Cultivating a Positive Workplace Environment

Cultivating a Positive Workplace Environment

When people feel disrespected at work, it’s not just the person that suffers; it’s the company. Feeling unappreciated eats at a person’s potential, says Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the author of Mastering Civility. “Engagement, teamwork, knowledge sharing, innovation, and contributions wane, even among those who are simply around it.”

When Porath was twenty-two, she took her “dream job” out of college working for a global athletic brand. A year later, she quit. And so did many of her peers. The workplace was so “rife with bullying, rudeness, and incivility” that it wore her down, she says. She and her peers were more than disengaged; some wanted to sabotage the company. Others took the stress out on their families.

“By the time I left, many of us were husks of our former selves,” she says.

That experience inspired Porath to dedicate the next two decades to studying the effects of incivility in the workplace: Does it happen in everywhere? What are the real consequences? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the fix? She says that even the slightest form of perceived rudeness, like texting during a meeting or not saying hello to a coworker, can have much larger, graver effects than we may realize. And on the contrary, civility may be the most effective tool we have “because how you show up and treat people means everything.”

[Editor’s note: You can learn more about Porath’s research by listening to her recent TED talk about incivility and creating a healthier workplace environment here.]

A Q&A with Christine Porath

What does workplace incivility look like?

Incivility includes a lot of different behaviors—from mocking or belittling people to teasing people in ways that sting, telling offensive jokes, or texting in meetings. What may seem uncivil to one can seem absolutely fine to someone else. So it really depends. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder and whether that person felt disrespected.

Workplace relationships may be fraying as fewer employees work in the office and more employees feel increasingly isolated and less respected. Some studies point to growing narcissism among younger workers. Globalization may be causing cultural clashes. In the digital age, messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding. And unfortunately, put-downs are easier when not delivered face-to-face.

Where is it most prevalent?

I see incivility in all industries, across various types of organizations. It tends to be more extreme in settings where there are larger differences in power. About two thirds of the time, incivility stems from those with greater power or status.

How does incivility affect us?

Incivility eats away at people. Respect—or lack of it—is so potent. Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 notion of “looking-glass self” explains that we use others’ expressions (smiles), behaviors (acknowledgments), and reactions (listening, insults) to us to define ourselves. How we believe others see us shapes who we are. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected. Civility lifts people. Incivility makes people feel small.

When employees don’t feel respected, they perform worse and are less creative. About half deliberately decrease their efforts or the quality of their work. Many leave the organization or company without revealing why.

Incivility also damages customer relationships. My research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company they perceive as uncivil, whether the rudeness is directed at them or other employees. Witnessing one quick negative interaction leads to generalizations about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.

Is it becoming more widespread?

Yes. Nearly half of those whom my colleague Christine Pearson and I surveyed in 1998 reported they were treated rudely at least once a month; the figure rose to 55 percent in 2011 and 62 percent in 2016.

How can you manage the effects of incivility?

You can manage the effects by fostering your own thriving. When you’re thriving, you’re less likely to worry about the hit or to interpret the perpetrator’s action as a personal affront. You’re more resilient, more immune to the waves of emotion that follow a rude encounter, and more focused on navigating toward your goal.

How can you foster your own thriving? I suggest a two-pronged approach: Take steps to thrive cognitively, which includes growth, momentum, and continual learning. And take steps to thrive affectively, by which I mean experiencing passion, excitement, and vitality at work.

Here’s how you do that:

Identify areas for growth and actively pursue development in them. Everyone needs a feeling of progress in life—without it comes a sense of unfulfilled potential. It’s worth noting that growth and learning need not always be linked directly to your job. Pursuing a new skill, hobby, or sport can have a similar effect.

Identify a mentor. In my interviews and research, I have found that a close relationship with a mentor helps people thrive. Mentors have a knack for challenging their protégés and ensuring that they don’t stagnate or get caught in an unproductive churn.

Take care of yourself. I think of rude behavior in the workplace as an infectious pathogen, a virus. Your defense against it depends in good measure on your ability to manage your energy. My research suggests that many of the factors that help prevent illness—such as good nutrition, sleep, and stress management—can also help to ward off the noxious effects of incivility. Getting enough quality sleep is important. A lack of sleep increases your susceptibility to distraction, robs you of self-control, and makes you feel less trusting, more hostile, more aggressive, and more threatened, even by weak stimuli. It can also induce unethical behavior among employees. And be sure to exercise, which enhances both your cognitive firepower and your mood. Maintain your energy in other ways, such as eating healthfully, which will help put you in top form to respond smoothly during a rude encounter. And practice mindfulness—shifting your consciousness to process situations more slowly and thoughtfully and to respond with greater premeditation—which can help keep your blood cool.

Find a sense of purpose in your work. This can make you productive, even in a difficult environment. Reminding yourself of nonmonetary job attributes that attracted you in the first place can help to potentially foster gratitude and thankfulness.

Build positive relationships within and outside work. This provides an emotional uplift that can directly counterbalance the effects of negative relationships.

Although focusing on thriving can help, in extreme cases, a job change or relocation may be the best way to avoid burnout or protect your health and well-being.

How can you know if you’re the culprit?

By becoming more self-aware of your behaviors and how your behaviors affect others. Try to do at least one of the following:

Ask for focused feedback on your best and worst behaviors. Collect feedback from about ten to fifteen people—including coworkers, friends, and family—about your most respectful self. Ask for positive examples of your best behavior. How, specifically, have others seen you treat people well? What was the context, what happened, and what did you do to make others feel valued? How did you lift others up? And what do you need to improve?

Work with a career coach or a mentor. Coaches can uncover your potential weaknesses by independently surveying and interviewing your colleagues and by shadowing you at meetings and events. A great coach can detect subtleties in your behavior of which you might not be aware, and they can identify underlying assumptions, experiences, and personal qualities that make you prone to uncivil behavior.

Conduct a workplace team tune-up. Use colleagues or friends as coaches. Solicit feedback from your teammates, direct reports, and managers—360-degree feedback—about how you might change.

Make time for reflection. Keep a journal to provide insight into when, where, and why you are your best self and when, where, and why you are uncivil.

Take care of yourself. The most common reason people give for behaving poorly is the feeling of being overloaded or stressed. Don’t underestimate how important it is to take better care of yourself, starting with the basics mentioned above: good nutrition, sleep, and stress management.

If you’re still curious about your behavior and its effects, you can also take the civility assessment here.

How can you work to prevent incivility from taking place around you?

It’s important to focus on yourself and your future. When people mistreat you, you have to take control. The way to do that is to bet on yourself, not on your ability to change the offender or the organization in which you work.

I’d work to reduce your exposure to incivility, whether that’s a work environment, an online community, media outlets, social media, or members of the community that may be derailing you, your mood, and focus.

And be the change you want to see. Small actions we take are contagious and do ripple through our social networks. It’s daunting to feel as if we can control all the incivility around us. Most of us feel helpless and paralyzed. But we can set the tone, be the role model, and be the change we want. The nice thing is that you don’t have to make a huge shift. Even small things can make a big difference. I’ve found that thanking people, sharing credit, listening attentively, humbly asking questions, acknowledging others, and smiling all have a positive impact.

Christine Porath is an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. She is also a consultant working with leading organizations to help them create a thriving workplace. Porath is a contributor to various national and international publications including the Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.