The Social Isolation of Workplace Incivility

There’s been lots of research on workplace incivility, all of it showing that it adversely affects victims. Even though incivility is low in intensity and has an ambiguous intent to harm victims (Andersson & Pearson, 1999), it still leads to health problems for victims (e.g., anxiety), it contributes to negative work attitudes (less commitment, higher intentions to quit), and it even harms performance.

Why would such low-grade rude behavior have such significant negative effects? My colleagues and I (Hershcovis, Ogunfowora, Reich, & Christie, in press) set out to answer this question by studying two key reasons: isolation and embarrassment.

Years of research has demonstrated that people care about their belongingness to social groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In fact, they care about inclusion so much that even when they despise the group (e.g., the KKK), they are still hurt when they are excluded from it (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2006).

This intense desire to belong extends to work organizations, where people want to fit in.  When someone is uncivil to someone else at work, victims perceive a social cue that they don’t belong to the group. They don’t fit in. They are not liked. This social cue leads to feelings of isolation and embarrassment (loss of face), which in turn relate to a range of negative consequences for victims.

Our results showed that when people are treated uncivilly, they feel embarrassed and isolated at work, and in turn, these feelings of embarrassment and isolation related to higher levels of job insecurity, and higher somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomach-aches, sleeplessness). These results persisted three days after the incivility first occurred, suggesting that even low intensity negative behaviors can influence targets for days.

What is worse, when the incivility comes from someone who holds power (e.g., a supervisor), victims were even more embarrassed, which yielded even stronger negative consequences for victims. People pay attention to powerful organizational members, so when they mistreat employees, other employees are more likely to notice.

These findings have important implications for supervisors, who can work to create cultures of inclusion at work. These findings also have implications for witnesses of incivility, who can counteract a target’s feeling of embarrassment by providing social support.

This research is in press as follows (please contact me for a copy of the manuscript):

Hershcovis, M.S., Ogunfowora, T., & Reich, T.C.*, Christie, A.M. (in press). Targeted workplace Incivility: The Roles of Belongingness, Embarrassment, and Power. Journal of Organizational Behavior.






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