Workhuman Book Club: “Mastering Civility” by Christine Porath

August 12, 2019 Jess Huckins

5-minute read

Mastering Civility

Do you remember the Golden Rule? While most people go to work every day with the best intentions in terms of treating each other with humanity and like we ourselves want to be treated, many of them fail. It’s usually not malicious, but we’re tired and stressed and we get wrapped up in the realities of the modern workplace. When that happens, we let civility fall by the wayside – and let our colleagues feel slighted, ignored, and disrespected as a result. Oops.

In our Workhuman® Book Club pick for August, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” Georgetown University professor and Workhuman® Live 2019 speaker Christine Porath combines common sense, research, and storytelling to teach us about the repercussions and missed opportunities of this accidental incivility. In the “Civility in America 2019” survey, 68% of respondents said incivility is a major problem in the United States. And this incivility comes in the form of actions with which we’re all familiar: making calls or texting during meetings, yelling at employees, belittling or heckling subordinates, taking credit for someone else’s work or ideas, and undermining other people’s efforts.

The cost of incivility

Incivility causes stress, which can lead to more rude behavior. It becomes a vicious cycle. Stress can also cause physical and emotional problems: The American Psychological Association estimates that stress costs the U.S. economy $500 billion a year. We lose 550 billion workdays a year, stress causes 50-80% of workplace accidents, and more than 80% of doctor visits can be tied to stress.

Stress also causes interpersonal issues at work, placing strain on relationships. In a poll of 800 managers and employees, Christine and Christine Pearson found – among other statistics – that among workers who have experienced incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
  • 47% intentionally spent less time at work
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 12% said they left their job because of the incident
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers

Finally, a study by Accountemps found that people leaders spend 13% of their time – or the equivalent of seven weeks a year – dealing with incivility and mending employee relationships.

“If organizations lose profits and employees thanks to incivility,” Christine writes, “much of this loss goes undetected. Employees who decide to quit based on an experience of bad behavior typically don’t ever tell their employers why. Turnover costs add up quickly: four times an employee’s annual salary in the case of high-level employees.”

Gratitude: one prescription to the incivility epidemic

Throughout the book, Christine not only offers quizzes and worksheets to help people determine whether they themselves act uncivilly, but she also shares strategies and tips for overcoming these human tendencies. That’s right – though working human is inherently a good thing, we have to face facts: Our humanity also comes along with negative traits. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be as apt to accidentally cause our colleagues psychological harm.

Fortunately, the simple act of consciously expressing gratitude can help mitigate many of these workplace issues. “Feeling genuinely appreciated lifts people up. It energizes. It’s also a powerful tool for encouraging the right behaviors,” Christine writes. By having managers and peers publicly express gratitude, leaders can organically showcase those “right behaviors” by approving and rewarding them.

As Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley said in his Workhuman Live keynote, “Gratitude changes the giver.” It’s not just the recipient who reaps the benefits. Grateful people:

  • Experience lower stress
  • Are more resilient and physically fit
  • Have 12% lower blood pressure
  • Cultivate greater trust and better interpersonal relationships
  • Earn about 7% more in income than their ungrateful colleagues

Three cheers for gratitude!

Going beyond the individual contributor

Later in the book, Christine offers a guide for infusing civility and gratitude throughout the organization – and putting systems in place to track it. “People can get cynical quickly if you say civil behavior is important but you fail to keep track of it,” she writes.

Some quick tips:

  • Focus less on results and more on how people achieve them: “Research has shown that only 50% of the top collaborative contributors are deemed to be ‘top performers’ and roughly 20% of organizational stars don’t help others very much. They may hit their numbers and reap the lion’s share of the awards, but they fail to contribute to or amplify the success of their colleagues.” It’s time to flip this script.
  • Evaluate employees against metrics that highlight civility, such as collaboration, empowerment, respect, and encouragement – especially if these metrics are among your organization’s core values.
  • Acknowledge and reward employees who go above and beyond to help their colleagues.
  • Provide a coach or mentor to help chronically uncivil employees develop self-awareness.
  • If you must terminate, do so respectfully and conduct an exit interview to enlist feedback.

Porath also shares that worldwide studies conclude that “warmth and competence” are the two traits that drive the impressions we make and whether people like us. “That’s it,” she writes. “These two qualities account for more than 90% of positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.” So let’s be warm. Let’s be grateful. And let’s make the conscious effort, every day, to be civil to the people working around us.

(Christine Porath will join us on Monday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m ET, for our next Workhuman Book Club Twitter chat. Tweet @PorathC with the hashtag #workhuman to ask her questions about incivility in the workplace.)


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About the Author

Jess Huckins

Jess Huckins is senior content manager, sales enablement at Workhuman. She enjoys investigative journalism and true crime, fantasy football, outdoor cooking, and adventuring in the wilderness with her three dogs.

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