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Christine Porath Takes on the Rude Workplace

If you’ve ever felt that someone has been rude or uncivil to you at work, I think you’ll really enjoy today’s conversation. My guest is Christine Porath, associate professor of management at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and author of the new book Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. It’s a fantastic read in which Christine gets to the heart of what’s behind on-the-job rudeness, what it costs us all and what we can do about it. I’m thrilled to dive into this meaty — and very timely — topic with her.

Have a listen to this interview as we discuss:

  • The high cost of workplace incivility.
  • Why workplace rudeness is on the rise.
  • How to better gauge and monitor your own behaviour.
  • Coping mechanisms for handling incivility — in the moment and in general.
  • The two key questions to ask yourself in the face of incivility.
  • How to master e-civility.

Be sure to follow Christine at christineporath.com and on Twitter @PorathC.

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Full Transcript

Michael:     I bet you’ve experienced this. That moment in the meeting when somebody says something that, subtly or not subtly, diminishes you. That email that makes your hackles rise. That time when you feel cut out or slighted or cut in some way, and the kind of the frustration and shame and anger that all kind of shows up in this messy cocktail. Or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know. But if that has ever happened to you, if you’ve ever felt that somebody has been rude to you or uncivil to you at work, I think you’ll like this next conversation. I’m talking to Christine Porath. And her new book is called Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. And Christine is the associate professor of management at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and she works as a consultant of course as well, helping organizations address this quite—I was going to say “impactful”; it’s a terrible word—this pattern of behaviour that seems to be getting worse and has a significant impact on productivity, on engagement, on happiness. So if you’re curious about this, you’ll enjoy this next conversation with me and Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.

Alright, Christine, intro done. People are on the edge of their seat about what we’re going to talk about today. But let’s start off as I do with all our calls by saying, okay, you’ve written a book. Writing a book is a miserable experience, at best. What are you taking a stand against? What’s irritated you enough that you’ve said, “I need to write a book and make a point about this?”

Christine:   Well, just how costly incivility is, particularly in the workplace. So, I worked in a toxic environment and I felt like, for some reason, people were ignoring this and thinking they could treat people horribly, and didn’t really see the consequences attached to that.

Michael:     So, I love that. And, you know, the title of your book, Mastering Civility, says it all, really. Do you think, in general, that people are getting ruder, nastier in workplaces and in life? Or is it just something that’s just come to your attention? I’m not sure if you have any data behind, you know, people are getting grumpier in workplaces.

Christine:   Yeah, unfortunately, I do have some data that suggests that it has grown in prevalence over the last couple decades. So, in 1998, I found that about 20% of people were experiencing rudeness weekly. And more recently,  that number is well over 50% of people that say that they experience rudeness or incivility at least once a week at work. So, sadly, I think that all too many people are experiencing this, even more regularly as well.

Michael:     That’s depressing, isn’t it?

Christine:   It is. It’s very depressing. You know, and the only—there are, I think, a lot of reasons for this. But one piece of it is that I do think people are more aware of it.

And so, you know, our antennas are up, but I think that there’s a lot of contributing factors, the biggest one being that people claim to be under more stress nowadays. And that’s the number one reason that people say that they’re rude. They’re overwhelmed and just, you know, feeling stressed out.

Michael:     So, I totally get that, and it’s part of what we talk about on this podcast all the time, about how do you manage stress, how do you focus on the work that matters and has meaning to you? Any hypothesis around, you know, the millennials tend to get this miserable lump(?) about being this selfish, self-centered, ungrateful generation, and I’m not sure I entirely buy much of that. But I’m curious to know if there’s a generational thing that you think might be playing into this at all?

Christine:   I do. So, there’s a woman named Jeanne Flinge at San Diego State that has studied the generation over the last 25 years. And she found that, you know, today, narcissistic scores are up about 25% than, you know, a couple of decades ago. And so, I think that that may have some impact on, you know, the fact that that’s not great for workplace interactions with others. Having said that, you know, I think that there are just slightly different norms also, in today’s workplace. So, you know, that may contribute as well. So, I don’t want to point the finger at millennials only,  but I do think it’s a contributing factor. And so we see different generations saying, like, “Who does he or she think she is?” You know, kind of thing.

Michael:     Okay. “Young people …!” I’ve just hit the stage where, my friends and I go out for a drink and somehow we end up talking about “young people today,” and I’m like, “Oh my god, I’ve become that old guy who moans about young people. Damnit!”

Christine:   Exactly. And they bring, you know, plenty of great qualities to the workplace as well. Which is why I also hate to, you know, rip on them too harshly. But I do hear older managers sometimes complaining about, you know, “Why don’t they tend to respect us as much, and treat others with the level of respect?” And some of that is formalities and so forth. But, you know, I have heard some very funny stories. Like, there was a managing partner of a law firm that was telling me that they had essentially an intern. And he called them into his office and asked him to do a task. And the intern said, “Okay, well, memo that up and get it back to me.” And the partner just looked at him and thought, “You know, you’ve got to be kidding me! I’m taking orders here from our …” you know. So you do hear stories like that.

And, again, I think that there are, for the millennials, less status differences. You know, they step into the workplace thinking that they very much, you know, it’s a level playing field and they have what it takes to succeed. And so, I think that across the generations there are some differences for what respect can and should look like.

Michael:     Right.

Christine:   And so, ideally, you know, the older generations I just try to encourage them to coach people as to your expectations and, you know, try to mentor them along the way.

Michael:     Well, let me ask, before we get into some of the ways of becoming more civil, or managing people who are being uncivil, what are some of the ways incivilities show up? I mean, civility and incivility are language people understand, but  what specifically does it look like, or what are you talking about when you address it in your new book?

Christine:   Yeah, so I think, you know, a lot of the times people will describe being belittled or demeaned, you know, let’s say in a meeting. You know, someone kind of takes them down a notch or rips on them in ways that they feel like, you know, really degrade them. So that’s, you know, certainly one kind of in-your-face example. But it also can be more subtle, like people emailing or texting during meetings. So, people will complain that their boss, for example, isn’t paying attention to them. You know, that they don’t feel like they’re being respected. It can also be things that are, like, spreading rumors or taking advantage of others. You know, in teams I’ll hear about people not giving them credit for the work, you know, or leaving their name off of a report that they contributed. So it does span a wide range of different types of behaviours. I think the important thing is that people feel like they were treated rudely or disrespectfully. So it is, very much, in the eyes of the beholder.

Michael:     What’s the impact on people feeling that they’ve been diminished in this way? I mean, how does that play out in terms of, I don’t know, engagement, productivity, some of those metrics that organizations and team leaders worry about?

Christine:   It takes a huge hit on engagement and performance and creativity. People are far less helpful. And this is true not only for people that experience it, but people that witness it, too. And what I’ve learned over the years is that part of this, it’s not only a story about getting even or trying to take it out on someone or the organization. But a lot of it has to do with people losing focus after this happens. Or it’s around them. You know, they don’t concentrate as well. They don’t remember as well. And we can imagine when this may have happened to us, you know. What happens? Well, it takes us off track. You know, we’re now replaying the incident in our minds different times. We may be thinking about the ways that we could have or should have responded. We may be thinking about what influence this has on our career. So, you know, it just takes a huge cognitive toll on people.

Michael:     So, I’m sure, Christine, that everybody listening to this call is really nice. Really delightful. They themselves wouldn’t deliberately be uncivil. But I suspect, because I know I’m one of these, that there’s ways you kind of accidentally kind of slight somebody or diminish somebody. So I’m wondering what we can do—what I could do—to kind of just become a little more aware of the impact of my behaviour? Have you got any insights around just getting me a greater sense of how I might be impacting those that I work with?

Christine:   Yeah, so a few ideas. I’ve included a quiz, both in the book but also online, that’s, you know, free and accessible for all. It’s at ChristinePorath.com. So, I’d encourage people to try to take that and just be mindful of what behaviours pop up.  It gives suggestions for how you can improve those things where you score low. The other thing is just really seeking feedback from others. So if you don’t get feedback through 360, you know, through your organization, or if you don’t have a boss or peers that are giving you regular feedback, then I strongly encourage people to ask. You know, “What are the things that I am doing that are helpful? What are the things that I could do to improve?” And it’s as basic as that. And then hopefully you’re getting feedback about specific things that you could tweak. Because a lot of these things are quite minor, and, you know, really it’s just people lack self-awareness about how they’re being perceived.

Michael:     Yeah, it’s interesting, you know. Those are great questions. I mean, that general piece around seek out feedback, how you’re doing. But I’m wondering if this says something about the language of the question you ask. I mean, “What am I doing well? What’s useful?” is great. (Indiscernible) what should I do differently?” already takes you into  kind of tactical stuff. And I’m wondering if there’s a question, something like, you know, “What’s the impact? What’s it like working with me?”

I mean, I’m thinking out loud. It’s a question that might have a more interesting answer, but it’s also a harder question to answer, particularly if you’re sitting face to face with that person.

Christine:   Yeah, no. I really like that, and I’ll suggest to others to give that a shot as well. I mean, I think you’re right. It’s really trying to start a dialogue with people, and, you know, following up with others about how you’re doing. The other thing that I like is just—and this goes along with kind of coaching, if you will. But, like, Marshall Goldsmith’s Feed Forward concept. You know, about once you hone in on something specific, then asking people what you could do—your colleagues, your subordinates, things like that—to improve that, in particular, and then really working and checking in with people around, you know, how you’re measuring up, you know, and if you’re improving.

Michael:     Part of what I like about Marshall’s work is, as well as that Feed Forward piece, which is around, you know, “What should I work on? What should I do?,” is he’s very good about saying, “Let’s stay focused here. Let’s just pick one thing for you to work on.” So, it would be interesting to say, “What’s the one thing I could do differently that would make this a nicer place to work, not necessarily in a more efficient or more productive, but a more pleasant place to work?” That could actually open up an interesting conversation.

Christine:   Yes. I think that’s a great idea.

Michael:     Alright, Christine. Here we go. The rapid-fire question round. The first one—because we ask all of our guests these same three questions—what’s the crossroads you came to? What’s the decision you made that made the big difference for you in your life?

Christine:   So, when I was working in a toxic workplace environment in a sports management firm, I decided that people needed to be aware of the costs of, you know, rudeness and incivility. And so I decided to go back and get my PhD. And my goal was to document, in as objective a way as possible, what are the costs of incivility and why should we care?

Michael:     Nice. I mean, you talk about that in the first part of your book, but that’s the seed from which the book came from. So that’s fantastic.

Christine:   Yes.

Michael:     Whose work has influenced your work?

Christine:   So, Adam Grant is a role model for me. I mean, he’s a phenomenal researcher in my field, and friend, but he also has found a real way to get his work out in broad, meaningful ways. And I think his work has such a positive influence on leaders and organizations, as well as just people in society. You know, before him Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer at Stanford had, you know, great books, which affected leaders, I think, in this way, too, in the ways I’m striving to. And then Marshall Goldsmith we talked about earlier. But his work, you know, came from an academic background …

Michael:     That’s true.

Christine:   … but just had just a tremendous impact  on people, you know? And I really admire, you know, him and his work as well.

Michael:     Yeah, fantastic. All great role models. You know, Adam Grant’s work on give-and-take has a nice connection to this piece around civility and generosity being a way of being more civil. And certainly Bob Sutton and his great book. What’s it called? The No Asshole Rule? Is that it?

Christine:   It is. Yeah.

Michael:     Yeah, I love that. It’s a terrific book. And Marshall, of course, is a long-term friend of Box of Crayons. All three great role models.

So, third and final rapid-fire question is this. What’s your great work at the moment? I mean, that’s what Box of Crayons is about. And if good work is the everyday work, but great work is that kind of light-you-up, make-the-difference-in-the-world meaning, impact, how do you see, how do you talk about your great work right now?

Christine:   Well, I just finished up a report for SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) on how do we create more human workplaces where people thrive?

Michael:     Nice.

Christine:   Yeah, I love the idea of getting my arms around that. You know, what are the different ways? I mean, civility is one of them, but I think there are lots of other levers that leaders can use to create better workplaces where people are more engaged and thriving. And then how do they role-model that? That’s the second piece of that. It’s not just, you know, creating policies or a culture where people do that, but actually then living it, so that people, you know, that it also encourages others to do it. And so, getting that work out in different ways and doing talks, whether it’s the book or on those related topics. I think, you know, where I get my spark is really, kind of, recognizing or finding ways where the research has an impact. You know, it leads to more positive workplaces where people thrive. Because that’s what really led me to this field. And so, that’s really where I want to make a difference, is, you know, to reduce the toxicity in workplaces and really try to improve, you know, the more thriving (indiscernible) for people in particular.

Michael:     I love that. Christine, let’s get back to the real interview now.

Christine:   Okay.

Michael:     So, Christine, part of the price we pay for incivility is just what you said before, which is we’ve all suffered from it. You know, somebody being angry, being rude, being diminishing in some way. And I’ve certainly had that moment where I’ve gone back to my desk and just kind of had the whole thing rattling through my head again and again and again, and feeling kind of outraged and, you know, ‘I want revenge’ or whatever it might be.

Christine:   Right.

Michael:     What are some tactics for managing yourself in the face of incivility? How do you deal with it when you’re the target of it or even deliberately or just collateral damage?

Christine:   Yeah, I think it’s really important to try not to take it personally. You know, I think a lot of people let it tear them down, [17:00] and not just the way you’re talking about, kind of in the moment or shortly thereafter, but over long periods of time I’ll hear about this. And so, you know, I think it really comes down to, like, what are you going to make of this? You know, are you going to make it about you and your competence, and, you know, your potential success with this boss or organization? Or are you going to try to put it into perspective and think, “What can I do—you know, do differently to improve?” and focus on, you know, moving forward. Because, what I have learned is too many people get stuck and get stuck for long periods of time. And so I think one of the things that I stress to people is, if at all possible, try to, you know, not make it about you. You know, you can think the person’s a jerk or what have you. You can write them off. You could even write the message off if you completely disagree with it. But I think it’s very important that people don’t let this eat away at them or their performance. And so, that’s the biggest thing. [18:00] And of course, you know, everyone’s different, but, you know, there are ideas. Like, I love to work it out. You know, like, meaning go exercise at the gym, take out my frustrations that way, you know, playing sports. So I like to encourage people to be healthy about it, if possible. You know, if you feel like you’re getting beat up in the workplace, I think it’s really important that you find things that feed you, outside of the workplace.

So, you know, I study thriving at work, and one of the things that we find is if you’re thriving outside of the workplace, that helps. You know, there’s a positive correlation between how you feel outside the confines of the workplace, and then what you’re bringing in back in—energetically, cognitively, all of that. And so, you know, I think that that’s a very healthy response as well.

And there are other things that you can do, like trying to make your job more meaningful. So, again, you know, I kind of think of that as feeding yourself, you know? We know how important having meaningful work is.

Michael:     Yes.

Christine:   So, are there things that you could do,  and in particular that would improve your learning and growing? Again, I think part of it is just you want to feel like you’re moving forward. So you’ve got to do whatever you can to push yourself that way. Because oftentimes we just don’t have control over the other person.

Michael:     Right.

Christine:   And, particularly with rudeness, over two-thirds of the time it comes from someone with more power, you know? Someone that’s above us. And so I think all the more important to say, “You’ve got to do what you can to take care of yourself in other ways.”

Michael:     Yeah, I love it. I think those are all great suggestions. You know, that piece around look after yourself, in the short-term and in the longer term afterwards, make sure you’re thriving outside work. But I think that insight about, from your research, two-thirds of causes of incivility come from people who are more senior than us. In other words, people over whom we don’t feel we have power or control. Is there anything we can do, kind of almost in the moment? Because you know how it is. Somebody gets—starts being rude to you, shouting at you, slighting you in some way, and your heart starts beating a little bit faster, and you kind of get that blood in your eyes, blood in your ears sort of thing, and you can feel yourself almost in fight—or probably actually in fight-or-flight mode and you can’t control it, but, you know, using the, who is it? Blanchard(?) circle, is it? There’s control, there’s influence. There’s can neither control nor influence. Is there anything you can do to influence them? Is there anything that you can do in the moment to control yourself and your own reactions to that, that might be useful?

Christine:   Yeah. Well, I mean, it brings me back to a question that I love that guides my both short-term response and long-term response, which is, “Who do you want to be?” You know? And in those moments, I also think quickly, like, “Am I going to regret this?” Because I think that, you know, while it’s very challenging to control our fight-or-flight kind of mode that you just described, you know, I think the idea is [21:00] you would face potentially drastic consequences if you, you know, lashed out at your boss, particularly publically, you know, in response. So, trying to cool yourself down and think, you know, “Who do I want to be?” and remind yourself of the potential consequences and what’s on the line. And then, you know, later you can think about a healthier response, including, you know, potentially reporting something if that’s helpful to you. You know, and certainly including it in feedback and things like that. But I think it’s important that you don’t lose your temper at work. I mean, that’s where we see a lot of things flying out of control.

Michael:     Right.

Christine:   So, you know, as much as possible, I know it sounds far easier than when we’re challenged to do this. So I feel a little bit …

Michael:     Right. This is hard. This is hard stuff.

Christine:   Yeah. It’s easy for me to say. It’s really challenging to do in the moment. But I think that, you know, that’s what we will try to do, is, you know, keep our heads about this, in the moment, and then think more constructively about, you know, are there ways that you can defend yourself? Are there ways that you could follow up with a healthier conversation? You know, and the bottom line is, if you can’t create a better situation for yourself, then, you know, I do think it’s worthwhile about considering possibilities outside the organization, you know, because it’s just too costly on people’s health. I mean, that’s the sad thing. You know, stress researchers have shown that these kind of maybe more minor incidents, that they really can eat away at you. They’re like a thousand paper cuts, you know?

Michael:     Right.

Christine:   And so, it can take a tremendous toll, almost because we are silent about it, and we bottle it up, and we maybe don’t realize, you know, quite the toll it’s taking. And, over time, that really adds up. And so, I do think that it’s worth taking a hard look if you’re facing a pattern of this, or if working in a toxic environment about, you know,  “Would there be better places for me?” You know?

Michael:     Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to say, which is—one of the solutions is—one way out of this is to be thinking, “I don’t have to sit here and take this. So, what are my alternatives to where I am at the moment?” And it might be a different role in the same organization. It might be a new organization altogether.

Christine:   Absolutely, yeah.

Michael:     So, I do like those two questions. The first one was, “Who do I want to be?” and the second one was—I can’t remember how you phrased it, but I liked it. It’s basically, “What are the consequences of this?” How did you put it?

Christine:   Yeah, “What are the potential consequences, you know, for how I’m going to respond?” Yeah.

Michael:     Let me push on the first one just a little bit, that piece around “Who do I want to be?” How do people know who they want to be? Are there ways of kind of helping find that foundation about how you’re aspiring to show up in the workplace?

Christine:   Yeah, well, I mean I think, you know, at a big-picture level, we all have role models, you know. And many of those people are not people in the workplace, but just broadly; people that we admire their character and how they carry themselves, and so forth. And having those people in mind is actually personally more helpful to me than even just, you know, leaders that I might admire. But I think if we thought about leaders that we love to work for, you know, and what were the things—it comes back to your question earlier, which is, you know, what could you do that would make it a nicer place to work? We all have had bosses or leaders that we’ve worked for that we thought, “Gosh, they’ve done some things that have really made this a much better place.”

And so—and, you know, for me, I learn about these people, you know, through reading others and hearing talks, and so forth. But you try to gain these ideas, and then I would shoot to do those things, you know? And, so there’s a little exercise where you write down five things that you’ve seen leaders do that you believe would make a big difference to those that work you, let’s say, or around you. And you try to do those things. And some of them may take a little extra time or care, but, you know, we know, personally, the difference that that can make. And so, you know, that would be what I would strive for, is, who are your role models, and then shoot for doing some of those things specifically.

Michael:     Yeah, I love that. We’ve just got a little bit of time left. I just want to ask you, Christine, very quickly just about, you know, one of your chapters in the book addresses E-civility. You know, it’s easy to think about how this stuff plays out in person, but of course, through email and online communication, there’s all sorts of opportunities for various forms of abuse to happen. How do you best manage what you do so that you appear civil in the way you communicate electronically?

Christine:  Yeah, well, I think, you know, part of it is, don’t write when you are upset. As you described earlier, you know, when you’re feeling kind of the anger swell in you or the stress swell in you. I think those are the times that you want to see a draft maybe in email, but don’t send it, you know. Or pick up the phone instead. Or think about, you know, kind of a better time versus responding in the moment. I think people get themselves in trouble. But when there’s conflict or they’re feeling that way, the temptation is to fire off a nasty email, you know, to put the person in their place, you know, and let them know how we really feel.

Michael:     Yeah.

Christine:   And it’s far easier to do that at a distance, right?

Michael:     Of course.

Christine:   So, you know, I strongly encourage, you know, just, if you’re—if you can’t resolve a disagreement, if you think that your email will evoke a negative response, if you’re feeling angry or slighted, you know that your stress is rising, or they’re stressed out, or if you want to deliver bad news, you know, those are times where I would strongly encourage that you don’t use email.

Michael:     I like that.

Christine:   Whether you choose a different mode of communication or you wait, you know, that out. Because I think that’s where often the misunderstandings occur, or you make things a lot worse by using email.

Michael:     Yeah, I mean, in some ways what you’re connecting it to is that question about, well, “What are the consequences of me doing that?” And pointing to the fact that the consequences are perhaps a little harder to gauge when you’re sitting in front of your own screen about to write a rude email. And it’s that same piece around, well, “How do I want to show up in this world? Who do I want to be known as? How do I want to be? And what are the consequences from this action, and are they worth it?”

Christine:   Exactly.

Michael:     So, Christine, our work here is all but done. But before we go, I do want to direct people to where they can find out more about you and more about the book. So, is there a website or somewhere that people can find you?

Christine:   Yes, so, ChristinePorath.com is the best spot. There’s a lot of articles and resources and that self-assessment, if people are interested in that.

Michael:     Perfect. And are you on Twitter or anything like that?

Christine:   Yes, I am. I’m on Twitter and I am on LinkedIn. Yeah, they can find me there as well.

Michael:     And Christine Porath, P-O-R-A-T-H. Christine, it’s been lovely to talk to you. Thanks for your time today on figuring out not just how to be less uncivil in the way that you show up, but also how to manage yourself when you’re faced with incivility in the workplace. It’s been great to talk to you.

Christine:   Thanks very much, Michael.

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