Christine Porath is an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University where she focuses on the effects of bad behavior within organizations and how leaders can create a more positive work environment.

Porath spoke about her research with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How do you define incivility? What does bad behavior tend to look like in the workplace?

A. It’s anything seen as disrespectful or insensitive. As far as examples go, there’s just a huge gamut — so it can be ignoring people’s requests, asking or answering questions in a way that demeans others, talking down to others or belittling them, taking too much credit for collaborative work, spreading rumors about people or delaying access to information or resources.

Q. Can you give me some real-world scenarios from your research?

A. There are examples of a boss saying “This is kindergarten work” in front of others. Another one involved a boss laying off employees with his feet up on the table, not looking them in the eyes, not caring at all, and showing such disrespect over something that obviously was important to those people. That was one that I was really shocked about.

Q. How does this type of behavior affect employee engagement and morale?

A. The costs are huge. Bad behavior clearly reduces employee engagement. People spend far less time and energy on their work. An even greater cost is the effect on performance. I’ve found that people can’t focus, they don’t remember and they don’t perform as well when they experience, or even just witness, incivility. This impacts decision-making, problem-solving, creativity and performance.

Q. What are some other costs?

A. We found that people kind of check out. They may be looking at other positions or thinking how to cope, but clearly the commitment drops drastically. It also harms the cooperation among employees. It hurts creativity and trust with people. From an organizational standpoint, you’re not able to retain employees. This is especially true for top-talent, because they don’t have to put up with this as much. It’s also a reputational hit to the organization —  the ability to recruit desired employees drops, and even customers who witness an employee being uncivil to another employee show a drop in customer loyalty.

Q. So given these costs, why do organizations ignore bad behavior?

A. When I started studying this about 15 years ago, that absolutely was the case. I was shocked that managers weren’t paying attention to this and that they were allowing it to go on. But the good news is that things have changed a lot. During the last 15 years, managers and organizations are much more aware and willing to try to craft more positive cultures for employees. I’ve seen a real shift.

Q. Strategically, what should organizations be doing?

A. One thing is hiring with diligence. Don’t hire anyone without checking references. Team hiring is a great way to go, because people pick up on different signals. That’s a big piece of it, not recruiting any bad apples.

I think making civility a mission is important. It’s should be in the mission statement that you expect employees to treat each other with respect. Opening a dialogue about what the norms will be is a great thing leaders can do. In other words, who do we want to be and what do we want to hold ourselves accountable for? Even teams can do that. Posting guidelines afterwards is helpful just as a reminder.

Another aspect is how to give and receive feedback. Microsoft has a popular course called "precision questioning," where people learn how to give healthy and constructive criticism, but with a kind of emotional intelligence and civility in intense situations. Coaching also can be effective. People often do not realize how they come across.

Q. What can a leader of a team or a unit do to proactively create a positive work environment?

A. One of my favorite examples is basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University. When he became the Olympic coach of the Dream Team, he brought the team together for the first time and basically said, “Who do we want to be? You guys decide what we want our norms to be.” He started with the need for being honest with each other, and someone else jumped in and said always being on time and always respecting each other. They had about 15 ideas in a short amount of time. What happened is that they then owned those norms. They held each other accountable because they were the ones who decided.

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