Negative workplace interactions damage businesses, employees

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Christine Porath remembers walking into a hospital room and seeing her father lying on a bed with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. Stress from over a decade of working for two toxic bosses had put an otherwise healthy man in the hospital.

Porath initially believed her father was unlucky. However, despite working at her dream job, she quickly realized the environment was toxic. Porath quit her job, got her Ph.D., and began her life’s work studying incivility in the workplace.

In a forum address on the BYU campus on Nov. 27, Porath, an associate business professor at Georgetown University, shared her research on the damage incivility causes others and how we can be sure to lift others.

“How we show up and treat people means everything,” Porath said. “Either we lift people up by respecting them, making them feel valued, appreciated and heard, or we may hold people down by making them feel small, insulted, disregarded or excluded.”

Porath said she believed negative interactions affected people and the corporations’ bottom lines, so she set out to prove it.

Her first experiment involved asking employees to recall a time they felt they were treated rudely. They then answered questions on how they responded to the situation. According to Porath, the study showed 66 percent of people intentionally cut back their efforts, 80 percent lost time worrying about the incident and 12 percent quit their job following these incidents.

Several corporations took Porath’s study and calculated their losses caused by incivility. Cisco conservatively estimated $12 million and a small regional hospital estimated losses of $30 million dollars annually, according to Porath.

Not only does incivility affect the people it is targeted against, but it also negatively impacts those who merely witness rudeness, she said.

A study conducted on college students showed the participants who witnessed a rude act performed 25 percent worse on cognitive performance tasks and came up with 45 percent fewer ideas.

When trying to unscramble the letters e-r-m-d-u-e, those who witnessed incivility were nine times more likely to answer “murder” rather than “demure,” the correct word.

“Incivility is like a bug, it’s contagious. You can catch the virus from anywhere: at work, at home, online, at your school,” Porath said. “It affects people’s emotions, their motivations, their performance and how they treat others.”

A doctor who took one of Porath’s courses told her about another physician who was rude to the staff. The physician shouted at their medical team, who ended up giving the wrong medicinal dosage to a patient, resulting in the patient’s death.

“What’s scary is you hear a lot of stories like that,” Porath said.

Porath said despite the cost of incivility, it is on the rise. A study she conducted said the number one reason for rudeness was stress, but half of the study’s respondents also said they were skeptical of being nice in the workplace.

“They wondered if they would appear less leader-like. They wondered if nice guys do finish last,” Porath said. “We are finding that nice guys can get ahead.”

A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership showed the number one reason talented people’s careers derail is that of an insensitive, abrasive or bullying management style. The number three reason was aloofness or arrogance in the workplace.

Porath also said recent research has shown civil people are often viewed as having more integrity and are twice as likely to be viewed as a leader. Civility, like incivility, is also contagious and can spread. Porath said being mindful of one’s actions is critical to being a good influence on our social networks.

“People don’t set out to hurt others,” she said. “Most of us have good intentions, but we’re simply not very self-aware about little things that we may be doing that make people feel disrespected.”

Porath advised her audience to find feedback from others to find those blind spots they may have while interacting with others.

Porath also suggested personal reflection as a method for improving civility. She said she knows she is a morning person, but hits a wall in the afternoon. So, she avoids hard conversations or sending frustrating emails in the afternoon to avoid being rude.

Getting enough sleep, exercising, eating good foods and employing stress management techniques are other good ways to reduce incivility, according to Porath.

“You can make small adjustments that have a really big effect on others and yourself in being perceived as civil,” Porath said. “Thanking people, sharing credit, listening attentively and even smiling really does lift people up.”

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will speak at next week’s devotional on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

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