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Workplace civility is more than just being nice

03:00pm October 27 2021

Compassion Revolution founder and Westpac Scholar Mary Freer says the level of civility in workplaces affects business’ bottom lines. (Getty)

When I was in my forties, I worked in one of the most dysfunctional teams I’ve ever come across. 

The stress was constant and the policy was ‘blame and run’. During this time, I developed an inflammatory auto-immune condition, so I approached the CEO about some changes to my hours. 

He said, without a moment’s hesitation: ”If I’d known you were going to get sick, I never would have employed you.”

Later that day in a moment of l’esprit de l’escalier, I visualised myself responding: ”If I’d known you were going to make me so sick, I never would have taken the job.“ 

But, in the moment, I said nothing. My face flushed with fury and I felt hot tears well up in my eyes. I went home and wasted hours rehashing the conversation, tossing and turning in bed until 3am.

If you’ve experienced something similar, you’ll likely not be surprised that my engagement in that job slid. 

It seems obvious that rudeness or dismissiveness at work is bad for staff wellbeing and engagement. 

But the more I’ve studied this type of behaviour, the more I’ve learnt about its impact on business’ bottom lines. 

More alarming still, I’ve found rudeness at work can potentially kill people. 

At the very least, rudeness, bullying, blaming, snide remarks, criticism, exclusion, racism, homophobia, transphobia and so many other destructive practices have a measurable impact on our experience of work, the resilience of our mental and physical wellbeing and the quality of our performance. 

For some businesses, it can have a direct impact on customers. 

A workforce study in 2015 across multiple industries in the United States by Professor Christine Porath at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business found 51 per cent of workers felt disengaged with their work and 16 per cent were actively disengaged. Among these disengaged workers, 25 per cent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers. 

That cannot be good for business. 

Incivility in the work environment also stymies employees’ creativity and innovation. 

All functioning of the brain depends on your internal state. As we move from one state to another, there will be a shift in the parts of the brain that are dominant. Research by brain development and trauma expert, Dr Bruce Perry, has found a person’s available IQ goes from 120-100 when we are in a calm state to 90-70 when we are fearful and 80-60 when we experience terror.

In my role consulting on workplace behaviour, I’ve seen this play out over and over again: incivility can be spread, like a virus, and contaminate even bystanders’ behaviour, holding back their performance and progress. It doesn’t matter if you build houses, design apps, serve customers or fly planes; if you work in a rude and dismissive environment, you will not be operating at your most creative or innovative level. 

But the piece of research that made me feel the shove between my shoulder blades, was a study by Florida University’s Professor Amir Erez.  

It set out to determine what patients in a healthcare setting experience when staff speak rudely to each other. The study involved 24 neonatal intensive care unit teams participated in a training exercise involving a simulated preterm infant whose condition was acutely deteriorating due to a serious gastrointestinal problem called necrotising enterocolitis.

The teams – randomly split into two sets – were observed by webcam and could hear the voice of an “observer” as they went through the exercise to diagnose and treat the simulated infant.   

To one set of teams (the control teams) the unseen observer said: “Thank you for letting me observe you and please commence when you’re ready.”  About 10 minutes later, he said: “Please keep going. I’ll continue to observe you.”

The other set of teams (the rudeness teams) heard the observer say: “I’m new to your country but from what I’ve seen so far, I hope I don’t get sick, because I really don’t trust this healthcare system.” At 10 minutes, he said: “None of you would get a job in my department.”

What the researchers found was predictable but frightening. 

The teams that were spoken to rudely had a much higher rate of error, the researchers finding rudeness accounted for about 56 per cent of the errors made. There was poor team diagnostic and procedural performance that included incorrect diagnosis, incorrect medication requests and dosage, and poor team cohesiveness which impacted on communication when it was critically needed.

What this effectively showed was that the quality of care people receive from healthcare workers could be sharply – and dangerously – lowered simply due to rudeness. 

This is particularly worrying, given another recent study of seven Australian hospitals found that unprofessional behaviour is highly prevalent among workers, with 39 per cent reporting weekly or more frequent incivility, bullying, discrimination and harassment by co-workers. 

The message to all business owners, team leaders and employees in any profession, is clear. 

Speaking civilly to each other in the workplace is not just a nice thing to do.

It should be a commercial – and social – imperative.

Mary Freer was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2016 from the Westpac Scholars Trust. Her book Compassion Revolution: Start Now* Use What You Have* Keep Going will be published on November 1, 2021.  

Mary Freer is the founder and executive producer at Compassion Revolution and social innovator at Freerthinking, an enterprise with a mission to catalyse social impact. She has contributed to Australia’s healthcare system reform in a variety of executive and leadership roles over the past 30 years. Mary has founded social change movements and worked closely with global health improvement leaders, clinicians and administrators in many countries across the world to bring about system improvement. She was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2016.

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