You may have heard the word "incivility," which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as a "quality of state of being uncivil." A more familiar phrase would be rude behavior, used to describe words and actions that can lower employee engagement and harm the health of your workplace culture.
What are the harmful behaviors that are going on in your company that no one is talking about? We call these "mokitas." It may seem easier to hope that incivilities or discourteous behavior will go away on its own—somehow, without any confrontation happening.
But like the mokita in the room that no one wants to talk about, workplace incivility requires some heavy lifting.
Some examples of these incivilities range from obvious forms such as bickering, inappropriate jokes, or public rebukes to more subtle versions such as sarcastic comments or demeaning language, writes Audrey Murrell in her article for Forbes.
"Ignoring bad behaviors does not make them disappear," points out Murrell. Instead, they spiral into larger behaviors (such as bullying or harassment) that have a deeper impact and are influenced by the culture of the workplace.
Think of microaggressions: small issues within a team or two colleagues that escalate into a larger problem that hurt your overall workplace culture. Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that workplace incivility threatens creativity, can turn away customers, and increases costs when addressing incivilities' aftermath.
In her article, Murrell shares how business leaders can interrogate reality and respond directly to incivility in the workplace. Larger, cultural values begin at the top. How can business leaders take initiative for this?
"We must acknowledge that responsible, proactive leadership is essential for preventing the spiral of workplace incivility," writes Murrell. "Principled leadership is essential because unlike violations of sexual harassment or discrimination, there are no explicit laws against incivility. As such, incivility frequently goes unreported until the situation has blown up."
As role models and influencers in their company, business leaders have the ability to set the standards and align company values with behaviors. But before you can transform the culture of an entire company, you need to have open, honest conversations together with employees and leaders whose actions are uncivil.
Yes, these are the mokitas we mentioned earlier.
In her bestselling book Fierce Conversations, Fierce founder and CEO Susan Scott challenges business leaders to enter the conversations that haven't been happening.
"What has been the economical, emotional, and intellectual cost to your company of not identifying and tackling the real issue?" writes Scott. "What has been the cost to your relationships? What has been the cost to you?"
The price of not having the conversations to address workplace incivility is much higher than the fear of how an employee may react to being confronted about their behavior.
Here are some tips that you can implement in these conversations to ensure that they stay transparent, focused, and collaborative:
Confront the issue rather than the individual.
Entering a conversation with an employee about a negative behavior can be uncomfortable, for both of you. With the end goal being to change behaviors and shift your workplace culture to align with company values, confronting the issue is going to be more useful than confronting the employee. If you make the issue about the employee, it can alienate them and doesn't guarantee that their behaviors are going to change.
Instead, focus on the issue at hand, being very transparent about its negative effects and why you think this incivility is harmful to your company and its relationships. Acknowledge what role you have played in its existence, including the effects of not addressing the incivilities.
As we like to say at Fierce, come out from behind yourself into the conversation. Be precise, provide details, and be transparent.
Listen as much as you speak.
How much of the conversation is you talking? If your answer is most of it, then you're not having a conversation. That's a one-way dialogue instead of a conversation with your employee. A big part of a conversation is listening. Share your perception of the issue, the effects of it, and how you have seen it occur in your workplace. Then allow your employee to share their own perception of the issue and its consequences.
Give everyone a space to be heard. Listening is part of engaging.
Go shoulder to shoulder rather than head to head.
Talking with your employee rather than at them extends to addressing the issue and brainstorming on how to solve it. It's a collaborative approach that creates an inclusive space to problem-solve. Think about how this can be an opportunity to enrich the relationship and grow through it jointly. How can you solve this together? Shifting a workplace culture is going to take collaboration from both employees and executives.
Keep the conversation on track.
The conversation is not easy, and it can be doubly hard to keep your heart and head in the game when your employee denies, deflects, or defends their uncivil behavior. As the leader, you can bring the dialogue back to the conversation. Acknowledge that both of your time is valuable and that what you want to talk about is the issue and how to address it.
Let silence do the heavy lifting.
Embrace the awkward (or what seems like awkward) silences. These are the moments when your first reaction is to jump in and add more feedback or vent your frustrations about the fact that incivility is happening in the first place.
Instead of talking to fill a space, sit in the space together with your employee. This can give both of you a chance to think more deeply about the issue and how you can best address it. It's also an opportunity for your employee to engage more deeply with you about next steps.
Having fierce conversations is not for the faint of heart. To be successful, they require courage from both yourself and others.
On the flip side, not having these conversations leaves the issue intact and unchallenged and weakens employee engagement and the success of your company.
Sit in silence with that for a moment.
To learn more about how you can utilize conversation tools to address workplace incivilities or negative behaviors, check out the Fierce Confrontation program.