The Toxic Impact of Incivility

April 20, 2017 Sarah Payne

Christine Porath

Just because civility seems to have disappeared from politics, that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten in the workplace. What does it mean to be civil? How does a lack of civility impact your people and your bottom line? And what role do managers and leaders play in driving true culture change?

We recently chatted with WorkHuman speaker Christine Porath, author and associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Her new book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, tackles these very issues, and shows how people can enhance their influence and effectiveness with civility.

Read the first part of our Q&A with Porath below or listen to the interview in the WorkHuman Radio podcast embedded at the top of this post.


You write that simply not being rude is not the same as being civil. Can you explain that a bit and how you define civility?

Not being rude is about being neutral. And what I’m hoping people will do is be civil in the sense of positive gestures – being respectful, showing dignity, being courteous, and being kind in ways that lift other people up. By being uncivil you hold someone down through actions, but by being civil, you can really lift them up. It’s about going beyond neutral and affirming mutual respect and decency and helping others around you.


How does incivility impact the bottom line?

Unfortunately, it takes a huge toll on people. It has a negative effect on people’s emotional well-being, as well as mental and physical health. It can also silently chip away people’s immune systems.

My focus has been on how it affects people’s performance. I found that more than two-thirds of people will cut back work effort, 80% of people lose time worrying about what happened, and 12% of people will report that they’ve left their job because of an uncivil incident. That’s extremely costly as far as turnover goes.

In experiments, what I’ve learned is, not only does it decrease performance, but people aren’t nearly as innovative, even if they just witness incivility. In team settings, it causes people to shut down, such that they don’t share information or speak up as much. They don’t discuss errors or inform each other of potential problems.

And then the other issue is that even witnesses, as well as people who experience it, are far less helpful. They’re actually three times less likely to help someone else, and their willingness to share drops by more than 50%. So incivility pulls people off track, even for those people who are trying to push forward.


And even people who don’t leave, it sounds like they’re not putting in extra effort because it creates a culture of fear.

Definitely. I don’t think they bring their best self anymore, and a lot of that isn’t intentional. Our studies have shown the cognitive toll incivility takes on people, sneakily robbing them of resources, disrupting working memory, and that affects their performance as well as their creativity.

People also start thinking about whether they can find a better environment because it’s something that’s hard to shake even when you leave work. For many people, it affects their identity, their self-esteem, their sense of worth, and so they aren’t performing nearly as well as they could.


What role do you see managers and senior leaders having in promoting a more civil culture?

Managers and senior leaders play a huge role in promoting a civil culture. They set the tone and are crucial role models for people look to up and behave as they do. When I’ve asked people why they are uncivil, more than 25% of people report, “Because our leaders are.” So they’re clearly role modeling.

Leaders and managers can also hold people accountable. People can be fearful to speak up anyway, but when they sense that the organization isn’t willing to step up and act on it, that’s when the spirals occur and people are far more likely to leave the organization.


In your book you talk about warmth and competence, and how that drives our impressions of the people around us. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Researchers have shown us that out of more than 200 traits, there are really two in particular –  warmth and competence – that drive the impressions we make. And these two qualities account for more than 90% of positive or negative impressions we form about the people around us. So if you see someone who’s warm and competent, you’re more likely to trust them, build relationships with them, follow them, and support them.

However, a strength in one of those traits typically implies a weakness in the other. So I’ve often heard people say things like, “He’s very smart, but people won’t like working for him,” or, “She’s really friendly, but she’s probably not that bright.” People tend to bucket individuals either as warm or competent. But when you’re civil, people see you as both warm and competent.

If you really want to connect with your employees or team, you should focus on leading with warmth. Most people are in a hurry to prove their competence, but warmth actually contributes significantly more to people’s valuations. So you can think about warmth as the pathway to influence, and it’ll facilitate things like trust, information, and idea sharing.

The Toxic Impact of Incivility @porathC #workhuman
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Stay tuned for part two of our Q&A, where we talk about the three fundamentals of civility. And if you haven’t yet registered to hear Christine Porath speak at WorkHuman, I have a special discount for blog readers – $100 off your registration! Just go to and use the code WH17BLG100 when you register.


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