A culture of civility
Do you work in an office brimming with tension, with colleagues that snap when asked a question? A more civil, respectful workplace is not only a nicer place to work, but also likely to be more productive.
“We’re in an era where there is a lot of emphasis on dignity and respect in the workplace, for good reason,” says Dr Maeve Houlihan, director of UCD’s Quinn School of Business and an associate professor of management at UCD.
A rude or abrasive culture comes at a cost, both a personal one for employees and an organisational one.
Lead by example
According to Houlihan, a toxic workplace can lead to miscommunication, lost innovation, conflicting priorities, and a shutdown of creativity and diverse voices. For employees, Houlihan points to the “defence mechanisms and protective shields” required to cope with incivility at work.
To create a culture of civility and stamp out rudeness, disrespect and insensitivity at work, leaders need to lead by example, not just with what they say, but how they act.
Billy Byrne, a leadership development specialist at KinchLyons, says that a leader sets the tone “in how she or he relates to others in the organisation”.
“The actions of leaders get noticed so, when a leader displays civility to others, this is a signal to the rest of the organisation about the organisation’s lived values,” Byrne says. “The truly authentic leader leads by example and sets the tone for others, treating colleagues as whole human beings and not just objects that deliver results on behalf of the organisation.”
Byrne says leaders can reveal a lot about their true personality in how they deal with people at all levels of an organisation. “We can learn a lot about a leader by watching how they speak with the person at the reception desk,” he says.
Culture is about everyone
While it is up to leaders to set the tone, culture should be about everyone.
“Civility should be modelled and reinforced at all levels of the organisation – in what is done, who is hired, what is rewarded. What we do is much more important than what we say we value,” Houlihan says.
According to Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, leaders and companies should strive to make civil behaviour the norm within the workplace.
She suggests making civility part of your organisation’s mission statement, “posting it somewhere visible so employees are reminded daily of your organisation’s standards”.
“Engage your team in a dialogue about what your norms should be. Then ask them to hold one another accountable,” Porath says. “Don’t let customers, clients or suppliers treat your employees badly either.”
However, she says it isn’t enough to simply define desired office behavioural norms. “You also have to train employees to understand and respect them,” Porath adds, suggesting workplace civility training.
She says that training could include considering what civility looks like, describing situations in which employees sometimes act uncivilly and providing tips on how to maintain composure.
Individuals, be they leaders or not, should also be mindful of their own shortcomings and make an effort to correct their behaviour. “If you have the urge to interrupt, as I often do, stop yourself from jumping into the conversation before the other person completes his or her thoughts. Over time, restraining yourself will feel more natural,” Porath explains.
Defining the sort of behaviour desired in a workplace is helpful, but Houlihan advises against too rigid a culture. “I believe a truly civil workplace needs the capability to accommodate diverse opinions and disagreement, and that this is more helpful to team communication and interpersonal relations than a rigid culture of what is and is not acceptable,” Houlihan says.
Also, culture is a question of context. Stressful times are par for the course in most jobs, meaning that, on occasion, a team might seem more frazzled than normal.
“A coherent sense of mission, where people believe in what they are doing and have the information, support and resources that they need to do the job”, can help a team to get through stressful periods, according to Houlihan.
“But only to a point – and only if there is genuine space for dialogue, recovery and learning in the spaces in between,” she says.
While sometimes there’s a perception that being seen as too nice in work equates to being a pushover, civility is a definite help for career progression, according to Porath.
“Although in surveys people say they are afraid they will not rise in an organisation if they are really friendly and helpful, the civil do succeed,” she says, pointing to recent research she conducted that shows that politeness and respect in the workplace really does pay off.
“Rude people succeed despite their incivility, not because of it,” Porath says.
Building trust and support
“Studies have shown that the number one characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style, while number three is aloofness or arrogance. Sure, power can force compliance, but insensitivity or disrespect can sabotage support in crucial situations.”
The impression that people have of leaders dictates “whether people will trust you, build relationships withyou, follow you and support you”, Porath explains. “Employees desperately want to feel respected and valued by their leaders.”
Creating a positive company culture might seem like a big ask, especially if your office feels like a battleground at times. But often it’s the little day-to-day things that can drive change: a smile, genuine engagement and making the effort to listen.
Striving for change
For example, Porath suggests that leaders commit to sharing their lunch break with different employees each week.
Asking questions – and answering them – is key to building rapport too. “Show interest in the non-work lives of your direct reports,” she advises. “Share something personal about your interests. You want to be open to sharing yourself and your experiences.”
Plus, she suggests that leaders ask their employees how they can best support them in the office.
Byrne believes that leaders have the power to change workplace culture.
“As a minimum they can directly influence the culture in their own area by modelling civil behaviour and by clearly calling out behaviours that are not acceptable,” he says. “They can also influence the broader culture, but in larger organisations this is extremely difficult if the current culture is being reinforced, and rewarded, by more senior leaders.
”While changing a toxic culture might take time, it’s worth persevering. “Ultimately, everybody has a right to respect and dignity at work,” Byrne says.