Workplace civility, inclusivity, engagement and wellbeing

Workplace incivility, inclusivity, engagement and wellbeing

by | Apr 4, 2019 | Working

There’s no doubt our modern world is exposing us to increasing incivility in politics and society – both at home and around the globe.

Thankfully, fewer than one in twenty of us report experiencing regular interactions that are toxic (EEK & SENSE, Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey 2019, n =2000).

Nightmare leaders and their horror traits are headline-grabbing, but it’s the altogether more ordinary (and in many ways less noticeable) behaviours that are the most common cause of long-term wear and tear.

We can group these behaviours under the umbrella of ‘workplace incivility’.

Whilst out-and-out toxicity may be mercifully rare, the incidence of political shenanigans is not – half of all leaders say that the politics at work detract from their wellbeing.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.


Toxic, psychologically unsafe or ‘just’ uncivil?

In case you’re wondering, the difference between ‘toxicity’ and ‘incivility’ is generally accepted as one of intensity and intention.

Intended and intense negative behaviour is abusive and in the realm of bullying, harassment and discrimination. These behaviours constitute a clear breach of company policies and are subject to formal complaints, investigations and disciplinary action.

In contrast, ‘uncivil’ behaviours in the workplace are unpleasant but of a lower intensity and generally not intended to harm or hurt. Nevertheless, these behaviours all add up to a form of rudeness and unfairness that steadily infiltrates our experience of the workplace, one irritating bad manner at a time.

Incivility is more related to psychological safety than harassment or bullying, it’s the little stuff that gets to you.


But people are our greatest source of joy, yes?


In the coaching room, people often tell us they stay in their roles because of how much they enjoy their team and the people they work with.

But not always.

The clincher for leaving a job, even a dream job (on paper at least) is usually where workplace relationships are not positive. A lack of civility can be considered as an insidious pattern of low-grade negative behaviour with a serious impact on performance, productivity and personal wellbeing over time, especially in high stress environments where the perceptions of respect between leaders and their teams underpins individual functioning.

The email from the boss that drops the ‘Dear’ or ‘Hi’ – just has your name. High alert! What have I done?! The lack of thanks for a piece of work you nearly killed yourself over. Someone talking at rather than with you. Being taken for granted. Being treated or berated like a child. Being excluded from drinks or a meeting. Being interrupted. Someone texting whilst you’re speaking to them. Someone leaving you (again) to sort the printer.

These are uncivil behaviours and over time they sap morale.


Mind your manners and you’ll go far

Manners say a lot about who you are.

Following the results from a recent staff engagement survey one senior leadership team developed and laminated a ‘leader’s code of conduct’ – top of which was a reminder to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to their people.

The CEO lamented what sort of an organisation he was leading if its most senior people needed to be reminded of their ‘Ps and Q’s’. A busy and stressed one, I replied.


The importance of ‘Being Earnest Nice’

More than 10 years ago, Karen and I were commissioned to research and design a leadership capability model for a global law firm. A study of the highest-performing and most respected of the firm’s partners revealed they were consistently depicted as pleasant, courteous and respectful even when operating under prolonged stress.

We recommended a capability called ‘Being Nice’ (shows care and concern for others and a genuine interest in them as human beings, not a commodity… thoughtful and compassionate… showing willingness to re arrange own priorities etc) as part of a collection of personal qualities about a leader’s ‘Humanity’.

This was successfully adopted and embedded into a new framework for talent management, and ultimately has been published as a case study by Harvard Business School.


Limits to insights on civility

When it comes to our self-assessment of ‘being nice’ to others, there’s something called a ‘self-serving bias’ which clouds our self-awareness. This bias means we rate the probability of the interactions we instigate ourselves as being four times as likely to be positive experienced than those we are on the receiving end of!

Seems most of us have worked with someone who tends to be blunt or impolite, but we would never be like that ourselves would we? (Wink wink).

Coupled with the human characteristic of having a low intention to upset (sociopaths excepted) and low accountability for owning our part when things do go wrong (“It’s not me being harsh, it’s them being too sensitive”), it’s perhaps easy to understand how ‘niceness’ in organisations can quickly go off the rails.


What me? An uncivil leader? No, I’m just busy…

We’ve talked previously about leaders and their wellbeing shadow – and the necessity of being aware of their impact on others. It’s often the small things they don’t notice – especially when they’re in a hurry, time pressured and not pausing to think about how others may be experiencing them.

Before leaders know it, they have caused offence when none was intended.

Leaders instigating uncivil behaviour may not be aware of the impact of their behaviour (so subtle, unintended and self-serving are we) and rarely understand why they did it in the first place.

In GLWS terms:

  • Almost 80% of leaders surveyed say they go out of their way to show empathy for others’ feelings;
  • And yet, 86% also say they sometimes don’t think enough about their intentions and how they want to show up each day in their interactions with colleagues.
  • 75% feel pulled in too many different directions and that they are constantly racing against the clock.

These indicate difficult conditions in which to show our best, considered and most thoughtful selves – and are suggestive of some blind spots in these leaders’ wellbeing shadows.

Behaviour that can be deemed by others as disrespectful, rude or inconsiderate is rife. The number of stories we hear where people are upset by comparatively minor behaviours, small things that carry symbolic weight… they’re endless.

We seem to be forever pointing out that it’s easy to take offence where none was intended, and the folly of judging others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.


How (un)civilized is the workplace you lead?

Hello. How are you? Please. Thank you.

Civility is often defined as the demonstration of respect for fellow human beings.

Increasingly, we are living in an era where it’s not just outcomes that count, it’s the manner in how they are achieved. As a people leader, part of a manager’s core role is to ‘keep their finger on the pulse of the team’. For years, engagement survey data has been a management KPI.

More progressive organisations are now updating job descriptions to explicitly include a more evolved and nuanced measure of accountability for enabling and supporting employee wellbeing.  There are increased  expectations of leaders to proactively  foster supportive conversations.

There is also a trend towards incorporating a behavioural component into performance management systems to more effectively embed organisational values and codes of conduct.

Incivility should not be an accepted part of workplace culture. Awareness is a relevant step to challenge it.

If you recognise these tell-tale signs of low civility in the workplace, it could be time to act:

  • Fails to show consideration for the feelings and needs of colleagues.
  • Lack of basic courtesies.
  • Gives the impression of seeing others as a mere commodity or resource rather than as people with human idiosyncrasies.
  • Turns apparent interest in others “on and off like a switch” when it suits own purpose.
  • Listens without showing genuine interest.
  • Uses a dismissive tone of voice.
  • Listens predominantly with the intention of finding opportunities to move the subject around to one closer to personal interests.
  • Doesn’t listen to the tone and context of how something is being said and what isn’t being said.
  • Can’t appreciate or won’t accommodate the fact that others may have different needs and priorities.
  • Puts own workload and priorities ahead of all others, making no time to help colleagues.


The costs of workplace incivility

When people experience incivility, they naturally want to withdraw or avoid such interactions. The reality of frequent incivility in the workplace is that employees become less productive – and the cost, time and resources to resolve the issue increase. People may quit, call in sick, become disengaged from their work or suffer from workplace burnout, anxiety, depression and poorer immune functions.

Psychology has studied ‘rudeness contagion’ for decades, demonstrating that merely witnessing rude or destructive behaviour leads people to mimic that conduct. Witnessing morning rudeness can lead workers to be rude throughout the day, and experiencing incivility can reduce performance on routine and creative tasks and lead people to be less helpful than they would be otherwise. Supervisors who believe they are mistreated by their managers tend to pass on that mistreatment to their employees.

Experiencing incivility takes a psychological toll. Workplace rudeness has been shown to be associated with feelings of incompetence. When employees are rude, their colleagues waste mental energy trying to avoid interacting with them or worrying about what will happen when they do have to interact.

Studies have also found that rudeness damaged creativity and willingness to collaborate for all employees exposed to the rudeness, not just those who were being targeted.

Besides killing productivity and making it hard for teams to work together, a cultural pattern of unfair or rude behaviour that goes unaddressed also paves the way for the festering and development of even worse behaviours like harassment.


Leading civility in the workplace through program delivery

Inconsiderate or impolite behaviour may be considered part of a normal workplace, but it shouldn’t be. It’s too damaging to ignore.

Effective interventions to enhance workplace civility have focussed on ways of improving the ‘shared norms’ between employees. Most use facilitated weekly meetings where team members identify and discuss issues they experience daily at work – centring around commitment, consistency and structure to sustain meaningful behaviour change.

In addition to decreases in absenteeism and supervisor incivility, such interventions are associated with increases in trust in management, employee engagement, co-worker civility and job satisfaction.
Off the back of such research, Professor Michael Leiter of Deakin University has designed a civility program in association with our GLWS partners PeopleScape known as SCORE (Strengthening a Culture of Respect and Engagement). SCORE centres around five principles:

  1. Acknowledging respect
  2. Promoting respect
  3. Responding to disrespect
  4. Working regardless of respect
  5. Integrating respect into work life – sustaining the gains.

Preliminary results show increases in supervisor and co-worker civility, mental health indicators, job satisfaction and supervisor, co-worker and management trust levels. We’ll bring you more as findings conclude once the program wraps up later in 2019.


Countermeasures to incivility – our top 10 tips to becoming a more inspiring leader

Manners and courtesy are not dull.

Being considerate and thoughtful in your interactions is key to demonstrating that you care about your people. Caring about your people is the number one thing you can do to unleash their discretionary energy and inspire them to be their best.

With the pressure of unrelenting busyness, constant connectedness and the temptation to reply on the fly, being a considerate leader is easier said than done. If you think you could do better in this regard, try slowing down, even a fraction. It only takes six seconds to get our primitive brains under control (avoiding the dreaded amygdala hijack), 45 seconds is long enough to consider and choose a better response, 15 minutes can shift your perspective and by the next day you might give a totally different response!

It is often the small things that count—the micro-positive exchanges and interactions that individuals have with each other.

Being aware of your micro actions and their (sometimes unintended) consequences, and how they can be interpreted by others is a first step to creating a respectful workplace.

The following 10 steps might help improve your own personal civility index:

  1. Look for something you respect in the other person. Hold this at the front of your mind during your interactions.
  2. Think positively about them.
  3. Pay attention and actively listen.
  4. Make a difference, try to add some value to their day.
  5. Speak kindly, behave kindly.
  6. Say hello, please and thank you. Yes, really.
  7. Accept others have their limitations and we, none of us, are perfect. Including you!
  8. Rediscover silence. 2 ears and 1 mouth and all that.
  9. Keep your cool. It’s not life or death. It’s probably a miscommunication.
  10. Mind the gap between you intention and your demonstrated behaviour.


Our incivility insights for you:

In our experience, incivility:

  • Is more likely to occur during interactions with stakeholders outside of the core team, during exchanges with colleagues from across different parts of the organisation.
  • Is more likely to occur during critical high stakes or stressful situations.
  • Correlates with higher irritability and reduced wellbeing of the affected individuals.
  • Is at its most insidious and damaging when it occurs within a ‘home team’ and is a key driver to low levels of psychological safety and inclusivity.
  • Is a key factor for innovation and forward thinking in teams.
  • Is best addressed through attending to wellbeing at an individual and team level.
  • Requires leaders to step up and be responsible for setting clear boundaries around what’s acceptable and what’s not.


P.S. Special thanks to Kaushini Gumley, Provisional Psychologist with PeopleScape and MSc Organizational Psychology student at Deakin University, for her expertise and help in researching this article.




  • Arthur C. Evans, Jr. PhD, ‘Can we inoculate ourselves against incivility?’ in American Psychological Association September 2018, Vol 49, No. 8Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiralling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of management review24(3), 452-471.
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  • (2018). The rise of the social enterprise – 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends. Retrieved from Deloitte Insights database:
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  • Leiter, M. P., Laschinger, H. K. S., Day, A., & Gilin-Oore, D. (2011). The impact of civility interventions on employee social behavior, distress, and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 1258-1274.
  • Osatuke, K., Moore, S. C., Ward, C., Dyrenforth, S. R., & Belton, L. (2009). Civility, respect, engagement in the workforce (CREW) nationwide organization development intervention at Veterans Health Administration. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science45(3), 384-410.


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