Workplace Incivility and Earning Your Colleagues' Trust

Don Tennant

Earlier this year, in a blog post titled "Tackling the Rampant Incivility in Public Discourse," I addressed the issue of why so many people are compelled to resort to personal attacks and hatefulness when expressing their views in a public forum. What is equally perplexing, and probably has more of a direct impact on our daily lives, is the question of why incivility is so common in the workplace.


In June, public relations firm Weber Shandwick and its Powell Tate strategic communications division released the "Civility in America 2011" report, the result of a survey conducted in May in collaboration with KCR Research. Among the findings:


  • 43 percent of respondents said they experienced incivility at work
  • 38 percent said the workplace is becoming more uncivil and disrespectful compared to a few years ago
  • 67 percent said there is a need for civility training in the workplace


Among those who said the workplace is becoming more uncivil, the blame was placed on:


  • Workplace leadership (65 percent)
  • Employees themselves (59 percent)
  • Economy (46 percent)
  • Competitiveness in the workplace (44 percent)
  • Younger employees (34 percent)
  • Access to the Internet (25 percent)
  • Lack of employee rights (24 percent)
  • Older employees (6 percent)


The "Civility in America 2011" report also cited research on the impact of incivility on productivity conducted in 2009 by Christine Porath, then a professor at the University of Southern California and currently a professor at Georgetown University. Her research found that of those who were subjected to incivility in the workplace:


  • 48 percent decreased their work effort
  • 47 percent decreased their time at work
  • 38 percent decreased their work quality
  • 66 percent said their performance declined
  • 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 63 percent lost time avoiding the offender
  • 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined


The reason all of this warrants discussion now is that two experts on workplace behavior, Dennis and Michelle Reina, have addressed the "Civility in America 2011" report and have linked workplace incivility to a lack of trust among co-workers. To make sure you're not part of the problem, the Reinas have outlined seven reasons your co-workers may not trust you, and what you can do to avoid the most common mistakes:


  • You withhold trust in others. Trust is a two-way street. If you want people to trust you, you need to trust them. For starters, avoid micromanaging. Instead, give your co-workers the latitude to put their full talents to work.
  • You fail to acknowledge effort. When a co-worker goes above and beyond for you, how do you respond? Do you take a moment to personally recognize his effort? Or do you just say "thanks" in a perfunctory email and move on to the next task?
  • You miss deadlines. Life happens and you miss a deadline here and there. No big deal, right? Wrong. Every time you don't deliver, you betray trust because your co-workers were depending on you.
  • You arrive late for meetings. When you consistently arrive late, your co-workers feel that you're wasting their time. They also feel that you'd only be willing to do that if you think your time matters more than theirs.
  • You don't admit your mistakes. By admitting your own mistakes, you not only acknowledge your humanity but also allow your co-workers to acknowledge theirs. As a result, communication opens up, mutual trust is built, and people feel free to take smart, creative risks.
  • You spin the truth. Do your co-workers know that they can count on you to tell the truth, or do they just assume you'll tweak it? Tell it like it is. Spin never passes the sniff test anyway. People see it for what it is and, sooner or later, lose trust.
  • You behave badly. Be aware of your behavior. Instead of berating a co-worker for missing a deadline, for instance, calmly ask how and why things got off track. Understand what that person needs from you in the future.

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