The Dark Side of Workplace Civility

There is a substantial body of research showing the negative effects of workplace incivility. There is no doubt that it has a significant downside! But is there a dark side to civility?

I was sitting in a meeting a few months ago that had absolutely no point to it. The facilitator was ineffective, we were not getting anywhere, there seemed to be no objective, and yet everyone (including me) sat respectfully and said nothing to change the direction of the meeting. In that moment, I kept wishing I could put up my hand and say: “excuse me, but what’s the point to this meeting?”  But wouldn’t that have been rude and uncivil?  Most people would agree that such a response would have been counter-normative. It certainly fits the research definition of workplace incivility.  So we all sat quietly and wasted two hours of our time.

There are many, many examples of this type of situation at work. For example, imagine a colleague complains to you about her lower than average pay and how hard-done-by she feels. Meanwhile, you are thinking to yourself “but you take 2-hour breaks every day and you call in sick every second Friday! Why do you think you deserve a raise?” But we never say that, do we? Instead, we nod our heads sympathetically and validate her complaints. We might even express moral outrage at the injustice of it all! Of course, this only serves to reinforce her deluded beliefs about her due entitlements.

Why are we afraid to tell people the truth (that their meeting has no point or that they should stop complaining and do some work)? It seems to me that our concerns about civility often outweigh our willingness to be truthful. The reality is, we can tell the truth without being uncivil. But the pressure to be perceived as civil is so strong, that we often don’t even attempt to speak the truth in these instances. The dark side of civility is that people are so concerned about it, that they are often silent when they should speak up. Or worse, they validate the very behaviours that they should be discouraging.

A better approach might be to figure out how to speak up in a civil way. It is not uncivil to tell people things they don’t want to hear. It is uncivil to tell them such things rudely. Of course, constructive feedback is hard.  It’s much easier to either do nothing, or to snap at someone who eventually complains one time too many. But the risk is that you go on reinforcing behaviors that you would prefer to discourage because you don’t want to be seen as rude.

One interesting study by Jana Raver and her colleagues looks at constructive versus destructive criticism. As you might expect, people tend to perceive those who give constructive feedback more positively than those who give destructive (i.e., uncivil) feedback. Interestingly though, for individuals who aren’t very competitive and don’t seem to care too much about performance, destructive feedback actually improved their performance! In the words of Jana Raver, sometimes people “need a wake-up call.” In contrast, those who were more competitive performed more poorly after the same destructive feedback.

Maybe there is not only a dark side to civility, but under certain circumstances, there might be an upside to incivility!

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