Civility in the Workplace is Still Important

In the smartphone era, civility is a vital skill to model and learn

April 4, 2018 | Helen S. Cooke

civility in the workplaceTrend-watching is a good way to spot issues that your organization may be facing in the future. A popular topic lately is the erosion of civility, and the accompanying uptick in rudeness, in our society today. New research about the impact of smartphones has revealed that increased screen time affects not only workplace productivity, but also increases our daily experiences of rudeness at home, during work, and at school. These findings are relevant in the business world. The erosion of civility can hurt your brand and disrupt your workforce. Good values start at the top, and you can set the pace for whether subordinates will emulate a rude or a civil work environment.

As a “Baby Boomer” supervisor, I have watched the decline in workplace civility over time. Years ago, I was supervising an ambitious young woman in the management consulting environment, and I inquired about the aggressive ambition and sharp elbows I had observed among her peers. She told me her “end of the boom” generation has had to fight for every inch of career progress they could get: the huge population of baby boomers ahead of her had taken every good position and clogged every path upward. Her comments made me more introspective about the progress I have made in my career. Was I really that good, or was I simply riding the crest of a generation that entered the workforce when the rising tide of new jobs provided the opportunity to move up?

But differences in opportunity don’t fully explain the aggressiveness and lack of civility observed in today’s workforce. There are other trends in play. According to MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, spending more time looking at a screen than at the face of another human starves the development of social skills. Relying too much on virtual messaging is harming our face-to-face relationships. A meta-study led by University of Michigan psychologists found that among college students, there has been a 40% decline in empathy since 1979, with the sharpest declines occurring after the year 2000.

We early “baby boomers” were trained in how to read non-verbal cues: hand and eye movements, vocal intonations, and body posture. We were trained in how to use those non-verbal communication skills to build positive relationships and trust. Even more “senior” generations were subject to strict social training from their parents, teachers, counselors, religious leaders, and social sororities and fraternities. The younger generations don’t have as much access to that training. Those sources of social standards are less available today; competing job demands on parents and school leaders, less money for school extracurricular activities, and increased screen time have all stemmed the supply of face-to-face social experiences.

My concern, from the perspective of project management, is how new job hires interact with the more senior people still in the workforce. People from older generations are still in decision-making positions. They have a lifetime of experience in dealing with reasonably civil employees, and they hold the purse strings of business deals and project funding. It certainly behooves young people to be aware of how communication styles may differ.

Incivility or rudeness in the workplace has an impact on the bottom line. Research has linked rudeness or incivility to increased stress among employees, decreased workplace performance, and a negative impact on creativity and problem-solving skills. Common examples of incivility in the smartphone era include looking down at a phone during meetings, talking on the phone in a quiet office, not looking people in the eyes, or an impatient or aggressive attitude.

The junior employee in the hallway, the person sitting at the reception desk (yes, even there!), or the employee picking up their phone during a meeting is the de facto representative of your organization and your brand. They are potential detractors from your reputation. When I was a management consultant at a world-class airline, a senior executive pointed out that if a traveler found coffee stains on the drop-down meal tray, they assumed the airline was poorly run. What I am suggesting is that if a junior employee blows off a visitor at your offices, or the executive or journalist waiting in your lobby, you may be seeing repercussions in your business transactions in the meeting room later that day.

It seems, then, that actively teaching, or at least modeling, civil office place behavior is important. Should we be putting someone in charge of explicitly managing the civil treatment of coworkers and customers? The fault lines might lie along intergenerational interfaces, like seniors interacting with Millennials, or American young professionals less accustomed to face-to-face social scenarios interacting with business executives from other countries and cultures who expect civil treatment. Should we be offering training to counteract the trend toward rudeness?

Some organizations have added criteria for social skills and motivations into their hiring process. But too many of those people with developed social skills get shunted into occupations that are so-called “people jobs,” like retail or sales. I contend that America cannot afford to push social people into stereotypical career directions simply because they are friendly, attractive, polite, or caring. Those same people may also have extraordinary strengths in data analysis, logical problem solving, or technical automation. Are they in your pipeline? You need them in your business. You need them as project managers and on your strategic project teams.

If you want to be proactive about creating a civil, friendly, respectful work environment, remember that bad behavior rolls downhill. Make your own good values visible. Think about what you say, how you say it, and how you interact and talk among your own senior people and the rank and file. It is challenging enough today to keep a good organization growing and thriving in a tumultuous business environment. Think about how to enlist your employees, colleagues, and customers into the ranks of those who bring civility back to the workplace.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.