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The Price of Incivility

Written by: Stacy Rodenberger
Published: April 2015

As a new member of the Priority Learning team, I have the great opportunity to participate in almost every workshop series we offer. Two weeks ago, in the Facilitators and Leaders Series, our assignment was to choose one of three topics to research and present. One of the topics to choose from was “the price of incivility,” and I was impressed and moved by how my colleagues looked at the topic from both informational and personal points of view. The most striking feature of the conversations, however, was the common feeling within the group that incivility is a pervasive problem in the workplace. From general rudeness to texting during meetings to outright hostility, everyone had a story to share and examples of poor leadership. Those stories reminded me of my own workplace experiences, and then a good friend of mine was “let go” from her job last week, bringing the notion of incivility to the forefront.

I have long been aware of and sensitive to organizational culture (Ralph would say that’s my “N” function) and have seen cultures shift over time. The question that I am struggling with now is: how and why do smart, dedicated, creative people with proven success come to be perceived as ineffective, negative, and poor performers, seemingly overnight? I’ve seen this happen over and over again. I understand that staff are the biggest expense of any organization, and that cutting staff is the quick and easy fix to ever-fluctuating budget issues. But I also know that the staff – the people – are the most valuable resource of an organization, so the budget issue seems like a convenient excuse that doesn’t address the real issue. It doesn’t explain how good people are suddenly deemed “bad.” In my personal experience, incivility is a good way to describe how this newly-ineffective person is treated: a slow and steady removal of responsibilities, no recognition of achievements, a general dismissal of opinion and experience, negative performance conversations (both within and outside of the formal performance system) with no improvement plan in place, and behavior toward that person that is increasingly rude, isolating, and demeaning, to the point of termination. These actions, repeated over and over, engenders stress, anxiety, and depression and a horrible cycle of negativity, which leads to low morale across the organization. Once the pain of being let go has diminished, there is a relief of being free of that toxic environment. I have so many questions about this kind of behavior: Why is organizational change presented and handled with incivility rather than positivity and team-building opportunities? Why is the staff not seen as a benefit to developing and managing change? How do you handle a shift in organizational values? Why are people not more open about change and possibilities?

When talking about these questions, I have been told by many people, “That’s business. That’s reality. That’s life.” But does it have to be? Organizational culture, leadership, and performance are key themes running throughout Priority Learning’s workshop series, and there are so many tools and techniques available to leaders when dealing with change management, but leaders have to WANT to handle these big and tough questions with honesty and respect. Not everyone is right for the job, organizations do change, and people may not continue to fit over time, but open communication and transparency of culture and direction can go a long way to making the process more civil.

Last week, I was part of the Performance Leaders series, which takes a deep dive into performance management, and Day 1 included one of the toughest concepts, “straight talk,” or how to have a conversation with someone around a performance issue. The tools for having the straight talk conversation are very helpful, but there is so much more communication that needs to happen before that one “straight talk” moment (which is why the Performance Leaders series is 7 sessions!). For each instance of the uncivil behavior I listed above, whether it happened to me or to someone I know, I think, “but it could have been handled differently.” Transparency about the changes with the people most directly impacted could have yielded different results, which would be better for the organization and the individuals alike. Perceptions of poor performance could be opportunities for growth, if discussed openly and with a supportive system for individual change within the organization’s new directions. A continual alignment of individual interests with organizational goals and values could empower people and strengthen the whole organizational culture.

As I talked through some of these questions with Ralph last week, he shared with me the following, “The personal responsibility of each person is to prepare themselves for their business lives so they cannot be crushed under the weight of poor leadership and return to vitality quickly. This is how we should be preparing people. If we taught people to think of their employer like they think of their employees the table would be reversed.” We all have the responsibility to create the work culture we want. Leaders, managers, staff, whatever level you are at, you have to take ownership of your own behavior, your own attitudes, your own values. Leading at every level is a popular business theme these days, but it takes courage from all – especially the top leadership – to give their people the chance. That would go a long way to creating a civil, and vital, workplace.

Stacy Rodenberger

Stacy Rodenberger

Stacy Rodenberger is the newest member of the Priority Learning staff.