Can workplace incivility ever be healthy?

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.

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9 responses

  1. This may be the first time I disagree with you, David. The ability to argue a point about anything — personal or professional — is a skill that in most cases needs to be learned. However, incivility is never necessary and should not be thought of as a necessary part of a process. It is never necessary — or all right — to be anything other than civil in your communication with others. That’s not to say that we don’t all behave in less than ideal ways — just that we need to realize what we’ve done. We haven’t cleared the air by losing control and saying things we didn’t really mean — that is hurtful and whether it falls under the heading of bullying or not is up for interpretation. Real problem solving is done by honest communication regarding feelings – even high emotion — but done with respect and CIVILITY. Done any other way puts the focus on the behavior rather than resolution of the issue. People walk away from such uncivil contests remembering the negative outbursts more often they they go away feeling great about the resolution of the issue.

  2. Mary, if we had an ideal world where everyone had full control over their emotions and power relationships were relatively equal, I would agree with you. But sometimes these situations do get out of hand and lead to splits between parties; other times they get out of hand but eventually lead to a resolution of differences. (The history of the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement is filled with instances of both.)

    I was pretty careful to make clear that I’m not advocating for rampant incivility in the workplace. But I was asserting that what some may define as incivility is sometimes part of the process of getting to a better place.

    As an important aside, the incivility card is often played against the less powerful, aggrieved party. How many times have we seen cold, calculating bullies provoking an outburst from a target, then claiming victimhood? How many times have targets of discrimination and harassment been told to control their anger, not to get “too emotional”? In such situations, I’m not going condemn the targeted individual; rather, I want to understand what brought them to that place.

  3. David, I think there’s also a lot to do with good communication simply being difficult.

    It’s often difficult to clearly express what’s bothering you. Finding the right words to explain ones frustration, anger or confusion can be hard and can lead to a tetchy tone and shortened temper when it doesn’t come out with clarity. (Both as annoyance with oneself and annoyance with the listener for being unable to mindread!) It’s also difficult for many people to listen with hearing ears and ask for clarification as needed. Both aspects are integral to good communication. Having said that, I don’t think we’re taught to listen well or express anger clearly without the barbs and putdowns.

    Good thought provoking piece. Thanks. Sue

  4. Mary and Sue, thank you for this exchange. I have been wrestling with this topic for a long time, and your comments have caused me to ponder it even more. The whole conflict-incivility-disrespect-bullying continuum remains much harder to apply in real life than in theory, which complicates my thinking even more!

    • Thank you!! It is so good for us to contemplate these issues. I believe that is one way to be watchful about my own behavior — and perhaps be more intentional in my own respect for others.

  5. David, I think you’e hit on a key factor in the problem getting people to face the realities of workplace bullying. Sometimes “uncivil” discourse, within certain parameters, can lead to good progress for everyone. Discerning the difference between uncomfortable-but-healthy release and bullying is not always a cakewalk for the observer.

    I think the Potter Stewart test might be more helpful as the work you and the Namies do helps us develop a broader, more definite consensus on what constitutes bullying.

  6. It’s healthy to speak up!

    Important messages can be obscured in nicey-nicey language. Would slavery have been abolished if the abolitionists had focused on being polite instead of truthful? They would not have been heard.

    People confuse conflict with bullying.

    Conflict is the natural outcome of people being diverse – having diverse beliefs, outlooks, experiences, perceptions, and values. Conflict is inevitable. Conflict can become abusive when it’s not resolved in a healthy way, but, when both parties are well-intentioned and have empathy and good communication skills, conflict gets resolved. Where there’s conflict, intervention with both parties can be helpful.

    Bullying is different. Bullying is not about conflict – it’s about domination and abuse. Educating the bully about civil communication is pointless because the bully is not well-intentioned, does not have empathy, and will use what is taught to be clever about inflicting pain. Where bullies are involved, the most civil words possible are “you’re fired.”

  7. Pingback: Past reflections on workplace bullying and worker dignity | H.A.L.T.

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