Workplace civility needed in a time of incivility

It only took surgery on my rotator cuff, putting me in a sling for a month, to discover just how uncivil we have become. The most typical response from people was to ignore my bulky black sling that led me into public places. Some had no awareness of the sling and would bump into my bad shoulder. They just went about their business. There were a few kind souls, though, who were eager to help me do the most ordinary things.

Why were otherwise nice people acting this way — i.e. denial, lack of awareness, single-minded, goal-driven, and a bit of empathy? Looking beyond the uncivil temper of the times we find in our politics and economics, it seems people are pushed today like at no other time in recent history. There is simply too much to do in any given day. Technology demands immediate response. Also, much is riding on our speed — our productivity, jobs, incomes, and advancement. We also move so fast because we are fighting to balance work, family, and health. So we operate with single-minded purpose and often as if no one else is there. The impact is what appears to be a level of incivility in our behavior toward others.

In the workplace, we often see these same types of behaviors. People get so focused on achieving their own objectives, they may “run over” others, not take others’ views or needs into consideration, or even engage in politics to get their way. We don’t have or take the time to get to know others or what matters to them. Some even work side-by-side for years without knowing truly who their colleagues are.

Another dimension of incivility may be found in formal corporate cultures which are often “nice and kind, but not honest”, where it is not safe to share what we really feel. At the same time however, privately, people share how they really feel with a few close associates, which can lead to an informal culture of “unkind and not nice at all”.

So, how can we become more civil in a time of incivility? By putting our workplace culture and people first. It requires leadership:

Senior leadership needs to model the way and demonstrate to every member of the workforce that they matter

Civility and respect become articulated values of the organization, and an integral part of the company’s culture

The senior leadership team commits to it as a strategic focus rather than delegating it to human resources

Work processes are created that people “own” so they are more in control of what they do, and hence feel greater safety

Uncivil behavior or any form of disrespect is not tolerated, and there is clear accountability

The choice for leadership is about what kind of workplace they want to have. The choice for every member of the workforce is to insist on civility in the workplace.

Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at, or 919.265.9616.