How Civility In The Workplace Can Save You Time And Money

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What is the leadership behavior that's most important to employees?

We’ve all had moments at work when the stress of a deadline or the pressure of a project got the better of us. Suddenly you snap at an employee or a teammate. And before you know it, the pressure shifts, engulfing the whole office. Leaders are human beings, but it is their responsibility to set a tone of civility and respect in their office, because without it you may find employees are less willing to go the extra mile… or they may quit altogether.

Christine Porath is an author, speaker, and associate professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Her work related to incivility and its effects have been featured worldwide in over 500 television, radio, and print outlets. Her new book is Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. I recently interviewed Christine for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the correlation between a productive workplace and a respectful one. (The interview below is lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: What would be your advice to someone who feels like they chose a certain career and it's just not where their heart is?

Christine Porath: I think it really comes down to answering the question, “Who do you want to be, and do you believe in what you're doing professionally?” If you feel like you follow the right path for yourself, then I think it makes it a whole lot easier not to have regrets and to trust your instinct that you did the right thing, even though you may pay for it in different ways.

Kruse: Why do you feel that this issue of respect and civility in the workplace is so important? Why is this a business topic?

Porath: I think because it's so costly. I think these are hidden costs, usually, and what happens is when people don't feel valued, when they don't feel respected or appreciated, they don't give as much. A lot of this may be intentional. Over two-thirds of people will cut back their efforts. Eighty percent of people will lose time worrying about it; 12% of people say they've left jobs because of one incident of this. I think, in general, there are just a whole slew of costs to organizations when people aren't feeling respected.

In experiments, I found that people can't focus as well. They aren't as attentive to information. Cognitively, they function much slower even in terms of memory and processing, and this is true for witnesses as well, so it really is contagious, so the costs add up very quickly. So that's the main reason that I think organizations need to focus on it. And those that do, I believe, will have a competitive advantage because unfortunately, it's very prevalent and it's on the rise.

Kruse: I think there's a lot of people that say, “Are we all just too sensitive these days? Steve Jobs would yell, and got great results,” How would you counter that?

Porath: Well, I think you're right. I mean, some people are more sensitive than others and there are certainly a lot of individual differences when it comes to that, but when I talk about civility, when I study it, I'm not talking about not giving direct feedback or negative feedback. Certainly, that matters a lot. That's what helps lead to improvement. I think the whole idea here is that it's the “how” that matters, so it's the delivery of the feedback that can be more important than the message itself.

There's some really interesting work on this, which shows that people respond better to negative feedback done well, with nods, with a smile, with a desire for their improvement, than giving positive feedback. I think if we focus on the idea of being direct and giving negative feedback but really focusing on the how, that will help cure things.

When it comes to Steve Jobs, that's kind of a classic question. I mean, I agree with Richard Branson when he talks about the idea that Steve Jobs was multiple standard deviations outside of most of us.

I think he's a little bit of an outlier, but a couple of things. I've heard from coaches that have worked with him, or at the time when he came back to Apple, he was a different guy. I mean, it doesn't mean that he didn't stomp around or didn't go off on people, but I think he did it less. And I think that it was fewer and farther between, and people understood that he was trying to improve.

I think that in general, there's a lot of research that shows that it doesn't pay. For example, the number one characteristic associated with executive's failure is ‘Insensitive,’ ‘Abrasive,’ or ‘Bullying’ style, while the number three is ‘Aloofness’ or ‘Arrogance.’

While I think power can force compliance, incivility or disrespect can really sabotage support in crucial situations. For example, employees may not share information or they'll withhold efforts or resources. Typically, I see that payback to uncivil leaders comes back when they may least expect it. I think that rude people, in general, leaders, succeed despite their incivility, not because of it.

Kruse: What are some common blind spots that leaders might have? How are we unintentionally being rude to people?

Porath: I think the most common thing I hear, when I go into organizations, is people complaining that their leaders aren't paying attention to them. They're just not very attentive. For example, leaders will be on their iPhone or on their laptop when someone's trying to convey some important information or have a one-on-one meeting with them, so it's the fact that leaders are multitasking or they're tethered to the technology, especially in meetings.

Of course, that is not intentional. Usually, you'll hear leaders, when they get that feedback, saying, “I'm just trying to fight fire, so I'm just trying to do the best that I can,” but they have no knowledge that that's being taken negatively by other people.

I think that that's probably the most common one is the multitasking and failing to connect with people, but I think also, a lot of leaders tend to interrupt people in ways that shoot them down. In many times, it's because they're brilliant or because they're used to kind of having the floor and controlling meetings, but you'll hear that teams are less willing to share information, for example. They feel like they're cut off or they're not valued, and so interrupting is a big one, especially with leaders.

One that comes up sometimes is this idea of “You don't realize when you're talking badly behind someone's back.” I love Marshall Goldsmith, who I really admire, gives a great example of this in his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, where he first started collecting 360-degree feedback, the people told him this and he had no idea. In fact, he couldn't think of one instance when he had done this.

I think that for many of us, it's these little things that we're just unaware of. I think that's probably the biggest thing I've learned is when I started this research, I thought, “Gosh, there are some real jerks in the workplace,” but where I've landed is I think the vast majority of this is just the lack of self-awareness.

Kruse: Making eye contact, smiling at people, saying “Good morning” as we walk by, not staring down at our phones. These are simple things that matter a lot to those around us. 

Porath: I love that idea. One of the organizations that I learned this from was Ochsner, a healthcare system down in Louisiana, and they came up with this 10/5 rule. They wanted people, employees to, if they're in 10 feet of each other, to acknowledge them and smile, and if they were within five feet, to say, “Hello.”

People were a little defensive about this initially, especially some of the doctors, but what they found was it improved the internal metrics. Things like satisfaction, motivation, so forth, but it also increased not only patient satisfaction, but patient referrals. I think it's also evident these little things matter not only to those around us, but then they're contagious. They shape our interactions with others afterwards too.

Kruse: Now that healthcare systems receive part of their reimbursement from patient satisfaction scores, getting a smile from a nurse or doctor is more important than ever.

Porath: Absolutely. I think it's interesting. I've been fortunate to work with some doctors lately, and a lot of them are interested in changing the way that medicine is taught too because they feel like oftentimes, doctors, surgeons are very direct, flexing their muscles, screaming orders, things like that, and we know from a lot of this research that people aren't able to focus as well, they miss information, so I think safety is a real issue. I'm happy that there's great research being done to show that there are other ways that might improve patient safety.

Kruse: I like to challenge our LEADx listeners to get 1% better every day. What can you challenge us to do today?

Porath: I think it would be to listen better, to be present and attentive, as we were just talking about, because it's really essential for creating, maintaining and deepening relationships, and it's the opportunity to signal that you care, that you're committed, and that you're interested in having a connection with the person.

I think it also can lead to vital information and insights and as we talked about, employees that don't believe their bosses are listening, they're far less likely to offer ideas, helpful suggestions, and research shows that they're much more likely to quit too.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at