All things being equal, most of us would much prefer a workplace where civility, rather than incivility, shapes the dominant culture. After all, who wants to work at a place where nastiness is the norm?
But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.
In such situations, the abuser may be skilled at button pushing and attempt to elicit a sharp reaction from the target. If the target reacts emotionally, perhaps even losing his temper, the abuser and/or her enablers may respond with false astonishment, outrage, or hurt. The target has now broken an actual or implicit civility code.
The target’s behavior may allow an abuser to claim victim status. At this point, HR may step in — on the side of the abuser! (The legal department may not be far behind.)
The workplace psychopath or “almost psychopath” is very good at orchestrating this toxic dance. Furthermore, the abuser’s cool, logical, business-as-usual front also may have the (oft-deliberate) effect of making the target doubt her own judgment. This can reach the level of “gaslighting” — a crazy making type of bullying intended to mess with someone’s head.
Of course, these behaviors rarely occur in isolation. Organizational culture usually serves as the broader sponsor for employee mistreatment. The scenarios described here are most likely to emerge in workplaces that adopt what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” culture, where surface politeness trumps honest, open communication.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of open conflict. However, as I’ve written before, I’d prefer a workplace where people can discuss their concerns — even if it means tempers flaring on occasion — over one where human emotions are bottled up and differences are expressed passive-aggressively. The latter may well empower the worst types of workplace aggressors.