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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.”

As I write this I am thinking of the Job Centre scene in the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ When Daniel (David Johns), a widowed carpenter who has had a heart attack, tries to help out a fellow claimant he ends up losing his temper and being ejected by the security guard. Society can place people with a precarious living under unbearable stress and then expect them to act rationally.

Ehud Barak, a former Prime Minister of Israel, once said “If I were a Palestinian of the right age, I’d eventually join one of the terrorist organisations.” He was acknowledging an extreme example of the long-term outworking of living in constant fear and anxiety, eking out an undependable living under military rule.

You don’t have to be a police officer, social worker, or politician to make a change to the emotional climate of your city. Each of us has a choice tens if not hundreds of times each day to be civil or not to our fellow citizens.

And the choices we make really do make a difference. Those choices contribute to the level of safety or fear that the people around us feel, and those emotions in turn drive their values and behaviour. And the aggregate of those behaviours characterise the society we live in. In a recent survey [4], just 68% of Americans had a high affinity with the label ‘compassionate.’ I say ‘just’ because whilst that remains a pleasing majority, it makes you wonder how the nation has come to a position where a third of society don’t.

That’s why our future is in the hands of leaders that transcend party politics and act in the interests of their country as a whole. Rather than dividing us, they underline the proposition that we are all in this together. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, is one such leader. She talks about “Team New Zealand.” We are relational beings and when we exclude an individual or a group we are actually excluding a small part of ourselves too.

Closing remarks

None of this is new. In his landmark book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes what he contends to be the pinnacle of leadership, the level 5 leader, as displaying “a compelling modesty … self-effacing and understated” [5]. Now, thanks to modern neuroscience and psychology, we can understand why this type of leadership is so effective, and we have even less excuse for being uncivil to our work colleagues and our fellow citizens.

If we want to be the change we want to see in the world, we would do well to make civility our starting point.

The next time you’re tempted to say “you’re not thinking straight” to someone at work, reflect on whether your attitude has contributed to that situation. Consider that our every act of kindness and compassion helps to create a culture in which people feel they belong and are valued, and takes us one step closer to a nation in which everyone is equipped to flourish.


1. Porath, C. & Pearson, C. (2013). The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review January — February 2013.

2. Daniel J. Siegel (1999). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press. p314

3. Ibid p354

5. Collins, J. (2010). Good to Great. London: Random House. p39

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