants who were treated rudely by other subjects were 30% less creative than others in the study. They produced 25% fewer ideas, and the ones they did come up with were less original.
  • Decreased performance and team engagement: Simply witnessing incivility has negative consequences. In one experiment, people who’d observed poor behavior performed 20% worse on word puzzles than other people did. In another experiment, witnesses to incivility were less likely than others to help out, even when the person they’d be helping had no apparent connection to the uncivil person. Only 25% of the subjects who’d witnessed incivility volunteered to help, compared with 51% of those who hadn’t witnessed it. This demonstrates how quickly uncivil behavior can become a cultural norm and influence the behavior of others.
  • Loss of customers: Public rudeness among employees is common, according to our survey of 244 consumers. Whether it’s waiters berating fellow waiters or store clerks criticizing colleagues, disrespectful behavior makes customers uncomfortable, and they’re quick to walk out without making a purchase. People are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, even if the rudeness isn’t directed at them.
  • Increased costs: According to a study by Accountemps and reported in Fortune, managers and executives at Fortune 1000 firms spend 13% percent of their work time—the equivalent of seven weeks a year—trying to repair employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the aftermath of incivility. Bringing in consultants or attorneys to help settle a situation adds more costs.

So what can a leader do to prevent the costs associated with uncivil behavior in a workplace culture? What can we all do to create a culture of civility? Stay tuned: I’ll suggest answers and action steps next week.

If you have questions on this post or any previous post, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.

Keep cultivating your culture!

More articles

Be the first to know about new articles, courses, and keynotes