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How to Poison Your Corporate Culture: The “Incivility Bug”

28 March 2018
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When you’re in a toxic office situation, it’s easy to blame the boss. Managers have gotten away with uncivil work environments in the name of ‘getting things done’ for decades, but with the rising tensions in the workforce and the winds of change blowing, incivility can cost organizations much more than hurt feelings. In many cases, the costs of incivility spreading throughout a corporate culture outweigh the benefits of ‘getting things done.’

Even with the workforce changing with more people working for themselves on their own terms, incivility at work is on the rise. According to a 2016 book by associate professor Christine Porath at Georgetown University’s business school, reports of being treated rudely at work have more than doubled since 1998.

Theories abound about why incivility is rising. One of the more reasonable theories, at least to me, is that rudeness is on the rise because in the United States and in many places in the Western world, our political climate is darkening and the different ‘sides’ are becoming irreconcilable with each other. A divided workplace turns into a hostile workplace very quickly, and a hostile, uncivil workplace is not only unpleasant for everyone involved, it’s costly.

The Incivility Bug

Perhaps what’s so damaging about incivility is how quickly it spreads. When a manager is constantly rude to his or her employees, that behavior is easy to emulate, especially if it’s being perceived as being rewarded. Professor Porath explains in her TED Talk that incivility is contagious, like the flu bug. Everyone in an uncivil office becomes carriers of it—carriers into other parts of their lives, even—just by being around it.

The virulence of incivility is also a way to defeat it. If incivility can spread quickly, so can civility. Small acts of kindness and compassion go a long way, and from a manager’s perspective, a few extra words of encouragement can help reverse uncivil trends.

A Supportive, Productive Corporate Culture

Many small businesses don’t have time to worry about corporate culture and the many devices and services designed to improve it. If your organization has only a few employees, you don’t need wide-reaching corporate communication and culture initiatives, but as you grow and add more workers either remotely or in your office, you’ll need more help managing the culture as it grows. If you set an example early, your core employees will envelope newcomers and support them. If you neglect your employees or worse, they will visit that behavior upon the next wave of new workers.

Building on a Foundation

Whatever the reason, incivility is rising in American workplaces. As managers and Human Resources leaders, you have an opportunity to reverse this trend one employee at a time. If you can create a solid foundation of civility and support, you can add to that every day at the office.

Ben Renner

Ben Renner is an HR expert, writer, and Senior Editor of the Employee Communications Council. He has lived and managed his own business in Denver, Colorado since 2013. Connect with him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-renner-97708099/

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