Bringing Back Civility at Work

“Civility costs nothing, and buys everything” Mary Wortley Montagu

As people we are prone to thoughtlessness, narcissism and impatience. But recently, I’ve noticed that the incivility meter has hit an all-time high, not just in politics or on social media, but also in the workplace. In the last year, I, along with my colleagues, clients and friends, have experienced unprecedented incidences of unprofessionalism: a significant increase in unreturned phone calls and emails, vendors bullying their way out of delivering on their contracts, RFP’s not being acknowledged, bosses and colleagues who consistently “forget” to give credit where it is due, and thanks to the acrimonious political divide, more personal conflict amongst coworkers than ever before.

This behavior does not just affect the individual; it affects the entire organization, and is linked to employee burnout, high turnover rates and diminished work performance. And, while incivility is defined as mistreatment with ambiguous intent, research demonstrates negative effects can compound over time, causing more overtly hostile behavior to take place. It is essential, therefore, to recognize when incivility occurs in your workplace and develop strategies and policies to eliminate this pattern.

Of course, I acknowledge that these days being respectful, kind and thoughtful at work is harder than ever as employees are challenged to get more done faster, are assaulted with hundreds of emails daily, and are required to attend an endless number of in person and virtual meetings. With all of this to deal with it’s easy to get frustrated and snap at those around you, think you don’t have time to respond to everyone or forget to acknowledge the people that may be lending you a hand; but ultimately, being overwhelmed is not an excuse for mistreating the people you work with and sooner or later, your behavior will come back to bite you!

Fortunately there are techniques to help you manage your temperament, communication, and work with grace and aplomb so that you maintain a respectful and productive workplace.

Be Honest
Honesty is key to a civil work environment. When people don’t know what you are thinking or feeling, your actions can easily be misinterpreted.  If you can’t accomplish what’s being asked of you, say so immediately. If you don’t have an answer to someone’s question or request, it’s better to say, “I don’t know, let me get back to you,” rather than to leave them hanging.

Be Specific
The more specific you are in your communication the less opportunity there is for misunderstandings and mistakes. If someone is waiting to hear about your decision on a project, let that person know exactly when you plan to get back to them. If you can’t meet the deadline, provide a short, specific explanation as to why. Likewise, tell people when their ideas and proposals don’t work for you and be specific as to your reasons. And, of course, if someone is doing great work, tell them with concrete, behavioral examples so they will know exactly how to replicate those positive behaviors in the future. By eliminating ambiguity and assumptions, and making sure everyone is on “the same page,” you avoid unnecessary conflict.

Speak Up
Tension, resentment and anger build exponentially when people don’t speak up at work. If you have too much on your plate let the right people know what you need in terms of more help, more time and/or more resources. As Stevie Wonder most aptly put it, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get it.” You’ll be surprised just how much smoother the office runs when workers clearly express their needs.

Get Organized
The more organized your communications are the easier it is to keep yourself and others stress free. Schedule regular follow-ups with colleagues and bosses around your projects. Prioritize your emails and then devote some time each week to respond to emails that you haven’t gotten to. Putting small systems in place to keep yourself more organized will prevent you from overlooking those important tasks that often get pushed aside or forgotten.

Know When to Shut Up
The last presidential election created a bigger political divide than we have seen in decades, so it’s not surprising to see this split reflected in the workplace.  But just as you make allowances for your co-workers’ little quirks and irritating habits so too must you check your politics at the door. If you do find that you are working yourself up into a righteous rant and heading down the political rabbit hole, try these prompts:

  1. Pause, breathe deeply, count to ten slowly and then, count to ten again (repeating as many times as it takes for you calm down).
  2. It’s okay to disagree. It doesn’t make them a bad person.
  3. I gain nothing if I lose my temper.