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Assessing an attacking workplace incivility

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Abstract

In this article, the authors attempt to provide insight for understanding, recognizing, and managing workplace incivility. They base this work on interviews and workshops across the US conducted with more than 700 workers, managers, and professionals in a wide range of profit, nonprofit, and government sectors and questionnaire responses from an additional 775 employees from widely diverse organizations. To capture the essence of workplace incivility and describe its effects, the authors focus on five main issues: (1) defining workplace incivility, (2) profiling the instigator and the target of workplace incivility, (3) determining why incivility seems to be increasing in the workplace, and (4) uncovering the implications of incivility for employees and organizations, including (5) the effects of nonescalating, spiraling, and cascading changes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Rude and discourteous behavior at work can have far more detrimental
effects on an organization than many managers anticipate.
Performance and profits are adversely affected, but astute
managers can assess and control workplace incivility.
Assessing and Attacking
Workplace Incivility
CHRISTINE M. PEARSON LYNNE M. ANDERSSON
CHRISTINE L. PORATH
Civility matters. Observing basic rules of
interpersonal demeanor and acting
with social intelligence enable us to live
and work together, whether colleagues or
strangers. Yet, some contend that we have
hit an age of “whatever,” where rudeness
and insensitivity toward others have pro-
liferated to new heights of thoughtlessness.
We cut each other off for parking spots,
slam the receiver on wrong numbers, and
grab grocery bags without so much as an
acknowledging glance in the cashier’s di-
rection. Incivilities do not only permeate
our social lives; they also taint the office
and the factory. At work, people treat each
other rudely by using demeaning language
or gestures, “flaming” network colleagues,
slinging innuendoes, or merely perching
impatiently over the desk of someone en-
gaged in a telephone conversation.
In a recent national poll, 90% of respon-
dents believed that incivility is a serious
problem and that it contributes to violence
and erodes moral values. In another national
poll, three out of four respondents believed
that incivility is getting worse. As validated
by additional surveys, many employees are
victims of rudeness at the office and in the
factory. More than half of the 327 front-line
workers surveyed in another poll indicated
that they had experienced acts of mistreat-
ment at work during the preceding three
years. Another study revealed that one-third
of more than 600 nurses surveyed had expe-
rienced verbal abuse during their previous
five days of work. Many employees have
experienced interruptions of the workday’s
rhythm by incivility instigated by their col-
leagues.
Incivility is not just a personal issue. It
disrupts work patterns and diminishes the
effectiveness of its targets and others. And
incivility can be the starting point for social
interaction that leads to more intent, more
overt acts of workplace aggression. The di-
rect organizational costs associated with this
phenomenon can be measured against the
bottom line. Today’s strong job market and
the diminishing loyalties of workers can in-
We would like to express our appreciation to James Marine for enhancing the executive perspective
of this manuscript.
Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 123–137, 2000 ISSN 0090-2616/00/$–see frontmatter
© 2000 Elsevier Science, Inc. PII S0090-2616(00)00019-X
FALL 2000 123
crease the fallout costs of incivility, when
targets or others who are offended by the
encounter pursue abundant opportunities to
move on to a more civil setting rather than
tolerate the abuse. The effects of incivility
can spread more broadly and more quickly
today than in the past, as technologies facil-
itate rapid and asynchronous communica-
tion. Instigators of incivility can obnoxiously
abuse their targets at (electronic) arm’s
length, for example, and then blame any foul
on the terse nature of electronic messages.
Although many organizational leaders
concern themselves about workplace vio-
lence, and some even personally fear the re-
turn of a workplace “avenger”; far fewer
give passing thought to events of lesser im-
mediate severity. An arsenal of books has
been created to brace leaders against the ex-
traordinary occurrence of workplace homi-
cide, but scant attention has been paid to
day-to-day workplace incivilities. Make no
mistake: research reveals that incivility oc-
curs much more frequently, and the associ-
ated organizational costs are real.
In this article, we attempt to provide in-
sight for understanding, recognizing and
managing workplace incivility. We base this
work on lessons gleaned from five years of
research on the topic. As resources for this
study, we have conducted interviews and
workshops across the United States with
more than 700 workers, managers and pro-
fessionals in a wide range of profit, nonprofit
and government sectors, from data entry
clerks to emergency physicians, plant man-
agers, security experts, human resource pro-
fessionals, attorneys, chief financial officers,
salespersons, law enforcement officers, shift
supervisors, senior executives, and many
other job categories. Our views have been
shaped by questionnaire responses from an
additional 775 employees from widely di-
verse organizations spanning the United
States, who hold a full range of hierarchical
positions from every standard industrial
classification. Our data reflect a balanced
sample by gender: sensitivity to rude and
disrespectful behavior exists for men and
women alike.
Christine Pearson is a Research Professor at
the Kenan–Flagler Business School at the Uni-
versity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She re-
ceived her doctorate in business administration
from the University of Southern California.
Pearson was formerly associate director
and senior research scientist of the Center for
Crisis Management at USC. She is the co-au-
thor of three books on the topic of organiza-
tional crisis management. She has consulted to
a broad industrial sample of Fortune 500 and
public sector organizations, and lectures inter-
nationally on such topics as executive kidnap-
ping, product tampering, environmental con-
tamination, media management, and threats to
organizational reputation. Her interest in work-
place incivility emanated from her research on
workplace violence, in an attempt to pursue the
root causes of this phenomenon. She is cur-
rently working on her fourth book, Rued Behav-
ior: Downstream in a Hostile Workplace.
124 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
Based on theories about social interac-
tion and self-presentation, as well as the ex-
periences and insights that respondents to
our studies have shared with us, we will
examine the phenomenon of workplace inci-
vility and discuss what organizations and
their leaders can do to minimize the occur-
rence or recurrence of uncivil episodes.
EXAMINING THE PHENOMENON
To capture the essence of workplace incivil-
ity and describe its effects, we focus on five
main issues: (1) defining workplace incivil-
ity, (2) profiling the instigator and the target
of workplace incivility, (3) determining why
incivility seems to be increasing in the work-
place, and (4) uncovering the implications of
incivility for employees and organizations,
including (5) the effects of nonescalating, spi-
raling and cascading exchanges.
What is Workplace Incivility?
Although the dictionary definition of civility
is “courtesy and politeness toward fellow
human beings,” common usage transcends
this definition. Civility has less to do with
formal rules of etiquette than with demon-
strating sensibility of concern and regard,
treating others with respect. Workplace civil-
ity is behavior that helps to preserve the
norms for mutual respect at work; it com-
prises behaviors that are fundamental to pos-
itively connecting with another, building re-
lationships and empathizing. Incivility, in
contrast, implies rudeness and disregard to-
ward others. Incivility is mistreatment that
may lead to disconnection, breach of rela-
tionships and erosion of empathy. Within the
work context, incivility entails the violation
of workplace norms for mutual respect, such
that cooperation and motivation may be hin-
dered broadly.
Workplace norms are the norms of the
community of which one is a part while at
work. These norms consist of basic moral
standards (e.g., do unto others as you would
have them do unto you), as well as others
Lynne Andersson is an assistant professor in
the Fox School of Business and Management
at Temple University in Philadelphia. She
teaches courses in “Business, Society, and
Ethics” and “Social Responsibility in Business.”
Her research interests focus on individual atti-
tudes and behaviors in the workplace, particu-
larly those of a deviant nature and related to
pressing business-society issues. In particular,
she has published her research on employee
cynicism, environmental activism, and incivility
in academic journals such as Academy of Man-
agement Journal, Academy of Management Re-
view, Human Relations, and Journal of Organi-
zational Behavior. In her pre-Ph.D. life she was
a techie, working as a statistical programmer
and an information systems consultant for sev-
eral companies in the southeastern U.S.
FALL 2000 125
that develop out of the tradition and culture
of the particular workplace (e.g., as formal
and informal organizational policies, rules,
and procedures are enacted). Although par-
ticular norms differ across organizations, in-
dustries, and cultures, in every workplace
there exist norms of respect for fellow co-
workers, that is, a shared moral understand-
ing among the members of the organization
that allows organizational members to coop-
erate. Incivility is a violation of these norms.
None of the incidents of incivility that
were subject to our study involved furious
physical aggression or violence. Rather, they
were mild in intensity. Some targets’ experi-
ences of incivility included receiving a nasty
or demeaning note, being treated like a child,
being berated for action in which one played
no part, being excluded from a meeting, and
having one’s credibility undermined in front
of others. Additional examples of instigators’
uncivil behaviors included neglecting to
greet one another, cutting people off while
speaking, and missing the toss to the waste-
basket—then leaving the trash for someone
else to pick up. To provide further resonance,
we offer typical examples of uncivil inci-
dents in the following scenarios as described
by participants in our research.
As is apparent in these examples, evalu-
ating an incident to determine whether it is
an incivility involves examining the actions
and perceptions of the instigator, the target,
any observers of the incident, and the social
setting in which the incident took place.
Thus, workplace incivility can be viewed as a
social interaction that unfolds among two or
more parties at work, an interaction that can
be interpreted differently by different parties.
A distinguishing feature of incivility is
its ambiguity. The intent to harm another, as
perceived through the eyes of the instigator,
the target or observers, is ambiguous. Unlike
acts of aggression (such as vandalism,
threats, or sabotage) or acts of violence (such
as physical assault or homicide), in which the
intent to harm is obvious, the intent to harm
or injure is not obvious to all relevant parties
when acts of incivility are committed. The
characteristic ambiguity of intent to harm
Christine Porath is a doctoral candidate at
Kenan-Flagler Business School at the Univer-
sity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research
interests focus on individual behaviors in the
workplace, at both the positive and negative
ends of the spectrum. Her research concen-
trates on incivility in the workplace, as well as
individual self-management. Porath’s disserta-
tion is on individual self-management, focusing
on a range of motivational and emotional skills
and their impact on organizationally relevant
outcomes. Before her Ph.D. days, Chris worked
at International Management Group (IMG), the
largest sports marketing and management or-
ganization in the world.
126 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
differentiates incivility from other mistreat-
ment in organizations, such as harassment
and petty tyranny. Although all of these phe-
nomena comprise behaviors that convey a
lack of consideration toward others, the am-
biguity of intent is a distinguishing feature of
incivility.
One may behave uncivilly as a reflection
of intent to harm the target, or one may
behave uncivilly without intent (e.g., igno-
rance or oversight). A supervisor may make
a sarcastic remark about a subordinate’s er-
ror in front of the subordinate’s peer group,
or that same supervisor may borrow sup-
plies from the subordinate and fail to return
them, thus leaving the subordinate short on
resources. The first uncivil event may reflect
an intent to harm; the second may reflect
oversight. Moreover, the instigator may
harm the target, and yet he or she may not
even be cognizant of the underlying intent.
Given the potential for ambiguity, instigators
of incivility can easily attempt to deny or
bury intent, if present, by ignoring the effect
(e.g., “What did I say to set you off?”), claim-
ing that the target has misinterpreted the
behavior (e.g., “I didn’t mean to be brusque;
I was just trying to get your attention”), or
claiming that the target’s reaction is hyper-
sensitive (e.g., “What’s the matter, can’t you
take a joke?”). Thus, incivility brings forth
another organizational challenge: it can be
difficult to label an incident “incivility.” To
do so, one must often take a closer look at the
instigator and target.
A Profile of the Instigator and
the Target
Incivility tends to cascade downward. Per-
haps it should come as no surprise that the
instigator of incivility is three times as likely
to be of higher status than the target.
Throughout our research, we heard many
examples of how hierarchical superiority
seemed to permit the instigator to interrupt
those in inferior positions or to castigate sub-
ordinates freely. As summarized by a re-
spondent, the downward cascading of inci-
vility was prevalent: “Who are the worst
TABLE AWORKPLACE INCIVILITY:IN THE TARGETS’OWN WORDS
From a female target: During a presentation that I was making to all of the company’s international country
managers and vice presidents, the division president stood up and shouted, “No one is interested in this
stuff.” His comment made me so nervous and upset that I could barely go on. I had been with this company
for many years; you’d think he could have offered me a little respect for that alone.
From a female target: During a meeting with staff, my boss overrode my decision and would not allow me to
speak about my concerns. He cut me off in the meeting. I thought that was very rude. It made me incredibly
angry, nervous, disappointed in his behavior. He asked me to write up the information that I felt he had
disregarded so that we could discuss it. It was never discussed.
From a male target: I was pulling off a payroll cycle for a month during December, and I entered “12” (the
calendar month) when I should have entered “6” (the fiscal month). The cycle was garbage accordingly. The
accountant called me insulting names with my new boss sitting right there next to me. It was humiliating and
unfair. It was my first payroll with the company. I was new—it was an honest mistake.
From a male target: I work in a family business and have for some years. My younger brother began working
and day one started going to lunch with my father, who had never invited me to lunch.
From a female target: I was talking with a peer when someone in a position higher than mine interrupted our
conversation without any consideration to our discussion.
From a male target: I stayed late at work to help my co-worker deal with a pressing problem. Eventually we
resolved the problem, and he never even thanked me for my time or for my efforts. I could have been home
having dinner with my family instead.
From a female target: My boss asked me to prepare an analysis. This was my first project, and I was not given
any instructions or examples. I gave him my first attempt. He told me the assignment was “crap”.
From a male target: During a review meeting, I was chastised by my boss in front of a group of people
(including peers and subordinates) and told I was stupid and incompetent.
From a female target: In a common work area, a couple of the people I work with leave their trash on the
counter and floor and leave their own special paper in the copy machine with no concern for how it affects
the rest of us when we need to use the space and equipment. I get tired of cleaning up after them.
FALL 2000 127
offenders? The big shots, the ones who think
they’re invincible, that they control every-
thing. They think their word is absolute.” In
many organizations, power corrupts inter-
personal norms as status differentials enable
the more powerful to debase the less power-
ful. As a target told us, “It starts at the top.
People will go along with a superior’s jokes,
banter and degradations to ingratiate them-
selves.”
We also found that the instigator is more
than twice as likely to be male (70% male vs.
30% female). Taken together, we discovered
that men were seven times more likely to
instigate incivility on someone of lower sta-
tus than on someone of higher status: they
sought less powerful targets. By contrast,
women are equally likely to behave uncivilly
toward their superiors as toward their sub-
ordinates, but far less likely to be uncivil to
their peers. These gender differences may
underscore women’s reliance on their peers,
or they may reflect women’s inability or un-
willingness to attune their behaviors to the
targets’ power. Both male and female insti-
gators showed a slight preference for same
sex targets.
Even outside the context of the uncivil
incident itself, instigators were generally de-
scribed as people who tended to be rude to
their peers, disrespectful of their subordi-
nates, and hard to get along with. They were
seen as temperamental and emotionally re-
sponsive to problems. Additionally, instiga-
tors were frequently characterized as “sore
losers.” Although few of the instigators had
committed workplace violence, one-fourth
of them were known to have threatened
someone at work. As we were told by an-
other manager, “He is a total jerk and every-
one knows it. You just don’t counter his
opinion or cross him in any way. If you do,
he’ll find a way to get even and then some.”
With this sort of profile, how do instiga-
tors manage to retain their jobs? We found
that some instigators were characterized,
specifically, as excellent workers who, in
some cases, possessed unique talents that
benefited their organizations. Also, three out
of four respondents characterized the insti-
gators they encountered as particularly
skilled at “kissing up”: they altered their be-
haviors significantly to suit their superiors.
Although instigators treat equals and subor-
dinates poorly, many tend to be cunning in
relationships with their superiors. As we
were told by one respondent, “When things
begin to escalate, the bosses are never
present. Nasty people know when to act,
they know when they can get away with it.
They think they’re very clever.”
In accord with the previous findings con-
cerning status differentials, targets of incivil-
ity tended to be a few years younger than
instigators. Although we suspected that or-
ganizational newcomers might be particu-
larly prone to incivility (because of the vul-
nerabilities inherent in newcomer status), we
learned that targets were not neophytes.
Rather, they averaged about six years tenure
in their organizations, only slightly less than
that of their offenders. Also, targets, who
averaged 35 years of age at the time of the
incident (ages represented ranged from 20 to
64 years), were only slightly younger than
instigators, who averaged 41 years of age
(with ages ranging from 19 to 72 years).
Why Is Rudeness on the Rise?
Across the broad range of study participants,
we found that employees believe workplace
incivility to be the result of the changing
nature of work at the turn of the new mil-
lennium. A majority of participants cited the
overwhelming number, complexity, and
fragmentation of workplace relationships,
facilitated by technologies such as voice
mail, e-mail, and teleconferencing. One man-
ager, for example, concluded that “emerging
technology takes away the human face—it’s
easy to ‘flame’ somebody you don’t have to
look at.” Similarly, many participants com-
plained of work and information overload,
leading to intensified feelings of time pres-
sure and thus less time for the polite “nice-
ties” of business life. A supervisor posed the
question, “How can I take the time to thank
each of my subordinates for a job well done
when I have five deadlines to meet, four
128 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
meetings to attend, and a spouse and two
kids at home who need to be fed dinner?”
Others cited “faddish” corporate initia-
tives such as employee diversity, reengineer-
ing, downsizing, budget cuts, pressures for
productivity, and the use of part-time and
temporary employees as potential causes for
the increase in uncivil workplace behaviors.
Some blamed a focus on “lean-and-mean”
that seems inevitably to turn inward as em-
ployees are called upon to do more with less.
Shifting power and escalating demands, in-
voked in the name of “efficiency,” were
blamed by many as leading to unchecked
incivility. Additional participants told us
that they believed workplace rudeness and
discourtesy were facilitated by weaker con-
nections to the organization as a function of
part-time, temporary, or subcontracted sta-
tus (e.g., “Nobody treats a lowly temp with
any respect; you only have to see them for a
week or two.”).
Another explanation extended by study
participants is that, as organizations have
flattened and gone casual, there are fewer
obvious cues as to what constitutes “proper”
business behavior. Despite the atmosphere
of open communication and innovation that
“casual days” and even “casual workplaces”
can foster, an informal corporate climate can
inadvertently encourage employees to be-
have in ways that that are disrespectful of
co-workers. Paying attention to dress and
conversational cues may influence employ-
ees to pause and think before they act, as
they follow unspoken rules of politeness and
professionalism in their relationships with
one another. Without the trappings of for-
mality it can be more difficult for some em-
ployees to discern acceptable behavior from
unacceptable behavior.
Widespread societal shifts were also
cited as causes for rising workplace incivil-
ity. Some participants believed that the line
between appropriate and inappropriate in-
teractions in society in general continues to
blur, thanks to the media and entertainment
industries, ineffective primary and second-
ary schooling, and absentee parenting, in
their views. They saw changes in norms out-
side the workplace seeping into offices and
factories. An executive commented, “There
seems to be a rub-off effect, from what goes
on in schools and society. It seems like peo-
ple come to the business world with little or
no sense of what is right or wrong.”
Initially, we suspected that incivility
would flourish in organizational environ-
ments that might be characterized as “rude.”
Rather, we learned that uncivil incidents
were equally likely to occur in settings in
which people were generally polite to each
other, showed understanding for one an-
other, treated each other with respect, and
tended to negotiate without getting emo-
tional. Generally, people in these organiza-
tions behaved respectfully toward one an-
other; they neither doubted each other’s
honesty, nor expressed anger openly. Fur-
thermore, the vast majority of respondents
indicated that, in their organizations, em-
ployees would be reprimanded and encoun-
ter career problems if they sexually harassed
someone, overtly threatened someone, or
physically attacked someone. Thus, it seems
that uncivil behaviors were perceived by
study participants as “incivilities” because
they were conspicuous social interactions,
unexpected behaviors that went against the
workplace norms for mutual respect.
Small Indecencies 3Bad Business
A clear finding from all phases of our re-
search is that when someone is disrespectful,
rude or insensitive toward others at work,
the target is not the only one to suffer. We
have learned through our research that indi-
vidual, group and organizational costs of in-
civility can be substantial. The way employ-
ees treat one another impacts not only their
ability to work together, but also subsequent
interactions with other colleagues and by-
standers. Whether the toll accrues as in-
creased absenteeism, reduced commitment,
decreased productivity, or organizational
departure, the stakes of incivility are high.
Some managers may contend that rude-
ness and disrespect are beneficial in certain
jobs and appropriate to certain organiza-
FALL 2000 129
tional settings. Our data say differently: in-
civility in the workplace has the potential to
harm targets, their fellow employees, and
their entire organization, as well as their
friends and family members.
Words and deeds conveying disrespect
can cause psychological harm to the target.
When norms for mutual respect in the work-
place are not honored, perceptions of unfair-
ness, or feelings of interactional injustice, oc-
cur in the target, generating a state of
negative affect. Targets of incivility assess
the uncivil action, recognize the unfairness,
and experience hurt feelings, displaying both
cognitive and affective impairment. Further-
more, targets report that the impact of un-
civil incidents may linger for a decade or
longer after the event has occurred. The sub-
tleties of incivility—the ambiguity of intent
and the suspense about what may happen
next—can create additional associated cog-
nitive and affective reactions in targets, such
as confusion, fear, or even a sense of panic.
Individuals’ experiences of incivility can
have substantial bottom-line impact for or-
ganizations. When employees are on the re-
ceiving end of an uncivil encounter, they
adjust their work effort accordingly. More
than one-half of the targets in our sample
reported that they lost work time because
they were worrying about the uncivil inci-
dent that had occurred, or about potential
future interactions with the instigator. More
than one-fourth acknowledged that they
wasted work time trying to avoid the insti-
gator. They rerouted former paths to avoid
hallway encounters, and they withdrew
from collaborative efforts in which the insti-
gator took part.
More than one-third of those responding
to our questionnaire reported that they in-
tentionally reduced their commitment to the
organization as a result of being a target of
uncivil behavior. They disengaged from
tasks and activities that went beyond their
job specifications. Through all phases of our
study, people told us that after being targets
they ceased voluntary efforts. Some stopped
helping newcomers, others stopped offering
assistance to colleagues. Additionally, tar-
gets reduced their contributions to the orga-
nization as a whole, whether by pulling
themselves off of task forces and committees,
or by reducing efforts to generate or inspire
innovation.
Nearly one-fourth of the people who re-
sponded to our survey admitted that they
intentionally decreased work efforts in meet-
ing their own responsibilities as a reaction to
the uncivil experience. They stopped doing
their best. Some also purposefully decreased
the amount of time they spent at work. In the
absence of civility, with frayed relationships,
the workplace had become an unpleasant
environment in which they would spend less
time. As another means of getting even, ap-
proximately five percentage of the respon-
dents admitted that they stole property from
the instigator. Five percentage also told us
that their experiences as targets of incivility
led them to steal property from the organi-
zation as retaliation the unfair treatment at
work to which they had been subjected.
Perhaps the impact of incivility is re-
flected most vividly regarding turnover. In
nearly one-half of the cases, the uncivil treat-
ment caused the target to contemplate
changing jobs. In 12% of the cases, the target
actually quit. Given the ambiguity and low
intensity of incivility, we find these numbers
compelling: even under the best circum-
stances employee exit is expensive.
What we have learned about target exit
is particularly important because the link be-
tween incivility and departure is often
missed by organizations for two reasons.
First, targets who left their workplaces be-
cause of an uncivil incident told us that they
took their time finding the right fit in a new
job (after all, as targets, they had not violated
any norms and, therefore, their jobs were in
no way jeopardized). Often, they spent
months, a year, or more between the uncivil
event and departure. As a result of this time
lag, it is unlikely that the link between the
event and the outcome is perceived by the
organization. Second, those who exited told
us that they tended to depart quietly; they
did not cite incivility as the cause when they
left. Some feared additional repercussions by
130 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
the instigator; others were concerned about
appearing to be hypersensitive or trouble
making (in their former setting or their new
organization); many believed that airing
their views would make no difference.
On Nonescalating, Spiraling,
and Cascading Exchanges
There are various ways in which incivility
may creep through an organization. Uncivil
exchanges can continue without escalation,
spiral and cascade. When spiraling or cas-
cading occurs, the intensity and the breadth
of impact of incivility grows. Participants in
all phases of our study noted spiraling and
cascading effects of workplace incivility.
In its simplest form, a cycle of incivility
can pass in a circular fashion between insti-
gator and target, as shown in Figure 1. When
this pattern occurs, the intensity of the inter-
actions themselves does not increase. Rather,
rudeness or disregard is simply exchanged
in even doses between parties. In the truest
sense, this comprises a tit-for-tat exchange at
the individual level. The organizational im-
pact of this pattern may increase, nonethe-
less, if there is a cumulative effect such that
participants, witnesses or others are nega-
tively impacted through emotional response
or fatigue, or if norms are eroded by the
persistence of this pattern.
Sometimes, when an incivility spiral
goes unchecked, its effects may escalate, as
depicted in Figure 2. A worker who per-
ceives an incivility may retaliate intention-
ally with a counterincivility, leading to a
chain reaction that escalates into more ag-
gressive, coercive behaviors. For example,
Worker A ignores a request from Worker B,
who responds by mocking A, who then ut-
ters an obscene insult to B, who retorts by
shoving A, who hits B, and so on. These
interactions can escalate quite quickly, or ei-
ther party may furtively await a better op-
portunity to inflict damages that may be
more severe or for which the cause-effect
relationship is subtler. In these situations of
escalation, one party perceives an incivility
as a threat to personal identity, an attack on
self-worth, causing that individual to behave
in ways that are more overtly aggressive. At
the core is each individual’s desire to save
face. In times of conflict, when the appear-
ance of strength may become very impor-
tant, if an incivility is perceived as a threat to
one’s identity, it may lead to coercive behav-
ior. Although we found incidents of spiral
escalation to be less common than other pat-
terns of spirals and cascades, these tit-for-tat
incidents of escalating intensity can have se-
rious detrimental consequences for organiza-
tions.
FIGURE 1NON-ESCALATING
UNCIVIL EXCHANGE
FIGURE 2THE ESCALATING
SPIRAL OF INCIVILITY
FALL 2000 131
The original incivility spiral can cascade,
spawning secondary incivility spirals, which
can spread the ill effects throughout the or-
ganization. We depict one pattern of this be-
havior in Figure 3, where the incivility is
indirectly displaced through modeling. An
initial uncivil encounter between Workers A
and B may prompt Worker C to model that
behavior, thus creating a new uncivil inter-
action with a new target, Worker D. The
permeating nature of this pattern is notable
in that it can occur even when Worker C has
not personally witnessed the original en-
counter between Workers A and B, but has
merely heard about the event.
As shown in Figure 4, secondary spirals
may be spawned also as the target, Worker
B, displaces the desire to reciprocate. Rather
than retaliating directly against the original
instigator, the target may redirect incivility
toward a new target, Worker C. Similarly,
Worker C may then channel the rudeness
toward Worker D. An example that we heard
frequently involved a superior (“A”) berat-
ing someone of lesser status (“B”), who
dared not reciprocate but, rather, redirected
the desire to do so into a thoughtless com-
ment toward another peer or subordinate
(“C”), who then was predisposed to channel
an additional uncivil behavior toward yet
another peer or subordinate (“D”).
There are additional ways in which inci-
vility can cascade, affecting those outside the
instigator-target dyad, both within and out-
side the work environment. The negative im-
pact of incivility can affect witnesses or those
privy to hearsay if they value respect at
work. Fellow workers or subordinates may
be affected when an instigator dismisses or
ridicules another’s contribution, for example.
A respondent described the following some-
what typical example, “My partner and I
were discussing a [strategic] issue. He
thought he was right, I thought I was right.
He dismissed me (and my ideas) in front of
our staff by saying, ‘I’m right. You don’t
know what you’re talking about.’ And then
he chuckled.” As basic standards of respect
are violated, the impact cascades through the
organization, as depicted in Figure 5.
Also, the target may spread the impact to
those outside the direct reach of the uncivil
behaviors. In more than nine out of ten cases,
targets described their experiences to others
FIGURE 3CASCADING
PATTERNS OF INCIVILITY:
INDIRECT DISPLACEMENT
FIGURE 4CASCADING
PATTERNS OF INCIVILITY:DIRECT
DISPLACEMENT
FIGURE 5CASCADING
PATTERNS OF INCIVILITY:
WORD-OF-MOUTH
132 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
inside or outside the organization (Exhibit 5).
Initially, most targets take the stories home:
they tell family members what happened.
Also, more than half of the targets share their
experiences with friends outside of work.
Within the workplace, two out of three tar-
gets describe the incidents to peers; half of
the targets detail the incivilities to their
workplace superiors; and, about 20% pass
the details down to their subordinates. Cer-
tainly, spreading such news can impact the
workings and the reputation of the organi-
zation adversely. As one respondent put it,
“Incivility breeds contempt, subverts legiti-
mate authority and angers staff. Uncivil ac-
tions disrupt work patterns and they are
never to be forgotten.”
Fortunately, many potential incivility
spirals and cascades are thwarted when one
of the parties chooses to temper his or her
immediate reactions. In some cases, targets
reported that, after quickly considering po-
tential ramifications, they became deter-
mined to carry on at work as though nothing
had happened. A supervisor told us, “What
would be the point of trying to get even? He
made it clear to me that he had all the power
and that he intended to use it. There was no
way I could come out ahead. So, I just made
myself put it aside as best I could, for my
own well-being, and then I stayed out of his
way.” Some targets reported giving the in-
stigator the benefit of the doubt: “She had
been picked on a lot too. I tried to convince
myself that she didn’t really mean to offend
me.” Instigators, too, sometimes chose to de-
part from the incivility spiral. They may do
so by apologizing, denying intent or offering
an excuse for their uncivil behavior (e.g.,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, I was
just under a lot of stress”).
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Repeatedly in our investigations we found
that there was little organizational under-
standing of the nature and costs of incivility,
and scant attention to curtailing or correcting
such behavior. Three-fourths of the targets
reported dissatisfaction with the ways in
which their organizations handled the un-
civil incidents and the aftermath, yet many of
these same targets told us that they never
officially reported the incident to their orga-
nizations. Also, it is important to remember
that similar dissatisfaction may be felt not
only by the target, but also by coworkers and
bystanders. To shape an organization’s atti-
tude toward incivility, there must be shared
understanding of the characteristics and neg-
ative consequences of the phenomenon. To
shape an organization’s response, there must
be an appreciation for the costs incurred.
There are corrective and protective ac-
tions available throughout the employment
lifecycle that can help to minimize the occur-
rence or recurrence of uncivil episodes. Ac-
tions flow from setting expectations, recruit-
ment and selection, orientation, feedback, and
exit strategies. We consider these options next.
Setting Expectations
As a baseline, expectations should be estab-
lished and clarified by defining the organi-
zation’s standards for interpersonal interac-
tions, thus facilitating civil relationships and
their benefits both internally and externally.
Some organizations, such as Polaroid Corp.,
Nordstrom Inc., General Electric Co., and
Quaker Oats Co., include in their core values
or business strategies explicit statements re-
garding interpersonal conduct among em-
ployees. They may specify, for example, that
intimidation, hostile or offensive behavior
will not be condoned. Some, such as Nord-
strom, explicitly specify the links between
organizational success and the quality of re-
lationships among employees. Others, like
Quaker Oats, articulate expectations regard-
ing employee conduct as related to consid-
eration, respect and dignity in dealings with
co-workers.
By setting expectations, organizational
leaders clarify the parameters for interper-
sonal interaction and provide guidance for
day to day conduct. All employees should
understand the importance of civil, respect-
ful interactions, as well as the negative ef-
FALL 2000 133
fects that uncivil behavior will bear on the
transgressors’ personal success. Setting and
communicating clear expectations to all em-
ployees provides the baseline against which
behaviors can be judged.
Where the parameters for acceptable be-
havior waiver or are unclear, the low inten-
sity and ambiguous characteristics of incivil-
ity may facilitate instigators’ success at
claiming innocence. Conversely, where pa-
rameters have been established, the clear in-
appropriateness of the behavior sets the
ground for corrective action. As a manager
told us, “We have zero tolerance for incivil-
ity. You have to mean it and follow through.
We use a peer review board and it gets every-
one’s attention.... Incivility doesn’t escalate
here because we think about repercussions.”
Once expectations have been estab-
lished, the leader’s own actions must match
expectations, regardless of the organiza-
tional power of the leader or the hierarchical
level or strategic importance of those with
whom the leader is dealing. As leaders’ be-
haviors are scrutinized for signals of appro-
priate and acceptable conduct, those who
value respect among employees must con-
duct themselves civilly.
Recruitment and Selection
Recruitment and selection provide addi-
tional opportunities for curtailing incivility.
Expectations about personal conduct should
be modeled and communicated to prospec-
tive employees. Job candidates’ references
should be checked thoroughly, especially re-
garding potential signals of previous pat-
terns of uncivil behavior. Such discovery
may require tapping into secondary referral
sources, a standard practice for an interna-
tional pharmaceutical corporation that par-
ticipated in our research. As one of their vice
presidents told us, “the inquiries take time as
we establish secondary contacts and pursue
leads, but there is no doubt that the invest-
ment is worth the effort in the long run.
We’re serious about maintaining good rela-
tionships. Hiring the right people is the crit-
ical first step.”
If the candidate is to enter a job that
requires supervisory responsibilities, the
prospect’s strengths and weaknesses should
be evaluated specifically as related to “peo-
ple” skills, or what has recently been cast as
emotional intelligence. If these skills will be
needed, interviews should include peers’
and subordinates’ views of relevant at-
tributes that support a civil workplace. Once
gathered, these perspectives should be incor-
porated to inform hiring decisions.
Orientation and Training
During orientation, organizational and work
site expectations about interpersonal behav-
ior, specifically, should be established and
carefully communicated to new hires. Writ-
ten policies and procedures, regarding intim-
idation or conflict resolution, for example,
should be distributed and discussed to un-
derscore the importance of civil conduct at
work. Training to enhance such skills will
also better equip employees to deal with
“messy” interpersonal interactions.
The on-going organizational attention to
issues of civility may help to dissuade some
potential instigators from behaving inappro-
priately. Training and development oppor-
tunities that provide the insight and skills
needed for detecting, containing, curtailing,
and correcting incivility should be made
available across hierarchical levels. These
types of interpersonal training (for example,
in conflict management, negotiation, dealing
with difficult people, and so on) can enhance
workers’ abilities to perceive and curtail un-
civil behavior before it spirals, whether they
be targets, instigators, or witnesses.
Encouraging and Attending
to Feedback
During the course of the employment cycle,
feedback should be gathered to curtail and
correct uncivil behavior. As noted, instiga-
tors tend to speak and act with cunning in
the presence of superiors, thus carefully
managing the impressions that they make.
Therefore, to capture the full nature and im-
134 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
pact of an individual’s behavior, feedback
about interpersonal interactions should
come not only from superiors, but also from
peers and subordinates. Tools such as anon-
ymous 360-degree surveys offer a mecha-
nism for collecting data to provide a full
view of behavior. These instruments can ex-
pose the wide (hierarchical) variance in per-
ceptions, observations, and experiences that
often exists regarding incivility. We note that
care must be taken in gathering such feed-
back, as instigators may muster considerable
resources to cover the tracks of their incivil-
ity, including intimidating bystanders or tar-
gets by threatening to use decisions and re-
sources accessible to them because of their
superior hierarchical power.
When behaviors cross the line as rude-
ness, insensitivity and disrespect, targets and
witnesses should be encouraged to report
the incident. As targets told us, there is le-
gitimate fear that reporting such behavior
could jeopardize the messenger’s career, es-
pecially in settings where there is little con-
fidence about organizational responsiveness.
This risk is especially high when the target or
messenger holds a position of less power
than the instigator. In such cases, lack of
response by organizational leaders may be
doubly damaging to the target and the orga-
nization. In the best cases, the importance of
the message and the courage of the messen-
ger are heeded. As a senior officer told us,
“We look at it this way. It isn’t just ‘your’
business. If you bring it here, I’m affected
too. We encourage people to recognize how
widespread the negative effects can be. We
follow through when reports are made.”
When incivility occurs, corrective feed-
back should be delivered to instigators
quickly and consistently. Repeated incidents
of uncivil behavior, as well as those that
spiral in intensity, should be documented in
the instigator’s personnel records. To do oth-
erwise leaves the organization open for
seemingly untouchable employees to be-
come destructive role models. At all levels,
feedback should link directly to evaluations
and rewards: to correct or curtail incivility,
the personal costs of such behavior must be
borne by the instigator.
Dealing with the Instigator
Where there are instigators, there may be
countervailing forces driving managers to
handoff these offenders. Faced with the
problems that instigators can incite, their
managers may be tempted to support alter-
native “career opportunities” for the instiga-
tors by moving them laterally or even pro-
moting them so that the managers might rid
themselves of associated difficulties. How-
ever, despite these pressures, it is vital to the
organization that instigators not be recom-
mended for transfer or promotion to posi-
tions in which they will be required to work
with others. Such shuffling tends only to ex-
tend the reach of contamination.
Authority over people is a potent
weapon for the instigator. If patterned un-
civil behavior has developed, the instigator
should be denied direct influence over oth-
ers. Incivility tends to flow downward: au-
thority facilitates committing such behaviors
when powerful instigators draw on re-
sources to control or intimidate their targets.
When leaders or other role models commit
incivility, it may spiral in intensity or cascade
through the organization more quickly.
Organizations that condone the behavior
of instigators may attract uncivil recruits.
Eventually this may increase dissatisfaction
and turnover among employees who value
workplace respect. In extreme cases, where
the instigator has developed patterned un-
civil behavior, has received appropriate cor-
rective feedback, and continues to act unciv-
illy, the instigator should be terminated for
the best interests of coworkers and the orga-
nization alike.
Closing Thoughts
Given the hidden costs of incivility, organi-
zations should strive to collect relevant data.
Encouraging employees to report incidents
of incivility and providing evidence that
managers and leaders give full and careful
FALL 2000 135
consideration to the reports may facilitate
data collection. Despite the many organiza-
tional costs of inaction, many targets ex-
pressed concern about their leaders’ reluc-
tance to intervene when an uncivil incident
occurs. Our research revealed several rea-
sons for this perceived passivity among lead-
ers. In some situations, the instigators’ be-
havior and status made them virtually
impervious to criticism. As the instigators’
reputation for incivility spread throughout
the organization, some leaders were unwill-
ing to offend instigators and risk facing such
wrath themselves. Other leaders were reluc-
tant because they were unprepared or un-
willing to address problems that reflected
interpersonal tensions. For other leaders, the
lack of reporting of incivility simply left
them unaware: if they didn’t hear about in-
cidents that happened, how could they take
corrective action? In the worst cases we en-
countered, leaders responded to occurrences
of incivility by making excuses for powerful
instigators as a means of protecting their
own regime. The impact of such blindness
can be devastating to the target, witnesses
and the organization at large. A supervisor
characterized this impact: “When these inci-
dents occur and no one is brought to task for
their behavior, how do we find respect for
our leaders, let alone enthusiasm for our or-
ganization?”
Our data suggest substantially high costs
of workplace incivility, many accruing out-
side organizational accounting tallies. De-
spite special talents, those who are uncivil
must be held accountable for their behavior
to foster and reinforce the benefits of a re-
spectful environment, and to curtail poten-
tial spirals and cascades that can have broad
organizational reach. Rude and discourteous
behavior is an organizational detriment that
adversely affects the target, witnesses, and
others with whom they come in contact. As-
tute managers and leaders have options for
curtailing and correcting the proliferation of
small indecencies that can lead to bad busi-
ness. The stakes are simply too high to do
otherwise. When uncivil incidents are over-
looked, the target suffers, the instigator
thrives, and the organization loses.
136 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
The study of workplace incivility is new to
the management and organizational litera-
ture. For the first academic treatment of the
topic that establishes the construct through
multidisciplinary roots, readers might con-
sult “Tit-for-Tat: The Spiraling Effect of Inci-
vility in the Workplace,” by Andersson and
Pearson, Academy of Management Review
1999, July, 452–471.
Stepping outside the management liter-
ature, we recommend Civility by Stephen L.
Carter (Basic Books, 1998, New York, NY) for
broad-based treatment of the topic. For those
interested in insights about the escalation of
aggression, in particular, we suggest Vio-
lence, Aggression, and Coercive Action (Ameri-
can Psychological Association, 1994), in
which psychologists Tedeschi and Felson
provide thoughtful insight regarding the so-
cial interactionist perspective.
For those interested in the significance of
spirals and tipping points, we recommend
two treatments: “The Tipping Point,” by
Gladwell, The New Yorker (1996) and “Vi-
cious circles in organizations,” by Masuch,
Administrative Science Quarterly (1985).
FALL 2000 137
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Bu çalışma yönetim-strateji ve örgütsel davranış bağlamında çatı olarak kabul edilmesi gereken kavramları ele almaktadır. Çalışmadaki amaç, bu alandaki diğer kavramların eleştirilmesi değil araştırmada bahsi geçen örgütsel sağlık ve örgütsel hastalıklar kavramları bünyesinde toplanmasıdır. Yönetim-strateji ve örgütsel davranış alanı o kadar geniştir ki bir bilim insanı bu geniş alanda hangi kavramın hangisinden farklı ya da benzer olduğu keskin çizgilerle ayırt etmekte güçlük çekebilir. Bir diğer yandan ilgili alan sosyal, beşeri ve idari bilimler alanında olmakla birlikte insanî unsurları temel alan yaklaşımlara sahiptir. Kitapta bu bölüme yer verilmesinin amacı, akademik anlamda alandaki genç akademisyenlere, bu alanda uzmanlaşmış, kıdemli olarak tabir edilen hocalara, alanın etkileşim içerisinde bulunduğu sektörel kişi ve gruplara, öğrencilere ve ilgisini çeken herkese paradigmaların, yaklaşımların süreci anlatılmasıdır. Örgütsel davranış alanı diğer disiplinler ile birlikte etkileşim halinde olduğundan birçok psikoloji, sosyoloji, sosyal psikoloji gibi alanın kuruluşlara uyarlanması ile meydana gelmiştir. İnsanların sosyal varlıklar olduğu gerçeği örgütsel davranış alanını zenginleştirmiş ve birçok kavramın ilham kaynağını oluşturmuştur. Örgütsel sağlık kavramını genel olarak ifade etmek gerekirse bir bireyin sağlık durumunu meydana getiren unsurlar neler ise örgütün sağlık durumunu oluşturan unsurlar aynıdır. Şöyle ki örgütün insana benzetilmesi birçok kavramın kaynağında mevcut bir durumdur. Bunun yanı sıra insan ile örgüt arasında benzeyen durumlar bulunmaktadır. Örgüt tanımlamalarına genel olarak bakıldığında bir örgütün yapı, iskelet ve önceden planlanmış ilişkiler topluluğu olduğu ifade edilmektedir. Dolayısıyla insan da kas, iskelet sistemi ve bir sosyal hayatın içerisindeki beşeri ilişkilerden var olduğundan insanın örgüte benzediği söylenebilir. Sağlık kavramına bakıldığında ise bir bireyin fiziksel, sosyal ve psikolojik olarak iyilik hali içerisinde bulunması sağlıklı olduğunu göstermektedir. Örgütsel sağlık ise bir örgütün görevlerini yerine getirmesi, büyümesi, gelişmesi, ayakta kalabilme kapasitesi, gereksinimlerini karşılaması, örgüt içerisinde ve dışında meydana gelebilecek ve gelen krizlerin, çatışmaların iyi yönetilebilmesi, çalışanlara ve işin amacına uygun davranılması olarak ifade edilebilir. Dolayısıyla sağlıklı bir örgütün özelliklerini sağlıklı bir insanın özellikleri ile kıyaslamak mümkündür. Bir diğer yandan örgütsel hastalıklar ise örgütsel sağlığa benze şekilde örgütün insana benzetilmesi ile ortaya çıkmış olan bir kavramdır. Literatürde örgütsel patolojiler olarak da bilinen örgütsel hastalıklar tıpkı insanların fiziksel, sosyal ve ruhsal yönden sağlık durumlarının kaybolması gibi örgütsel yapıda ve çalışanlarda meydana gelebilecek problemlerdir. Örgütler canlı sistemler olduğu için alt sistem süreçleri bulunmaktadır. Eğer bir sistem uzun süre durağan bir şekilde kalırsa, sistemin içerisinde hastalıklar meydana gelebilmektedir. Bunun sebebi ise içsel ve dışsal çevrenin sistemle arasında oluşan düzensizliklerdir. Örgütsel açıdan düşünüldüğü zaman, örgütün sistemini oluşturan varlıkların birbiriyle olan ilişkilerinde meydana gelen uyum eksiklikleri örgütsel patolojiye sebep olmaktadır. Bu çalışmanın temel noktasını yönetsel, örgütsel ve stratejik yönden örgütsel sağlık ve örgütsel hastalık kavramlarının farklı bir bakış açısıyla incelenmesi ve uygulanabilir çözüm önerileri oluşturmaktadır. Ayrıca alan yazının doldurulması gereken yanı, örgütlerin çevresindeki kültürel yapılara, teknolojiye, küreselleşmeye aynı anda cevap verebilecek yeteneklere sahip olmasıdır. Bu bölümün özellikle Türkçe alan yazında pek bahsedilmeyen hastalıklar konusunda önemli bir kaynak oluşturması beklenmektedir.
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In this article we introduce the concept of workplace incivility and explain how incivility can potentially spiral into increasingly intense aggressive behaviors. To gain an understanding of the mechanisms that underlie an "incivility spiral," we examine what happens at key points: the starting and tipping points. Furthermore, we describe several factors that can facilitate the occurrence and escalation of an incivility spiral and the secondary spirals that can result. We offer research propositions and discuss implications of workplace incivility for researchers and practitioners.