Conflict, mental health, confrontation

Julie entered her new job at the ad agency excited. She had finally found a way into her desired career instead of working in jobs that were merely to make money. This is what she had paid thousands for a college degree to do—a marketing account executive. During the interview, she had overheard the boss at the small boutique ad agency deal with an employee for making a mistake in a way that was slightly harsh, but it sounded like a major mistake, and she was sure she wouldn’t make that type of mistake.

It wasn’t long until she realized how wrong she was. At the slightest mistake or even when Jane did something different that how her boss would have handled a task, civility went out the window, and soon her boss was cussing her publically and threatening to fire her and others on the team if the CEO’s wishes weren’t carried out to exact detail and employees didn’t possess 100% foresight in their ability to guess exactly how she, the almighty CEO, would have completed the task.

Jane quickly realized how beaten down her coworkers felt. For every step forward, there was a tirade that took the whole team backwards. The accounts director, the CEO’s son-in-law, was forever apologizing for the uncivil behavior at the top, but employees couldn’t help but feel undervalued. Morale was plummeting and turnover was high. Jane dreaded when the CEO was in the office, but fortunately she was often absent, leaving Jane and her team free to operate under the better leadership of the account director. But even then, the culture was toxic. Jane soon left the position to again take an “it pays the bills” job outside her field. She wasn’t in her dream career, but at least she wasn’t working in a nightmare scenario.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common in today’s workplace. There is a growing incivility that is having detrimental affects on the workplace.

In a recent article by Georgetown Professor Christine Porath in McKinsey, she notes that in a survey, employees say they have been mistreated by a colleague at least once a month, and this stat has risen by 13% since 1998. Are we just getting soft or are offenses on the rise? Additional observational studies would say it is a combination of both.

Porath says the damaging ramifications are four-fold:

  1. Workplace performance decreases.
  2. High employee turnover.
  3. Poor customer experience.
  4. Lack of collaboration.

What Are We To Do To Increase Civility?

Proactively Deal with it in Hiring

Set up systems and processes to exclude toxic people from your organization before they join. Include behavioral questions and do a deeper check of references than the obviously preferred and vetted references the potential employee provides you. Ask each reference, who else at your organization dealt with this employee?

Develop Clear and Transparent Reporting Processes

Giving people a safe place to disclose a bully or uncivil behavior in a safe way is also key. Of course, a single incident with no documentation should bring up a dismissal hearing. But when a certain volume of complaints accrue against an employee, it’s time to make a move. Look at your organization as it currently exists. What is the recourse for someone who is treated wrongly? Do they have to come up with a way to deal with it, or is there already a clearly defined process in place?

But What If I am Not the One In Power to Make Those Changes?

There are still two key things you can do according to Porath.
Improve yourself in two areas:

1. Cognitive Health

When a negative situation or offense happens, you have two choices. One, you can dwell and ruminate on the situation endlessly. Two, you can lessen dwelling time by feeding your brain new cognitive situations and challenges.

Attempt to learn a new skill or challenge, or even pick up a new hobby or sport. Research shows this new endeavor demands things of your brain that are healthy and, by nature, reduce your brain’s ability to merely camp out around the negative. Even if you know you need to get out of the situation, do this while you look for an exit strategy.

You can thrive and will be less shaken by offenses. Note, this doesn’t mean that you merely endure hostile behavior. It simply means that you won’t have to capitulate and become a permanent victim.

2. Basic Life Health

Fatigue makes cowards of us all. It also makes us go more quickly into reactive mode rather than staying proactive. Our minds rush to the worst-case scenario more rapidly when we are tired.

Simple things like eating properly, getting sleep, and exercising make us psychically stronger to both withstand offenses and not to respond in kind.

When It IS Time to Confront

Porath states that there IS a time that you must confront a repeat offender. Here is her guide based upon research outcomes observed:

If you’re thinking about confronting a colleague who’s been rude, ask yourself three questions: (1) Do I feel safe talking with this person? (2) Was the behavior intentional? (3) Was it the only instance of such behavior by him or her?

If you answered no to any of the questions, do not discuss the incident with the offender. Concentrate on your own effectiveness and, in future encounters, follow the acronym BIFF: Be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.

But if you answered yes to all three questions, consider telling the offender how the behavior made you feel. Some things to keep in mind:

Prepare for the discussion. Think about a good time and a safe environment in which you’ll both be comfortable. Consider whether to invite other people to be witnesses or mediators.

Rehearse your ideas with someone who will give you honest feedback. Ask that person to role-play the perpetrator, complete with temperament.

Be aware of your nonverbal communication. This includes posture, facial expressions, gestures, tempo, timing, and especially tone of voice. People practice what they plan to say far more than how they will say it. But studies show that words convey far less meaning than does the way they’re delivered.

Proceed with the goal of mutual gain. During the discussion, focus on the issue (not the individual) and how the specific behavior harms performance.

Prepare for an emotional response. If the perpetrator starts venting, try to tolerate it: It may lead to a more productive place. Use wording such as “I get that” or “I understand.” Admitting blame when appropriate may also be helpful.

Be an active listener. Paraphrase what you hear and repeat it. People gain credibility and are better liked when they ask humble questions.

Focus on establishing courteous norms for the future. How will you interact so that neither of you suffers degraded performance moving forward?

Important To Remember

You are MORE than your job and the identity you feel you gain from it. If you find yourself in an environment that is consistently uncivil, do not stay trapped either mentally or even in a positional role in that job. No environment is ever going to be perfect. That should not become your goal because it is unachievable. There ARE aspects of your life that are vital outside your career. Embrace those roles as areas of success.


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From regional manager to international executive with quadruple the pay, Karen Keller’s unique blueprint carefully outlined the step-by-step process for creating high-impact influence and let me know when I was being influenced in a way that didn’t serve me.
Lloyd Moore
Global Director Supplier Quality & Development - Lear Corporation – South Carolina