When I was 22, I scored what I thought was my dream job. I moved from the snowy Midwest to sunny Florida with a group of fellow former college athletes to help a global athletic brand launch a sports academy. But within two years I and many of my peers had left our jobs.
We had fallen victim to a work culture rife with bullying, rudeness, and other incivility that was set by a dictatorial head of the organization and had trickled down through the ranks. Employees were at best disengaged; at worst they undertook acts of sabotage or released their frustration on family members and friends. By the time I left, many of us were husks of our former selves.
That experience was so formative that I decided to spend my professional life studying workplace incivility—and its costs and remedies. My research has shown that it is almost impossible to be untouched by incivility during one’s career. Over the past 20 years I’ve polled thousands of workers and found that 98% have experienced uncivil behavior and 99% have witnessed it. In 2011 half said they were treated badly at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998. Rude behavior ranged from outright nastiness and intentional undermining to ignoring people’s opinions to checking e-mail during meetings.
As I and my colleagues at the sports academy discovered, incivility in the workplace drags down performance and takes a personal toll. In laboratory settings I’ve found that simply observing it makes people far less likely to absorb information. Seeing or experiencing rude behavior impairs working (short-term) memory and thus cognitive ability. It has been shown to damage the immune system, put a strain on families, and produce other deleterious effects.
Unfortunately, people’s resilience to incivility is partly out of their control. Research has shown that responses to threat, humiliation, loss, or defeat—all commonly associated with incivility—are significantly influenced by genetic makeup. Perhaps as a result, the most effective way to reduce the costs of incivility in the workplace is to build a culture that rejects it—to adopt “the no asshole rule,” as Robert Sutton calls it in his best-selling book by that name. But very few organizations can comprehensively enforce this rule. So when individuals encounter incivility, what should they do?
My research has uncovered some tactics that anyone can use to minimize the effects of rudeness on performance and well-being. I wish I could have shared these with my younger self as she floundered in a hostile work environment many years ago.
The Usual Responses Often Fall Short
Many people decide to tackle incivility head-on—through either retaliation or direct discussion. Another common response is to try to work around the problem by avoiding the perpetrator as much as possible. Although these approaches can help in certain situations, I don’t usually advise people to take them. Avoidance often falls apart, because sometimes you have no choice but to collaborate with discourteous colleagues. Confrontation can make the dynamic worse. In my surveys I’ve found that more than 85% of people who chose to avoid or confront perpetrators were unsatisfied with how the situation ended or how they handled it, and those who attempted confrontation were no more satisfied than those who didn’t respond. Relying on institutional remedies rarely works either—a mere 15% report being satisfied with how their employers handle incivility. In fairness, organizations often have no opportunity to act: More than half of survey respondents say they don’t report rudeness, largely out of fear or a sense of helplessness.
A Holistic Approach
Just as medicine is shifting from a focus on fighting illness to one on promoting wellness, research in my field—organizational behavior—has begun to discover that working to improve your well-being in the office, rather than trying to change the offender or the corrosive working relationship, is the most effective remedy for incivility.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t report a rude or bullying colleague to HR, or try to manage conflict directly. But a more sustainable way to deal with bad behavior is to make yourself impervious to it—or at least a lot less vulnerable. To do that, it’s helpful to look at what we know about thriving—the psychological state in which a sense of vitality and self-improvement fortifies people against the vicissitudes of life.
Few people are satisfied with how their employers handle incivility.
In my research I have found that thriving people are healthier, more resilient, and better able to focus on their work. They are buffered against distraction, stress, and negativity. In a study of six organizations across industries, employees characterized as high thrivers burned out less than half as often as their peers. They were 52% more confident in themselves and their ability to take control of a situation, and their performance suffered 34% less after an unpleasant incident.
If you’re thriving, you’re less likely to worry about a hit or take it as a personal affront, more immune to the waves of emotion that follow, and more focused on navigating toward your goal. Yet despite these obvious advantages, fewer than half the people I’ve surveyed focus on themselves and work to foster a thriving mentality after a brush with incivility. Rarely do they consider that the antidote might be totally disconnected from the incident at hand.
How can you help yourself thrive? I suggest a two-pronged approach: Take steps to thrive cognitively, which includes growth, momentum, and continual learning; and take steps to thrive affectively, by which I mean feeling healthy and experiencing passion and excitement at work and outside it. These two tactics are often mutually reinforcing—if you have energy, you’re more likely to be motivated to learn, and a sense of growth fuels your vitality. But distinguishing between them can help people recognize in which area they may be lagging and take steps to bolster their defenses for the next hostile encounter.
If you’ve dealt with a rude colleague, you probably know how hard it can be to get over it. Perhaps no feeling is more difficult to overcome than a sense of injustice. Neuroscientists have shown that memories attached to strong emotions are easier to access and more likely to be replayed, and ruminating on an incident prevents you from putting it behind you. This can cause greater insecurity, lower self-esteem, and a heightened sense of helplessness.
I encourage people to shift their focus to cognitive growth instead. Your conscious brain can think about only so many things at once—far better that it keep busy building new neural connections and laying down new memories.
You can allow yourself to feel hurt or outraged—but for a limited time only. Tina Sung, a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, shared with me a saying that captures this advice: “You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there.” I might add that Pity City is a good place to drop off your baggage.
Journaling and other rituals can help bring closure. As David Brooks documents in his new book, The Road to Character,Dwight D. Eisenhower often wrote furious invective in his journal to release negative emotions related to colleagues. He started the habit while working as an aide to the famously tyrannical General Douglas MacArthur.
Once your attention has shifted to more-productive avenues, several steps can help you focus on cognitive growth. First, identify areas for development and actively pursue learning opportunities in them. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have shown that progress is a more powerful motivator in the workplace than even recognition or pay. It can be equally effective in helping employees bounce back from incivility. One young woman working in marketing told me, “A toxic environment was chipping away at my soul.” She saw no quick or easy path out of her position, so she decided to pursue an MBA at night. Events along the way, such as achieving a great GMAT score, provided excitement and confidence. Although her future remained unclear, she became more resilient to her corrosive workplace.
It’s worth noting that these development efforts need not be linked directly to your job. Taking on a new skill, hobby, or sport can have a similar effect. It’s simply harder to be dragged down when you feel on the upswing.
Another way to promote cognitive growth is to work closely with a mentor. Mentors have a knack for helping their protégés thrive by challenging them and ensuring that they don’t stagnate or get caught in an unproductive churn. For example, Lynne, a consultant working in an uncivil environment, built a close relationship with a mentor who urged her to steer clear of any unnecessary drama and focus on her own performance. When Lynne felt that she was slipping into rumination, recrimination, and anger, her mentor reminded her of the toll on her happiness and productivity and pointed her in more-fruitful directions. Following the advice, Lynne was able to dramatically improve her well-being—and her performance, which scored her a promotion.
I find it useful to think of rude behavior in the workplace as an infectious pathogen, like a virus. Your defense against it depends in good measure on how well you are able to manage your energy. In fact, my research suggests that many of the factors that help prevent illness—such as good nutrition, sleep, and stress management—can also help ward off the noxious effects of incivility.
Sleep is particularly important: A lack of it increases your susceptibility to distraction and robs you of self-control; makes you feel less trusting, more hostile, more aggressive, and more threatened even by weak stimuli; and can induce unethical behavior. In short, sleep deprivation (usually defined as getting less than five hours a night) is a recipe for responding poorly to incivility and perhaps even damaging your career.
Exercise is another surefire way to protect yourself against the negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness, that are typically brought on by rude behavior. It enhances both cognitive firepower and mood, distracts you from your concerns, reduces muscle tension, and improves resilience. It has been shown to slash symptoms of anxiety by more than 50%, and in one study it even proved to be more effective at treating depression than sertraline, a leading prescription for the illness. Those who exercise regularly are far less likely to sulk and better able to rebound in the wake of negative interactions.
Maintaining your energy in other ways, such as eating healthfully, will also help put you in top form to respond smoothly to an uncivil encounter. When famished, most people tend to respond to frustration by lashing out.
But it’s not just about caring for your body. Mindfulness—shifting your consciousness to process situations more slowly and thoughtfully and to respond with greater premeditation—can help you maintain your equilibrium in a difficult environment, as can finding a sense of purpose in your job. I and other researchers have discovered that when people are engaged in work they consider meaningful, they are more productive in uncivil teams than their colleagues are. Reminding yourself of nonmonetary attributes that attracted you to your work in the first place may foster gratitude and satisfaction.
If You Choose Confrontation
Positive relationships within and outside the office also provide an emotional uplift that can directly counterbalance the effects of incivility. Research I conducted with Andrew Parker and Alexandra Gerbasi shows that across industries, organizations, and levels, “de-energizing,” negative relationships have four to seven times as much impact on an employee’s sense of thriving as do energizing, positive ones. In other words, you need a small group of energizers to offset the effects of each jerk. So think about the people in your life who make you laugh and who lift your spirits. Spend more time with them, and ask to be introduced to their friends.
Finally, in studies of MBAs, executive MBAs, and employees, I have found a consistently strong correlation between thriving outside work and resilience to incivility. In a study of people who experienced rudeness, those who flourished in nonwork activities reported 80% better health, 89% greater thriving at work, and 38% more satisfaction with how they had handled the encounter. Seeking leadership roles in the community—particularly if you have no immediate opportunity within your organization—bolsters both cognitive and affective thriving. One executive I interviewed decided to join the board of a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of patients with dup15q, a condition his daughter had inherited. He spearheaded fundraising efforts, helped build scientific interest, and stewarded the group’s finances. These experiences and rewards, he told me, made him feel nearly bulletproof at work.
Incivility exacts a steep price. In extreme cases a job change or relocation may be needed to avoid burnout and to preserve your health and well-being. My research shows that for every eight people who report working in an uncivil environment, approximately one ultimately leaves as a direct result, and, looking back, I know I was right to exit the Florida sports academy. However, when I encounter rude behavior now, I’m better armed to offset its effects. Like everyone else, I’m still a work in progress, and my response is rarely perfect. But I can say with confidence that focusing on a sense of thriving has made me a more engaged, productive, and happy professional. You can be too.