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Workplace Incivility as a Research Issue

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
October 16, 2017

Workplace incivility is an issue worthy of further research in public administration because incivility can potentially affect the productivity of every government and contract worker.

One definition of workplace incivility from Anderson and Pearson is:

“Workplace incivility is low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.”

This definition focuses on rude, disrespectful behavior that may or may not be intended to harm anyone.

I would define workplace incivility more broadly to include intentional behavior that is short of workplace violence or illegal behavior (e.g., sexual harassment) but would include screaming, sarcasm, non-sexual harassment, pounding the desk, verbal attacks, demeaning language, etc.

Dr. Christine Porath, professor at Georgetown University, recently wrote:

“More than ever before, people are feeling disrespected at work. Employees, like some at Uber, feel they’re working in a toxic culture with insensitive managers. Others complain about being treated disrespectfully based on gender, race, or religion.”

“Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries Christine Pearson of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and I polled, those who didn’t feel respected performed worse. Forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly intentionally decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they deliberately decreased the quality of their work. Sixty-six percent reported their performance declined and 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined.”

“Those who unleash on others, belittle subordinates or undermine colleagues may leave a wake and create ripple effects. Eighty percent lost work time worrying about an uncivil incident, and 63 percent lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender. Incivility can deplete immune systems, causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers. Research also shows that working in a group where incivility is present affects people’s mental health, even after accounting for general stress and the incivility an individual personally experienced. You don’t have to be the targeted population, or the employee who gets ripped publicly to be negatively affected. You may get pulled off track thinking about the incident, how you should respond, or whether you’re in the line of fire.”

“Even if people who experience or witness incivility want to perform well, they can’t. In my experiments with Amir Erez we watched performance plummet after incivility occurred. Just witnessing incivility caused outcomes to decrease by nearly half. Witnesses’ of incivility weren’t nearly as creative on brainstorming tasks. Incivility kills helpfulness and collaboration. In experiments, I’ve found that when employees are exposed to rudeness, they are three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half.”

Sixty-six percent of people experiencing workplace incivility reported their performance declined! That squares with my observations from over 40 years in the federal government.


I encountered workplace incivility – either the mild, perhaps unintentional kind or the much harsher, intentional kind. Sometimes, it was managers who were uncivil. Other times, employees were uncivil to their coworkers. I noticed the negative effect on my production and the production of others. When people are fuming, they are distracted from their duties. They engage in wasteful behavior. They write unnecessary memos. Communication breaks down. An organization’s problem-solving ability is diminished.

There are plenty of negative interactions in day-to-day public administration that just can’t be avoided. Government managers and contractors are constantly under pressure to increase production – to meet deadlines and control costs. Lapses in quality occur. Managers receive negative feedback from Congress or the public. A lot of negative feedback is transmitted downward in organizations. If an employee’s work turns out to have caused a problem, the employee will experience stress. If an employee’s work is returned for many corrections, he or she is going to be upset. If management or coworkers shoot down an employee’s idea, the employee will not be happy.

But workplace incivility magnifies these unpleasant interactions and makes the resulting stress even worse.

I recall watching contractors interact with government employees. They nearly always were on their best behavior. They made their points but nearly always performed in a highly professional manner with an absence of rudeness, sarcasms, putdowns, etc. I often thought how wonderful it would be if all interactions at work were at this professional level.

On the whole, it seems that toxic behavior undermines productivity. Perhaps, there are exceptions in life-threatening situations. Or there may be exceptional managers, such as the late Steve Jobs at Apple Computer, who are so valuable to the organization it makes sense for the organization to overlook the screaming and putdowns.

Shouldn’t researchers in public administration be especially concerned about workplace incivility since it appears to be so widespread and so damaging? Research should be able to determine exactly what behaviors are problematic. How much productivity is lost? Is uncivil behavior ever justified by circumstances? If managers had the weight of science behind them, they might be able to better influence the behaviors that occur in their organizations.

Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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