The Real Price of Incivility

Incivility — rude or unsociable speech or behaviour — is becoming a way of life in business and in wider society, one that is almost a badge of honour. Yet it comes with a high price. Read this article and then decide if your organisation can afford it.

Why is civility so important?

In their 2013 HBR paper [1] Christine Porath and Christine Pearson documented the direct costs of rudeness, disrespect and outright hostility at work. They surveyed 800 managers and employees in 17 industries and found that when they were on the receiving end of incivility, 48% decreased their work effort, 78% said their commitment to the organisation declined, and 25% admitted to taking out their frustration on customers.

However, these direct impacts are the tip of the iceberg, particularly if you work in a business that requires collaboration, innovation or imagination (in other words just about every business in the modern economy).

As neuroscientist-psychologist Dan Siegel points out, “…all close relationships involve tracking, alignment, attunement, and resonance between people” [2]: we track the signals of the other person, we align our state of mind with theirs, and finally we achieve a state of mutual influence.

The operation of this engagement process relies on the prefrontal areas of the brain evaluating our environment and confirming that it is safe. When the brain senses danger, it shuts down our engagement system and activates the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, preparing the body for fighting, fleeing or freezing. Our other higher order mental processes, such as the ability to think about what we are thinking, and to think creatively are also suspended.

Worse still, if we work in an environment where we are coerced into behaviour in a way that is inauthentic, that is not consistent with our true nature, over a prolonged period, it can place us at increased risk of developing emotional disorders. [3] Toxic workplaces can literally drive us mad.

Hence the full price of incivility. It is paid in loss of interpersonal and therefore collaborative working skills, it is paid in a lack of innovation, it is paid in a lack of imagination. Moreover, if it is sustained, it can lead to a higher incidence of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and dissociation. This is why profit is a goal that is best approached obliquely. If we infuse our organisation with a sense of worry about ‘making the numbers’ then paradoxically we set ourselves up to fail.

Google is one organisation that has embraced this insight. In 2007 they brought together a group of experts in mindfulness, neuroscience, and emotional intelligence to create an internal course. Subsequently they established the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as a nonprofit organisation to “work toward a more peaceful world in which all people feel connected and act with compassion.”

“the full price of incivility… is paid in loss of interpersonal and therefore collaborative working skills, it is paid in a lack of innovation, it is paid in a lack of imagination.”

By actively supporting and advocating for women, veterans, LGBTQ, specially-abled and ethnic employees, PayPal’s award-winning affinity groups programme facilitates bringing your authentic self to work. It helps you feel as though as you belong within the organisation rather than having to change who you are in order to fit in.

Carrying this understanding into wider society

In wider society, the regular experience of incivility gradually erodes the humanity of perpetrator and victim. Tracy Allen puts it this way in episode 12 of The Compassionate Leadership Interview, “Hurt people hurt people.”