Being Civil in an Increasingly Uncivil World

In one of my recent conversations with my twenty-something daughter, she asked me, as a management professor and consultant, why I thought so many CEOs were jerks. (Note that although my daughter is well-informed, she does not work in the corporate world and certainly does not know any CEOs personally.) I proceeded to explain to her that this was not necessarily the case, that there were far more CEOs who were nice and civil and who were nonetheless successful. And not all jerk CEOs are successful. For example, Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick resigned recently due to the toxic culture that he had created in the company. She was not convinced, perhaps because of “availability bias,” where news and events that are memorable or have been in the headlines tend to be remembered more vividly. 

Take for example Elon Musk, another larger-than-life CEO who can be characterized as someone less than civil in his behavior. In a recent article about him entitled Musk vs. Musk in the Wall Street Journal, the authors described an incident at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, where the assembly line stopped because safety sensors detected that people were in the way. Well, Musk got furious and started head-butting the front end of a car on the assembly line. He just wanted the cars to keep moving. And when a senior manager explained that this was a safety measure, Musk told him to get out and fired him on the spot. According to the article, more than 50 vice presidents or higher have left Tesla in the past two years. Despite this, Musk (like Jobs a decade ago) is fawned over and admired by many – who then conclude that being a jerk is perhaps a prerequisite to being a successful leader.

In this highly polarized political world, civility might seem outdated or old-fashioned, but it has a long history. George Washington even wrote a book about it. Skim George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, which he wrote when he was fourteen, and there is a refreshing timeless feel to it. For example:

  • Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  • The gestures of the body must be suited to the discussion you are upon.
  • Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
  • Don’t ruin a good apology with a bad excuse.
  • Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.

And over the years the Cub and Boy Scouts of America have kept certain rules of civility and taught millions of boys the importance of respect and civility. However, as documented by the Civility in America report, 69% of Americans in 2018 reported that there is a problem with civility in America today, up from 65% in 2010. Furthermore, 84% have at one time or another experienced incivility; in 2018, Americans reported an average of 10.6 incivility encounters per week.

What about in the workplace?

Professor Christine Porath has estimated that 98% of workers have experienced incivility, with 50% experiencing incivility weekly. The interviews and discussions I have had with managers seem to confirm this. Why? According to Porath’s research (Porath, 2016), over 60% claim they are “overloaded” and just have no time to be nice. Based on my own experience in coaching managers, I agree; the stress and pressures on managers to deliver results quickly, and with fewer resources, will continue unabated. There will be some managers (as many as fifty percent, according to research by Hogan) who will show their “dark side” under such circumstances. Professor Sutton has called such managers “bossholes” (Sutton, 2010), and documents some of the effects these managers have on their workers, e.g., declines in physical and mental health, higher anxiety levels, loss of motivation and job satisfaction.

There are at least three other reasons for the prevalence of incivility,

  1. Some leaders mistake civility with being “too nice,” and fear that people will take advantage of them, and that they will not be seen as authoritative leaders if they are too nice. And some organizational cultures reinforce this. Many years ago, when I started to work for a major multinational firm based in New York, I quickly learned that to be seen as a leader, I had to be somewhat rude and aggressively interrupt others at meetings to make my point.
  2.  Research has shown that having more power and higher status can make some managers overly self-confident, arrogant, less likely to listen to others, and more condescending – the beginnings of incivility! And the higher up they are, the more pervasive this becomes. It becomes a vicious cycle; high-status and high-power leaders tend not to listen and dismiss negative feedback, while those lower in the organization learn not to give them any negative feedback, and to simply tell them how great they are.
  3. Studies show that individuals who show a lot of self-confidence, aggressiveness, and dominance tend to be seen as “leader-like” and therefore tend to be selected and promoted more often than those who don’t show these qualities. This is in spite of the evidence that those individuals who show humility, empathy, kindness and build trust tend to be more effective leaders.

Unfortunately, incivility has many negative consequences. One recent study found that, 78% of people who experience uncivil behavior from their colleagues become less committed to the organization; 66% suffer decline in overall performance; 47% deliberately spend less time at work; and 25% take their frustrations out on customers.

Let’s define what we mean by workplace incivility; I’ll use the definition offered by Schilpzand et al. (2016): “low-intensity deviant workplace behavior with an ambiguous intent to harm” such as “talking down to others, making demeaning remarks, and not listening to somebody.” In other words, incivility is less intense than aggression, violence, or bullying and is not overtly seen as harmful; it can come not only from managers but also from coworkers or customers.

Here are other examples of incivility:

  • Devaluing and discouraging.
  • Condescending language or voice intonation.
  • Impatience with questions or phone calls.
  • Being reprimanded in front of others.
  • Insulting the intelligence of a co-worker.
  • Argumentative behavior.
  • Sending nasty or sarcastic e-mails, and making unreasonable requests.

Incivility is different from being demanding, or the occasional outburst by a manager who gets upset by, say, a worker under performing or for not letting him or her know about a mistake she made that might cost the company. I am not advocating that managers treat employees with kid gloves, become being overly nice and avoid any criticism for fear of hurting their feelings. In fact, managers who set high standards and have high expectations for their team, who are raising the bar regularly to get better results, but who do it in ways that respect their subordinates and where a relationship of trust has been established – these managers get great results and build a team of engaged and motivated workers. Being uncivil – and worse, being abusive – is never acceptable. When there is a climate of incivility in a work group or team, you will know it. While this is often triggered by the manager, it can also be perpetuated by co-workers. However, it is the manager’s primary responsibility to call attention to it and to make it clear that such behaviors will not be tolerated.

However, I believe that civility may be making a comeback for the following reasons. First, a desire by workers to be treated with dignity and respect, especially when the wage gaps between senior management and lower-level employees have widened and where employees see that the economic system has not been fair to many of them.

In a study of nearly 20,000 employees around the world (conducted with Harvard Business Review), Porath (2016) found that the most important thing that employees want from their leader is respect.

“No other leadership behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — or even opportunities for learning, growth, and development. However, even when leaders know that showing respect is critical, many struggle to demonstrate it.”

  • An increase in the percentage of millennial’s (roughly between the ages of 22-37 in 2018) in the workplace and their desire for greater transparency and candor. It has been projected that by 2019, millennial’s will be the largest living adult population in the U.S., and by 2020, nearly half the working population will be comprised of millennial’s. Millennial’s have grown up with technology, and in general are more socially conscious, and they expect their employers to act in socially conscious ways. They are perhaps less tolerant of rude, uncivilized behavior than other generations. They were raised by parents who were more respectful of them and their views than perhaps their parents’ parents were (“Just shut up and do as you are told.”
  • A greater emphasis by organizations on values and behaviors in addition to results. Since Jack Welch introduced his famous 2 X 2 matrix of behaviors (on one dimension) and results (on the other dimension), many organizations have introduced values, competencies and behaviors as part of what they believe employees should be evaluated on. While many organizations pay lip service to this, there are a growing number that actually take this seriously and base promotion decisions not only on results but also whether employees exhibit the right behaviors.
  • The pursuit of attracting and retaining the best talent by many organizations. Google and other firms may offer free food and many perks, but more important for many talented individuals today is joining a firm with a positive culture. For millennial’s in particular, this means an environment where they have meaningful work, are given opportunities to develop, and whether they feel that the organization not only values but practices meritocracy.

I don’t pretend to imagine for a moment that incivility, and its extreme, abusive behavior by bosses, will disappear overnight. Here are three quick pieces of advice for individuals. First, take Porath’s civility test (, preferably along with a trusted colleague, and discuss your results. What does civility mean to you, and do you value it? Does it help define who you are and who you want to be? If so, what is getting in the way?  Second, hold back and think before you speak, act, or tweet. Be careful about acting on your first impulses. We often say things in the heat of the moment that we regret afterwards, and exercising self-restraint is more often than not a good thing. Third, be courageous in pointing out uncivil behavior in others; at the same time, own your mistakes. The latter is advice from two former social secretaries and special assistants to U.S. presidents (Berman and Bernard, 2018). If you are wrong, apologize and say so; be clear and do not blame others or circumstances.

Berman, L. and Bernard, J. (2018). Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life. New York: Scribner.

Carroll, S. (2016). The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Conquer How Life Works and Why It Matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Porath, C. (2016). Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Schilpzand, P. et al. (2016). Workplace Incivility: A Review of the Literature and Agenda for Future Research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 37: 57-88.