Drivers of Workplace Incivility Gain Traction
The drivers of workplace incivility are obvious, such as the presence of disrespect in the workplace, communication environments driven by poor or dysfunctional communication, and the presence of financial and market disruptions.
Workplace incivility has been defined as low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others. The authors [of the study] hypothesize there is an “incivility spiral” in the workplace made worse by “asymmetric global interaction”.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_incivility
The drivers of workplace incivility have been written about in many other places, but many leaders still reject workplace incivility as a problem that has to be addressed for several reasons, including:
Middle-level leaders knowing what’s “ok” and what’s not “ok” but feeling unable to confront the behavior because of organizational cultural dynamics,
Middle-level leaders feeling convicted rather than empowered around their past poor communication behaviors when the subject of workplace incivility is brought up,
Middle-level leaders not caring about the communication behaviors as long as productive work occurs and metrics are met.
And these are a few reasons that we have heard in live training and in feedback from middle-level managers and others.
But, what happens when, in the face of remote work, employees and others who have previously been victims of poor, bad, or abusive behavior, now don’t have to return to the office?
What happens to workplace incivility when it migrates online after the first disruption and chaos of the “in-person to remote work” transition is completed?
Can middle-level leaders still afford to ignore the communication patterns that led to workplace incivility in the first place?
Drivers of Workplace Incivility Include Stories
Drivers of workplace incivility are being explored and explained almost everywhere, but one driver that is consistently given little thought is the fact of the power of stories as drivers for incivility at work.
We often think of the common drivers of anger, resentment, incessant micro-managing, or just dysfunctional communication practices as the primary reasons that incivility in the workplace gains such traction, and seems to persist despite leaders’ best efforts to jettison it.
The reason those drivers, while interesting, don’t get to the heart of the matter, is that they aren’t at the heart of the matter, The true drivers for workplace behaviors are internal narratives people tell themselves about who they are, what they are doing, why they matter, and how they can succeed in the environments they are in.
There are 5 workplace stories that people tell themselves. They are based on the five typical stories that people have always told themselves, camped around a fire in the woods, or in the dark at a Hollywood blockbuster.
Except that these stories have different beginnings, because…well…they happen at work.
The Quest story typically describes a hero’s pursuit of an unattainable goal. At work, the words that begin this story are “I worked really hard on this project and now…”
Usually, this story is combined with other stories and is driven by the desire to improve the situation that a person happens to be in at work. When this story drives workplace incivility, the desire to get the goal becomes the only thing that the person telling themselves the story seeks to pursue. Which can result in the following incivil behaviors:
- interrupting others
- not listening
- overruling decisions without giving a reason
The Love story at work typically describes the process of falling in love with an organization, a project, or an ideal. At work, the words that begin this story typically are “I really want to get along with everybody, but…”
Usually, people don’t like to admit that they are “in love” with their work unless they are in a work environment that supports such emotional appeals. Many people would rather admit to “liking” their work. When this story drives workplace incivility, the dark side of love comes out—hate. This can result in the following incivil behaviors:
- insulting others
- sending a nasty and demeaning communications
- talking about someone behind his or her back
The Revenge story is the one story at work that is typically mixed up with a lot of other stories. And that’s typical because this story tends to permeate most workplace conflicts. At work the words that begin this story are “I know that I was right and here’s why…”
Many people (and researchers) believe that a desire to harm others is the primary driver of most workplace incivility. And when the “revenge” story is told, there is not a lot of room to believe much of anything else. However, Revenge stories can “submarine” in communication and workplace incivility and resurface in the following behaviors:
- disrespecting workers by comments, gestures, or proven behaviors (hostility) based on characteristics such as their race, religion, gender, etc.
- making accusations about professional competence
The Stranger-In-A-Strange Land story is the hardest to identify at work because this story may hide a passive-aggressive Revenge story. Sometimes, the words that begin this story are “I don’t know what anyone else is doing here, but I think…”
When a Stranger-In-A-Strange Land story drives workplace incivility the following behaviors may manifest:
- giving the silent treatment
- not giving credit where credit is due
Finally, the Rags-To-Riches Story (or Riches-To-Rags, take your pick) is the story that comes from entry-level and new people in an organization, but to other, more seasoned employees, it can come off as annoying. It typically begins with “I know I just showed up here, but at my last job this happened…”
The Rags-To-Riches Story is typically about money, material gain, non-monetary compensation, and it involves subtly shifting the focus from what behaviors should be changed to what behaviors the organization failed to do for the individual. The most common ways in which this story manifests include:
- work slow down/stoppages
- side conversations during a formal business meeting/presentation
These five stories drive workplace incivility and, when not addressed and diffused can result in harassment, bullying, and other offenses that can escalate quickly to employee turnover, grievances, and complaints, diminished productivity, lack of confidence in leadership, and in the not too distant future, lawsuits and formalized litigation processes.
Drivers of Workplace Incivility Can Be Diffused
What is a middle-level leader to do if they are trapped in an organizational structure that not only supports such behaviors but also they may have been the victim of such behaviors themselves?
There are a few ways that middle-level leaders (i.e. managers and supervisors) can diffuse the stories, the drivers, of workplace incivility:
- Changing workplace behavior and toxic stories is about confronting consistently, and having all of the management on the same page in regards to what’s “inappropriate/not ok,” what’s “cultural,” and what’s “ok.”
- Realize that challenging and confronting inappropriate behavior and workplace incivility is about people and their behavioral choices, not organizational position, amount of money that the person makes, or their value to an organization.
For middle-level leaders to confront uncivil, disrespectful and devaluing behavior, they must immediately, and consistently—follow the three “C’s”:
Calm—Engage emotionally in private, rationally in public. Creating an environment of calm will allow for solutions rather than escalation.
Confront—Confront people with interests (like maintaining their job status, building a team, etc.), not positions (“this act makes me feel good” or “it’s only a joke, what’s the big deal?”). People confront by focusing on the person, (“Are they good/bad/indifferent as a person”) rather than focusing on the behavior (“Does this behavior match what company policy and the law says?”).
Consistent—Jettison personal relationships when confronting behavior. Confront Annoying Bob the same way that you would confront Friendly Sam.
Middle-level leaders in all organizations should take note: shaming and “guilt-tripping” when they seek to root out these communication drivers has the potential to escalate the behaviors and more deeply entrench the story in the individual’s psyche.
Moreover, middle-level leaders should focus on controlling workplace storytelling externally through being clear about the impact of workplace gossip, with a policy of “the buck both gets here and stops here” around workplace gossip.
Finally, middle-level leaders should be consistent in role-modeling the type of communication behaviors they would like to see, both large and small.
If they complete these actions, middle-level leaders in all organizations will be able to begin to root out workplace incivility effectively.