6 things leaders can do to foster civility in the workplace

December 9, 2021 9:50 pm
Jill Geisler

Incivility seems to be a sign of the times. But it doesn’t have to be — especially when it comes to the workplace.

When my boys were little and acting up, I’d say, “I can’t hear you when you’re shouting.” I wanted them to understand that the loudest voice in the room wasn’t always the one that was the most powerful or the one that should prevail. I carried that philosophy into the workplace as a manager — and now as one who coaches leaders. 

We’re going to disagree at work. People are going to get on our nerves and let us down.  We’re going to feel strongly about an issue and want people to know it. 

But we can we be passionate without being poisonous.

That may seem harder to believe these days when civility seems in such short supply. Public meetings become shout-a-thons. Online forums fill with hateful comments. Customers are snarling at service providers. The headline of a recent Wall Street Journal article sums it up well: “Adults Are Throwing Tantrums — in Restaurants, in Planes and at Home. Blame the Pandemic.”

But let’s not chalk everything up to the uncertainty of our times. Bullies — especially the workplace variety — have been around since long before the pandemic. That’s why it’s important for leaders to not only be empathetic to people facing extreme stress but also create and protect a culture where people feel they belong rather than feeling demeaned, dominated or driven out by the words and actions of others.  


On top of our basic responsibility to respect the human dignity of others, there’s a business case to be made for eliminating incivility at work. Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown University and author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” found that among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort

So, managers, how do you ensure that your team members can be creative and candid, can debate and dissent, but do it constructively?


1. Lead by example. I can tell you from reading thousands of 360-degree feedback reports that people value managers who are the “calm in the storm.” You, more than anyone, set the tone for the team. Your emotions are contagious. If you are edgy or volatile, others are affected and may even emulate you. If you’ve been told you have a short fuse, it’s not enough to tell staff members, “I blow up, but I get over it.” They don’t get over it. Neither should you tell them that when you publicly humiliate them, “It’s nothing personal.” All criticism is personal. This is why managers need to be able to provide a full spectrum of feedback — the good stuff whenever possible and calm, clear, candid criticism when it is warranted. 

2. Leave no space for “brilliant jerks.” Being a star performer should bring lots of benefits, but the right to abuse people isn’t one of them. Very talented people can sometimes be impatient with those who don’t perform at their level. Don’t let them berate or insult people. Let them know that if they do, or if they treat anyone uncivilly, you won’t tolerate it. A friend of mine who runs a prestigious fellowship program operates on the “no brilliant jerk” principle.  After candidates for the competitive slots are down to the final cut, she interviews her support staff who set up the interviews or arranged travel and asks how the candidate treated them. If the answer is “rudely,” they’re out of the running. Think of the message that sends to everyone involved.

3. Discuss how to disagree. It helps to have a shared understanding of how everyday conflicts should be resolved. Top leaders should make clear that they expect people to talk with each other, rather than about each other. Team members should know that when they’re unhappy with each other, they should step away from the keyboard and talk human-to-human rather than letting emails escalate their differences. If your team hasn’t had a conversation about the best ways to disagree, encourage them to do so — and, as a leader, take part.

4. Don’t let bias affect your assessment of behavior. People are going to get frustrated and angry at work. We’re not telling them to bottle up all emotion. But we are telling them that as they express themselves, their words, tone and timing should be respectful. We also need to ensure that we hold everyone to the same standard, because research says that women and people of color can be viewed differently from white men when it comes to expressing anger and are more likely to be penalized for doing so. Be clear and fair when determining who has crossed the line from civility to incivility.

5. Encourage people to resolve conflicts rather than letting them fester. Get into the habit of asking this question when people complain about others: “What did they say when you talked with them about it?” Conflict-averse people may avoid addressing problems, but they don’t forget them. When too many unresolved conflicts pile up, it can lead to a blowup. 

6. Place high value on emotional intelligence. Hire for it. Promote it. Reward it. Don’t presume that the ability to empathize, to listen, to read people, to handle stress, to collaborate and to build trust are “soft skills” rather than business imperatives. Let people know such skills are essential on your team.


As we as a society find our way back to civil discourse and giving others the benefit of the doubt, let your workplace be a haven of respectful professional relationships. It’s a win for everyone.


googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text1' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text2' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text3' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text4' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text5' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text6' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-text7' ); } );
googletag.cmd.push( function () { googletag.display( 'hfma-gpt-leaderboard' ); } );