Have you ever been in an argument that became heated and angry, but concluded with a resolution of differences and perhaps even the strengthening of a friendship or relationship? If so, was expressing anger part of the path toward getting to a better place?
Sorting and working through differences can be emotional stuff. We care about what’s being discussed. Egos enter the picture. At times, perceived injustices are involved. On occasion, past baggage can play a role.
Sometimes we need to express our emotions in order to move toward resolution. The decibel level may rise — hopefully not too high — and harsh words may be exchanged before our better natures prevail.
What about work?
Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. When such behaviors run rampant, their sum total makes for a lousy workplace. So…less incivility beats more incivility, hands down.
However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.
In fact, when these feelings are buried, they may lead to passive-aggressive behaviors that only make things worse. On an institutional level, the unavailability of emotional release valves may fuel what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call “pseudo-relational” cultures, i.e., workplace cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change and honest dialogue.
Caveats and definitions
Of course, there are some big caveats here. I’m not suggesting that any workplace become an emotional free-for-all; we all need to exercise a degree of self-control. In addition, when “clearing the air” opens the door to a more powerful party exacting retribution on the less powerful one, well, that compounds a nasty situation. We also need to understand how differing power relationships affect how communications are perceived.
Furthermore, I realize that many definitions of workplace incivility cover behaviors that some of us would deem bullying. Without parsing all those variations, I’ll simply say that when incivility morphs into targeted, abusive bullying that affects someone’s job performance and well-being, it’s never an acceptable method of “resolving” differences.
The role of the law
I think we should leave it to individuals and organizations to wrestle over questions of what constitutes civil vs. uncivil behavior. When it comes to legal standards, I agree with the Supreme Court’s sentiments, repeated in major decisions interpreting sexual harassment law, that the law should not become a workplace “civility code.”
But once that work environment becomes abusive, it’s time for the law to step in. We have some of those protections in place today when situations involve discrimination and harassment based on protected class membership such as sex, race, religion, or disability. Unfortunately, a gaping hole in the law remains with workplace bullying, and that’s why I drafted the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and why advocates across the country are asking state legislatures to enact it.
Incivility vs. bullying
At times I have used terms such as bullying and incivility somewhat interchangeably. But in reality, there often are stark differences. Workplace bullying is a form of abuse. It involves a party or parties exercising institutional and/or personal power over another in a hurtful way.
By contrast, some expressions of incivility, while not enjoyable or advisable as a general state of affairs, can be part of a process of resolving workplace differences and disputes, at least under the right circumstances.
- For a summary of the insightful work of Drs. Hartling and Sparks, see Typing Your Workplace Culture.
- This is my second, and hopefully more articulate, take on this topic. For the earlier commentary, see Bullying, incivility, and conflict resolution at work.