McDonough School of Business
News Story

Civil Actions

Rudeness at work can have a devastating effect on performance. Thankfully, civility can do the opposite.

By Michael Blanding
Illustration by Victor Juhasz

We have all had experiences in the workplace where we lose our temper and snap at a colleague — or have had to deal with a bad boss who makes cutting remarks to subordinates. Those little moments of incivility may seem like small interruptions to our day, but they can have huge effects on morale and productivity, according to Christine Porath, associate professor of management at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

“It affects performance, creativity, and turnover,” says Porath, who has spent the past 20 years examining the corrosive effects of incivility in the office. “And it can lead to more dysfunctional behavior in the workplace, like sabotaging colleagues, which can certainly affect the bottom line.” Furthermore, one act of incivility can cause a domino effect across a workplace, quickly creating a toxic environment. “It spreads like a virus,” Porath says. “So the costs add up much more quickly.”

Porath started looking into incivility on the job after her own experience at a sports management company that was rife with rudeness and bullying. She has since examined the experiences of tens of thousands of people in all kinds of organizations, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, and written two books on the topic, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (2016) and The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It (2009).

People who are civil are twice as likely to be seen as a leader.

She defines incivility as “rude, disrespectful, or insensitive behavior that people feel runs counter to the norms of their workplace.” Not only has she found it to exist in every industry and type of company, but unfortunately it also has gotten worse over time. In her latest survey in 2016, she found 98 percent of people have experienced incivility at work, and 62 percent experienced it at least once a month — up from 49 percent when Porath began her research in 1998.

In part, Porath blames animosity in the national political climate, which is only amplified by social media. “If we are seeing it on Twitter or online or in the media, we are being agitated, and that primes people to become more aggressive and dysfunctional,” she says.

Incivility and Performance

The good news is that most incivility is unintentional. More than anything, Porath finds that people are rude to each other in the workplace because they feel stressed-out or overwhelmed, which causes them to either lash out at other people or ignore them.

“I started thinking that there were a lot of jerks in the workplace, but where I have landed is that the vast amount of incivility comes from lack of self-awareness,” she says. A full 50 percent of people she has surveyed say they are rude because they feel overloaded; only 4 percent have said they do it because it is fun and they can get away with it.

“We are seeing civility is contagious. When you behave respectfully toward people, they not only reciprocate, but they pay it forward.”
—Christine Porath, Associate Professor of Management

Whatever the cause, incivility can be surprisingly damaging to performance. In a poll of over 800 workers and managers, Porath found nearly half of them said incivility caused them to decrease their time and effort spent at work, and two-thirds of them reported a decline in performance. That is borne out by experimental studies as well.

In one study Porath conducted with Amir Erez, professor of management at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business Administration, participants who were belittled by the experimenter prior to working a word puzzle performed 33 percent worse, and in another task, came up with 39 percent fewer creative ideas. Even those who just witnessed rudeness did worse in the experiments, faring 22 percent and 28 percent worse on the two tasks.

Porath and Erez attribute this decline in performance to a “cognitive drain” that saps workers’ mental ability.

“It influences working memory, the part of the cognitive system where most of the analytical activity is done,” says Erez. “You are thinking, ‘How should I have dealt with this person, how can I make sense of it?’” In a separate experiment, Erez found that rudeness can spread. When participants experienced rudeness during a negotiation, they were more likely to be rude to a third party in another negotiation, even if it was a week later.

50% of people say they are rude because they feel overloaded.
4% say they are rude because it is fun and they can get away with it.

Depending on the context, however, hostility is not always detrimental to performance. Porath’s colleague at Georgetown McDonough, Assistant Professor of Management Jeremy Yip, noticed that in certain cases “trash talking” among competitors could actually drive them to exert greater effort.

“We see this in our daily lives,” Yip says. “We are friendly with one another, but all of a sudden we go for a jog, and we are saying nasty things to keep each other motivated.”

Impact of Trash Talk

In an experiment, Yip found that boastful comments delivered to an opponent before or after a competition actually improved performance. During the study, he asked participants to compete to move sliders along a bar to a certain position. Their “competitor,” however, was actually another researcher — who communicated neutrally to some participants and hurled insults at others. “They would say things like, ‘I am going to beat you like a rented mule,’” Yip says.

In the cases where participants experienced such trash talk, they exerted greater effort and moved more sliders—an average of 5.57, compared with 4.15. “It raises the stakes psychologically, such that you want to try harder and you perform better,” Yip says.

Trash talking does not always improve performance, however, Yip found. When tasks required creativity rather than effort, those experiencing trash talk fared worse — a result he attributed to a lack of focus. He also found that trash talking only boosted effort-based performance in a competitive context.

“In cooperative interactions when someone insults you, you are more likely to disengage from the task and become less motivated. You say, ‘Why would I help the person who just insulted me?’” says Yip. “But in a competitive situation, if someone insults you, you can retaliate by trying harder.”

In a business context, Yip says, managers could trash talk outside competitors in the marketplace to their own employees in order to spur effort. “A manager could say, ‘This is what company X is saying about us — let’s make sure we crush them in the next quarter,’” Yip says.

Leaders should use caution, however, when tasks require creativity or innovation and should especially avoid pitting employees within an organization against one another. “There needs to be a clear divide between who is in the ‘in’ group and who is in the ‘out’ group,” Yip says.

“In cooperative interactions when someone insults you, you are more likely to disengage from the task and become less motivated. … But in a competitive situation, if someone insults you, you can retaliate by trying harder.”
—Jeremy Yip, Assistant Professor of Management

As much as incivility degrades performance, Porath has found that the opposite also is true — courteous and respectful behavior tends to spur success. “People who are civil are twice as likely to be seen as a leader,” Porath says. And in experiments that Porath conducted with Alexandra Gerbasi of the University of Exeter, she found that people were 59 percent more willing to share information, 72 percent more willing to seek advice, and 57 more willing to share information with a civil person than a rude one. They were even 1.22 times more likely to recommend that person for a job.

Small Gestures, Big Impact

So how to explain the office jerk who gets the promotion over the deserving nice guys? Porath believes that rude co-workers who rise to power do so in spite of their incivility, not because of it. “There are always outliers,” she says. “But ultimately that often comes back to bite them.” Indeed, the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit leadership development institute, found that the second most common reason leaders fail is that they are “abrasive” or “intimidating,” and the third is that they are “aloof” or “arrogant.”

On the other hand, Porath says, people do not often talk about the positive role models in business.

For example, Doug Conant, the former president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co., turned his company around with civility. When he took over the company in 2001, the company had lost half its market share, and morale was in the gutter. He immediately set a new tone with a promise to employees: “We will treat you with respect and dignity.”

In addition to talking the talk, he literally walked the walk, wearing a pedometer to log 10,000 steps a day and interact with as many employees as possible. He called those interactions “touch points” and developed a communication style that involved listening to and framing others’ ideas before imparting his own. In addition, he sent some 30,000 handwritten notes to employees in 10 years to let them know they were appreciated. By 2014, sales and earnings had turned around, and the company was outperforming the S&P 500.

98% of people have experienced incivility at work.
62% experienced it at least once a month.

Porath’s research has shown that, just as small acts of rudeness can infect workplace culture, small gestures of respect can have a major effect on improving employee morale.

“Those brief moments make people feel valued, and they work harder and are more engaged and more likely to speak up and offer innovative solutions,” she says.

Porath recommends that managers institutionalize civility as part of everything that happens on the job, including it as a factor in recruiting, promotions, performance evaluations, and training. Just as incivility can spread like a virus, civility can spread like antibodies, infusing kind and respectful behavior throughout the workplace.

“We are seeing civility is contagious,” Porath says. “When you behave respectfully toward people, they not only reciprocate, but they also pay it forward.”

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2018

Georgetown Business Magazine