From cringe-worthy emails to boardroom meltdowns and disrespectful bosses, incivility threatens to harm business while ensuring that employees take the first opportunity to head for the exits as companies desperately try to hold onto talent.
Rude, boorish behavior is, of course, everywhere — in politics, in society at large, and in the workplace. And it’s on the rise, according to a study by Georgetown University business professor Christine Porath, who found that 70% of workers witness workplace incivility at least two to three times a month.
But me-first behaviors don’t have to kill a company’s morale, teamwork or profits, argues Gregg Ward, author of the recently published book “Restoring Respect: A How-To Guide for Supporting the Repair of Broken Work Relationships.” Ward’s key message: Business leaders must see exercising respectful leadership and fostering a respectful culture as not just nice ideas but as business imperatives.
Noting a barrage of bad, fear-inducing news lately, “it’s no wonder people are extraordinarily stressed,” said Ward, founder and executive director of the Center for Respectful Leadership and a longtime adviser to companies ranging from Harley-Davidson to the U.S. Navy. And it’s up to bosses to set the tone. “This is definitely not a bottom-up situation,” Ward said.
But how? The simple answer is that leaders need to mirror acceptable behaviors, advised Eric Mochnacz, operations director at the HR consultancy Red Clover. “Whether they like it or not, all employees look to the CEO to demonstrate what acceptable behavior is,” he said. If someone sees the boss denigrating people, being disrespectful or demonstrating incivility to colleagues and customers, that behavior is likely to roll to the next level of leadership and begin to permeate the entire organization, he contends.
Noting the disproportionate amount of stress we’ve all been under the past three years due the pandemic, concurrent with our weakened interpersonal ties due to the rise of remote work and the use of technology, business leaders should continue to find ways to cultivate meaningful connections among employees, Mochnacz stressed — in addition to making sure they hire the right people. In other words, “those who won’t completely lose it when something goes wrong.” As Mochnacz explained, “Remember, what you get is what you tolerate. So, letting even one instance of disrespect or incivility slide can influence the overall behavior in an organization.”
Mary Jenson, director of people and culture at the media agency Barbarian, which works with clients like Samsung and American Express, said her shop has strived to protect and promote a respectful work environment in a number of ways, including ensuring that employees have the space to focus on their well-being. It implemented a 45-minute window called the “Barbarian Boost Break” to allow employees to take a walk, have a stretch, or do anything else they need to decompress and refocus.
While respect must come from the top, it involves everyone throughout an organization, said Maira Genovese, founder and president of the agency MG Empower, which has done work for brands like Bumble and Chopard. “Making the business run effectively is a team sport — you can’t succeed by yourself and you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” she said, adding, “Rather than point fingers, tear each other down or avoid accountability, empowerment reminds us to give each other that extra push when we need it, to speak up for what we believe, and to constantly grow — because if your people grow, so will your business.”
At the advertising agency Something Different, which works with clients like Sallie Mae and Spectrum Mobile, fostering respect is as simple as continually checking in with employees “to assess their personal lives, goals, interests and workload,” said Garrett Crabb, special ops and head of production. “When companies put their people first, it gives them the foresight to know when to stop, take stock of team dynamics, and bring in whatever support or resources needed before relationships reach a boiling point,” he explained, adding, “Creating a culture of forgiveness and understanding is critical to fostering a respectful workplace. It requires humility on all sides.”