Christine Porath, author of the recently-published, Mastering Civility, studies the effects of incivility in the workplace. She also explores the benefits of civility and ways to promote and increase civility. It’s hard to imagine a more timely topic. Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick resigned in early June, as I was reading Porath’s book. Incivility—seen in Kalanick’s personal behavior and in the culture he created—were an essential element of the story. Furthermore, as someone who lives in the United States, I find that one of the most exhausting and troubling elements of our current political culture is its increasing, and increasingly difficult to avoid, incivility. It’s also a broader phenomenon. The reported frequency of incivility has skyrocketed in the last two decades—with a whopping 62% of people polled by Porath reporting at least monthly incidences of incivility at work.

How do each of us contend with the incivility that we are experiencing—in and out of the workplace? How do we, as leaders, support the people in our organizations?

I recently spent a few minutes with Christine Porath and heard her responses to these questions first hand. Before I share what I learned from her about responding to incivility, here’s a recap of some of the findings from her research—the case for taking incivility very seriously:

Incivility reduces our cognitive capacity and ability to focus. 

In one experiment, subjects were asked to create sentences from a set of scrambled words. Half of the participants received lists that included rude words such as” “obnoxious,” and “disturb.” The other half received a list with none of the rude words included. After creating sentences—with or without rude words—the participants were tested on certain cognitive tasks. The results were striking. Those who had completed the sentence exercise with rude words were 17% worse at recalling information, and 43% worse at finding math errors. They were also significantly less attentive to what was happening in their environment. It is worth noting that other experiments demonstrated that simply witnessing incivility, not only being the target of it, had the same effect!

Incivility reduces teamwork and collaboration.

Many of Porath’s studies were in medical settings—where the stakes are life and death. Increased patient errors are tied to incivility. According to Porath, “this was mainly because teams exposed to rudeness didn’t share information as readily, and because they also stopped seeking help from their teammates.”

In our conversation, Porath shared that “we’ve learned from our data within organizations that for better or worse civility spreads. Incivility spreads just as civility does. In team settings, collaboration breaks down.” When we observe organizations that tolerate high levels of incivility, we probably will also notice lower levels of collaboration.

This may be a factor in increasing polarization in society—as political debates become less civil, the ability to see another point of view and find ways to work together will, inevitably decrease. And, governmental institutions are less likely to operate well if incivility is tolerated.

Incivility reduces engagement and innovation. 

In an article Porath wrote after the US election, when her work on this topic was being widely cited throughout the press, she wrote: “My research shows that when people lack a sense of psychological safety—meaning they do not feel a sense of trust or respect—they shut down, often without realizing it. They are less likely to seek or accept feedback and also less likely to experiment, discuss errors, or speak up about potential problems.”

Incivility is unhealthy.

Porath references Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, to demonstrate the health effects of incivility. Sapolsky demonstrates that, “when people experience intermittent stressors like incivility for too long or too often, their immune systems pay the price. We also may experience major health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers.”

So, if incivility chips away at health and performance, and if, collectively, we are feeling bombarded by incivility, what can we do?

Porath proposes two distinct responses to this question. Much of Mastering Civility is about the first response—actively working to create a culture of civility in your organization. Don’t tolerate incivility at any level. Focus on values. Model civility. Remember that civility “over-writes” incivility. Work on the fundamentals (smiling, saying thank you, etc.) and the big stuff (ensuring your systems support civility).

“Civility lifts people. You will get people to give more and function at their best, if you’re civil. You’ll also build a culture that helps make the world better. So in every interaction, think, who do you want be?”

A caution: don’t assume that just because you’re not a jerk (which, if you’re reading this post, I’m going to assume to be true!), you are immune from behaving with incivility. Porath shared with me that when she began her research she assumed that incivility stemmed from jerks in the workplace. While there are some jerks, she found that a vast majority of incivility is a result of “people not realizing, not being self-aware. In most cases that’s due to stress or feeling overwhelmed. Over 60% say that’s why they were uncivil.”

Which brings us to the second strategy for tackling incivility—thriving. According to Porath, “the one thing that buffers people from the negative effects of incivility is when you focus on your sense of thriving, moving yourself forward.” The more we focus on our own growth and learning—either tied to the workplace or outside of the workplace—the more we can thrive. Thriving is also a function of taking care of ourselves. Sleeping enough, exercising enough, adopting a mindfulness practice, are all ways to thrive—and create a buffer between ourselves and the incivility we encounter.  

Thriving is also about building up our positive social resources—being positive and creating positive relationships. We know, from the research, that de-energizing relationships have 4 to 7 times the effect of energizing ones. In this political climate, when we may be depleted by people and relationships outside of our orbit, this means that we need to work extra hard to build positivity in the relationships that we directly influence—at home and at work. Porath recommended that we consciously manage the inflow of the negative—be careful about how much we expose ourselves to the onslaught of headlines and breaking news, for example. And, to be fair, she acknowledged that she, herself, is still struggling with this.

Thriving can help us build our resources so that we are better prepared to be civil, more able to maintain our own good humor and positivity and be the leaders that the world needs, in this moment. So, if you want to be the kind of leader that contributes to civility and creates an organization that promotes civility—a great place to begin is with yourself. Invest in thriving. The benefits are real.

Incivility — Learn to Thrive