Written by Patrice Dutil
Craig Dowden, President and Founder of Craig Dowden & Associates recently published Civility Matters! An Evidence-Based Review on How to Cultivate a Respectful Federal Public Service. His study was commissioned by the Association of Professional Executives (APEX). Patrice Dutil, the Editor of Canadian Government Executive, sat down with Dr. Dowden to learn more.
Patrice Dutil: Why did this issue come up?
Craig Dowden: Numerous surveys have highlighted disturbing trends within the federal public service. In the most recent Public Service Employee Survey (PSES), 1 in 5 respondents reported they had experienced harassment within the past two years. Another disturbing finding was that only less than half the employees felt the senior leadership would do anything to address the concerns raised in the survey.
Patrice Dutil: Was this limited to employees only?
No. In the latest APEX Executive Work and Health Survey (2012), 20 percent of executives said they had been verbally harassed in the last twelve months, which was identical to the level reported for non-management. Taken together, the PSES and APEX Executive Work and Health Surveys suggest that incivility is a larger cultural issue that affects public servants, regardless of the position they hold in the hierarchy.
Seeing this trend and recognizing their role as the primary voice for public service executives, APEX decided to commission my white paper, with the goal of reviewing the available evidence and raising awareness of the profound costs of these negative behaviours. We also wanted to provide Executives with an evidence-informed framework and toolkit they could bring back to their respective departments and divisions to build a more respectful and ultimately healthier workplace.
PD: How prevalent do you think the practice of “incivility” really is?
CD: Based on the available evidence, I would say quite prevalent. One of the things I wanted to do in the paper was to move beyond harassment and talk about the issue more broadly. While the majority of people can probably recognize harassment or discrimination when they see it and likely know the policies and procedures in terms of how to respond, the same cannot be said for incivility. Research also shows that it is far more common in our workplaces than harassment/discrimination.
In fact, many people are surprised about what constitutes disrespectful behaviours. In a recent study, the most common examples reported included:
- Neglecting to turn off cellphones
- Talking behind someone’s back
- Doubting someone’s judgment
- Paying little or no attention to an expressed opinion
- Taking credit for someone else’s work or ideas
- Making demeaning remarks.
Just thinking about how often you observe these behaviours in any work environment really puts this issue in perspective.
PD: Being discourteous, or uncivil, is surely not the same thing as harassment.
CD: I agree, but the research is quite clear that showing a lack of respect can be equally as damaging to people as harassment. This is shocking to most people! In fact, you could make the argument that incivility is an even larger threat to the well-being and culture of an organization, as these actions can be normalized and/or understood as acceptable conduct. For example, these behaviours can be explained away or minimized by saying things like “There goes Bob being Bob” or “don’t worry about it, that’s just how they are.” More frequent and seemingly smaller incidents can slowly chip away at an organization’s behavioural norms until disrespectful behaviour becomes part of the daily routine.
PD: How did you go about your research?
CD: I wanted to take an evidence-based approach to this review. So, I searched academic journals and other white papers to find what the latest research has found regarding incivility.
My approach was ultimately two-fold. First, I wanted to present a ‘business-case’ for why civility matters because these subtler forms of behaviour can be routinely overlooked, despite their profoundly negative impacts. I wanted to raise awareness and demonstrate through the science what happens when these seemingly insignificant, yet intrinsically disrespectful behaviours exist in organizations. I also wanted to provide an evidence-informed framework for executives. Once the business case was made, I wanted to identify what concrete action steps senior leaders can take on an individual and organizational level.
PD: What are the costs of incivility to an organization?
CD: In my workshops, I talk about how people commonly react to incivility by saying it is not their problem. For example, the other person is “too sensitive” or has to “toughen up.” But, they don’t realize that incivility is everyone’s problem–research shows that 94 percent of people who are the targets of disrespectful behaviour get even with the offender in some way (e.g., “forgetting” to forward an email or failing to passing along an urgent telephone message).
What I find even more fascinating is that a similar number, 88 percent, of targets report getting even with the organization. This suggests that when people are treated uncivilly they are unable to distinguish between the offender and the organization. In essence, both are seen as equally culpable.
PD: Does it go any deeper?
CD: Definitely. Not surprisingly, employee engagement and performance are severely affected. Approximately two-thirds of employees report that their performance declines when they are treated disrespectfully. What is even more striking is that almost half the employees make a conscious decision to decrease both the effort and quality of their work. This raises a critical question: what happens on a subconscious level?
PD: What do you mean?
CD: Research has also shown that incivility significantly lowers creativity within individuals and reduces their level of helpfulness. In one experiment, people who were treated disrespectfully or witnessed incivility were significantly less likely to help someone in obvious need of assistance. To me, that is a very powerful illustration of the toxicity of this behaviour. It spreads beyond the individuals involved and infects the broader community.
The evidence shows that these impacts also extend to work teams. Teams that score in the highest quartile in terms of civility are more energized, committed and are rated as exhibiting higher levels of performance in comparison to their peers.
PD: Is there a physical impact, as well as psychological one?
CD: Absolutely. In fact, the most troubling finding to emerge is the impact on our physical health. Research has shown that incivility has been linked to higher blood pressure. One 15-year follow-up study revealed that employees who had a negative relationship with their boss were 30 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease. This correlation was maintained even after controlling for major risk factors such as perceived workload, amount of exercise, education, income, supervisory status, etc.
PD: Ok, let’s move to solutions. What can be done to address incivility in the workplace? It has to start at the top, no?
CD: Yes, because if they don’t, they become a part of the incivility problem.
On an individual level, executives need to model the culture they want to see in their workplaces. As the novelist Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Executives must take immediate and corrective action when they witness incivility. In my consulting work, I hear that an unfortunate and all-too-common reaction for leaders to just ignore it and hope it goes away or that someone fails to address it in the moment. This can leave the impression that this behaviour is acceptable. People can leave these interactions incredibly discouraged and, more importantly, go silent about reporting this type of behaviour in the future, because they assume nothing will be done.
PD: What about middle-management?
CD: Leaders all through the chain of command need to communicate the message that employees must be a part of the solution. Employees need to feel empowered to take the steps necessary, either in the moment or immediately thereafter. To accomplish this, leaders should explain exactly what is expected when these negative behaviours occur and reinforce that employees will be supported when they take action. Although there are clear harassment/discrimination policies in place, the same cannot be said for acts of incivility. Clarifying how employees need to respond in these situations, as well as highlighting their obligations to each other and to the organization, maximizes the chances of intervention.
Another key action step is for executives to take the time to facilitate an open and constructive dialogue about what civility looks like in their team/department. This provides people with a concrete roadmap about appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. It also raises awareness about the different needs and styles of the people in the group.
PD: Craig, are you telling me that Miss Manners still has a place in a world dominated by technology?
CD: Absolutely. In many ways, technology has made things worse. Research is clear about how technology has created new situations that lead to incivility. For example, when we receive emails, we can’t see the other person’s body language or hear their tone of voice, which are critical to how we interpret the message. This absence of vital information can lead to major misunderstandings and conflicts. I’m sure we have all lived this from both sides.
I tell my coaching clients that if they are spending any time at all trying to craft the “perfect email” to do themselves a favour and pick up the phone, or better yet, walk over to the person and talk face-to-face. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating a major situation without our knowledge, because we won’t see the reaction of the person on the other end until it’s too late to avoid miscommunication. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Technology is isolating people and some of them become so detached that they sometimes forget their manners.
PD: Is there any evidence that people can be “cured” from incivility?
CD: Yes, there is and they can. One recent study examined the effects of a customized and targeted nationwide training program on civility which involved 23 different test sites. At the end of the 6-month training program, significant improvements were made in terms of the levels of civility observed in both coworkers and supervisors. Other benefits were also realized, including increased job satisfaction, higher levels of managerial trust, and lower absences. Measuring civility both before and after training shows how behaviours can be positively impacted under the right circumstances.
Craig Dowden’s website is craigdowden.com. Civility Matters! An Evidence-Based Review on How to Cultivate a Respectful Federal Public Service can be downloaded at: