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What’s the Big Deal about Incivility?

We live in a world where niceties are hard to come by. Once upon a time, people took initiative to lend a helping hand. Today, we are often hard pressed to find a smile (or someone who isn’t looking at their phone for that matter!).

In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, it is easy for busyness and distractedness to be misinterpreted as rude behaviour. As our work environments continue to speed up, it is important to be more aware of the impacts this has on our workers and develop the appropriate skills to adapt.

While workplace mistreatment is not a new concept, the way it shows up is perhaps different than it used to be. With the human rights movement, the implementation of HR systems and the overall emphasis on employee well-being, it seems that workplace mistreatment is shifting from more obvious forms of overt harassment, to more subtle forms of “incivility.”

But what exactly is incivility and what role does it play in our organizations?

Though the concept is simple in theory, it has an added complexity that makes for difficult discernment.

In simple terms, incivility can be likened to rude behaviour. It is low-intensity, deviant behaviour much like talking over a colleague, ignoring someone who is trying to get your attention, giving a dirty look or failing to return a nicety (Andersson & Pearson, 1999).

Though these behaviours seem relatively innocent, the effects are quite impactful. Research indicates that the effects of day-to-day incivility extend beyond the workplace, negatively affecting individuals’ after-work well-being (Nicholson & Griffin, 2015). As such, repeated exposure to such behaviours causes concern for potential long-term effects. At an organizational level, incivility is related to increased absenteeism, reduced organizational commitment and reduced job satisfaction (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Lim, Cortina, & Magley, 2008). To put things into context, research shows that 98% of the workforce has been impacted by incivility (Porath & Pearson, 2013).

The component of complexity is that incivility is ambiguous, where the intent to harm is not always clear. For instance, that colleague who seemingly gives you dirty looks; are they being intentionally rude, intending to cause harm, or are they simply having an off day, unaware of how their behaviour comes across?

Does this mean that the fate of our behaviour is up to the perception of others? In a sense, it does. Due to the subtleness of this type of behaviour (intentional or not), the outcome can be largely up to the interpretation of the “receiver.” While one individual might feel upset at that glaring colleague, another might not be as bothered. See the difference?

So, what can we do?

While we can attempt to mitigate the enactment of intentionally rude behaviour in the workplace through various HR practices, we cannot dictate how individuals will perceive behaviour that is conceivably ambiguous. As such, it is up to each individual to be a bit more mindful in their interactions.

As a “receiver”: Next time a colleague doesn’t return a “hello,” take a step back to ask yourself a few questions. Is this their typical behaviour? Is it possible that they did not hear you? Is it reasonable to be upset or bothered by their behaviour?

Developing positive coping strategies is a proactive way to manage incivility. For instance, positive reframing is a technique that helps us see another’s behaviour in a healthier or more optimistic way. Next time a co-worker acts in an uncivil manner, ask yourself what you can learn from this situation. Perhaps experiencing incivility will help you be more mindful of your own behaviours, or maybe it will help you realize that this co-worker is stressed out and needs someone to talk to. Challenge your assumptions by actively deciding to turn abrupt behaviour into something more constructive.

As an “actor”: It is important to be aware of how others might perceive your behaviours. In and amongst the busy day-to-day, stop to take a deep breath and reflect on how your busyness might be affecting those around you. Is there a chance that your behaviour might be taken the wrong way?

Self-awareness requires practice and dedication. It requires both an ability to see yourself clearly and an ability to be aware of how others see you. This means being mindful of how you are feeling and how you present yourself around others. Our behaviour is impacted by many factors throughout our day, such as being caught up in a big decision, being pulled in different directions, having an important meeting cancelled at the last minute or receiving unexpected negative feedback. Though these factors can contribute to how we show up, we ultimately have a choice in how we behave. Choose to see the positives within the negatives and choose the most civil approach. We all have bad days and that’s okay! If you are open about your feelings, you might be surprised by the understanding others will have. Communication leaves less room for misinterpretation and more room for conversation and support.

In sum, interpersonal mistreatment does not always have to be visible, obvious or even intentional to cause harm. Therefore, it is up to each individual to be cautious before jumping to conclusions, while at the same time protecting themselves from behaviour that is meant to harm. The onus belongs to each individual to be aware of how they feel when relating to others, mindful of how they are interpreting the behaviours of others, and careful of how their own behaviours may be perceived. When in doubt, communicate, communicate, and communicate with compassion!


Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of management review24(3), 452-471.

Lim, S., Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2008). Personal and workgroup incivility: Impact on work and health outcomes. Journal of applied psychology93(1), 95.

Nicholson, T., & Griffin, B. (2015). Here today but not gone tomorrow: Incivility affects after-work and next-day recovery. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology20(2), 218.

Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013). The price of incivility. Harvard business review91(1-2), 115-121.

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Chloe Blacker MSc
  • Consultant | Leadership & Team Development

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