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Poisoning the Well: The impact of incivility in the workplace

Culture matters more than any other factor in determining the level of ethical conduct within an organization. Knowing this, leaders need to be ever vigilant to how toxic day to day interactions can poison the working environment.

Christina Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University and co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior” recently published an op-ed and online quiz (“No Time to Be Nice at Work,” Sunday, June 21, 2015) in The New York Times illuminating the dramatic degree in which courtesy and consideration in the workplace actually impact individuals. From the article:

Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and the author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” argues 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.

In her research, Porath found, through surveying hundreds of people across more than 17 industries, that over half of them claim they behave uncivilly because they are overloaded and more than 40 percent say they have no time to be nice. Other cited studies illustrate the far-reaching loss of productivity, focus, creativity (and other traits companies seek out when hiring), when people are belittled and undercut. Yet, being nice is one of the easiest low-cost, high-yield behaviors that positively affects people and behavior.

While her article focused mainly on the personal detriments that result from bad behavior, the larger organizational impact is much greater. Employee longevity, productivity and profits all suffer when culture is an afterthought. Ethical Systems collaborator David Mayer at the Ross School of Business has produced several important research studies on the importance of ethical leadership:

In one study, he found that uncivil / unethical behavior by leadership can be mitigated by ethical behavior among direct supervisors (Mayer et al., 2009). This can be extended to civility, as kindness and empathy can take the sting out of more negative reactions from superiors. In another study, which reinforces the benefits of positive behavior modeling, it was determined that followers of ethical leaders tend to identify more with the organization, report higher self-efficacy, and a stronger leader-follower relationship (Mayer, et al., 2011).

When we join a company, we join a team with various personalities and reactions to stressful situations. The more we become aware of our own behavior and how we relate to others and demonstrate respect, the more we contribute to creating an organizational culture that, as Porath puts it, lifts people up rather than holding them down.


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