The Lost Art of Disagreeing without Being Disagreeable:  An Urgent Need for a Return to Civility! This article was written by Niki Tudge and first published in BARKS from the Guild.

As business owners one of our fundamental responsibilities to our clients, our employees and our stakeholders is to ensure that we provide a workplace where civility is not only a priority but a deep-rooted daily cultural norm. Civility needs to be a value that is positioned first and foremost to all our other business practices.  Manners, respect, consideration, tolerance and equality are all characteristics and indicators of a healthy and progressive organizational culture.  The mere suggestion of implementing a workplace training program on manners can draw sneers from all quarters of our human resources and may seem like overkill, but the reality is that rudeness is a workplace epidemic that costs small businesses millions each year in lost revenue, high staff turnover and poor public relations.

One of the growing culprits for this epidemic is the gains that have been made in both knowledge advancement and technology.  Forni (2003) speaks to more flattened organizations where relationships are now less formal and more casual, this resulting lack of structure has created work environments with fewer social norms and a sad loss of civil human behavior.

In any circumstances we have lost many of our basic social values and this has had a detrimental impact on our very own businesses, private lives and family infrastructure. Employers rudely intrude on an employees’ personal workspace, gossiping coworkers are now the norm and quality customer care has been lost through keyboard warrior relationships and the virtual realms to which we find ourselves operating.  Much of this results in a work environment that is no longer conducive to productive relationships and highly functioning work place teams.

As business owners, employers or just workplace colleagues we need to understand how to effectively practice civil behavior and the boundaries for our own personal expressions, whether that be to our manager our coworkers or our subordinates. We need to prevent uncivil workplace cultures, where harassment, intimidation and unhealthy stressors are fodder for individual behaviors and a lacing in organizational structure.

Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.

Mary Wortley Montagu


When we fail to smile at a colleague or contemptuously smirk at another person’s suggestion, gather in small clans or cliques or ostracize others through exclusion practices, these seemingly innocuous behaviors can be very costly to employee morale, team building efforts and employer trust!  There are few companies that have truly prospered when these types of behaviors have gone unchecked in the workplace.  It is important for all of us to rekindle a civil disposition and it should become an imperative to practice this within our own work organizations without the need to mention that our behavior as a rule in society should be governed by these very same principles.  I dare say we have all experienced passive aggressive, rude if not hostile behavior from others at some time in our working lives, others amongst you may fall victim to this in your private lives, not even able to escape this lack of civility in your own homes.

Antoci et al (2016) describes a research project conducted by the Pew Research Center that documented the growth in uncivility across social networking sites. In summary their findings were:

  • That 73% of online adults have seen someone being harassed
  • 40% of online adults have personally experienced harassment
  • 49% of online adults have seen other users behaving cruelly
  • 60% of online adults have witnessed someone being called offensive names
  • 53% of online adults had seen efforts to intentionally embarrass someone

In the Baltimore Workplace Civility Study, a survey conducted online, adults were questioned about workplace bullying to determine the frequency. Bullying was defined as the deliberate repeated, hurtful verbal mistreatment of a person (target) by a cruel perpetrator (bully). I was initially, particularly surprised by the survey findings, yet on refection these results made sense to me given my own experiences with uncivil and overly aggressive and hostile women. The findings revealed that women bully as frequently as men, there was a 50% split.  84% of the time women tend to target other women whereas men target women 69% of the time.


What is Civil

Workplace civility can be defined as “behaviors that help to preserve the norms for mutual respect in the workplace; civility reflects concern for others” (Andersson, 1999).

We all operate within our own cultures, this refers to the attitudes and patterns of behavior across a specific group. Social norms are the attitudes and behaviors that the group deems normal, acceptable, typical or average.  Civility represents these social norms and the rules the group determines should be followed so we can productively relate to each other. These rules consider respect, tolerance, courtesy, consideration as the foundation to civility supported by a rational approach to identifying and resolving conflict. Therefore, any behavior that challenges these norms or threatens the development of productive relationships can constitute uncivil behavior! In some situations, you can be perceived as being uncivil although the individual motivation and intent are missing.

As a reader you may be quickly thinking, as you rush ahead to these examples, that you cannot or are not an uncivil person. You do not behavior in a way that is bullish or harassing or intimidating to others. Or do you?

Common behaviors that are considered uncivil are:

  1. A failure to notice or acknowledge another person’s presence such as ignoring them in a group situation, or their arrival to a group setting.
  2. If we ignore a person’s greetings or well wishes as they approach or leave our company.
  3. Bullying or behavior that comes in the form of leveraging the power of cliques to ostracize particular individuals.
  4. The use of hostile, intimidating or crude language towards or about something or body.
  5. To both gossip or spread gossip about another irrespective of its factual accuracy
  6. Surreptitiously assigning blame to a third-party individual for a workplace mistake based on unclear expectations, particularly if this mistake or person is then a topic of gossip.
  7. Sabotaging an individual’s behavior through lack of communication or support
  8. Ignoring or downplaying an individual’s contribution in the workplace
  9. Being insensitive to others needs in regard to time off, support, tolerance can be uncivil.
  10. Poor communication etiquette such as ignoring calls or email, omitting to reply to some team members over others. Remember civility is beyond just good manners.
  11. Any visual or verbal bullying behavior in the workplace is not only uncivil but can also be illegal.
  12. Behavior that discriminates against an individual because of an intrinsic characteristic or physical appearance is not only uncivil and immoral it can also be illegal.

As you can see from some of the examples above there are strong cases for a lack of civility such as bullying, discrimination, harassment and intimidation. Many of these behaviors can result in termination, arrest and indeed, imprisonment. But what is the argument against some of the subtler uncivil behaviors. Unsubtle, maybe softer, yet just as important. There are compelling arguments for good manners, respect, tolerance, courtesy and consideration.

Civility encompasses both a self-awareness and social awareness. Its just not possible to be civil without recognizing who you are and how your behavior impacts others. We must balance our own needs with the needs and contributions of those around us, whatever position we hold in an organization. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the team to behave correctly .

Avoidance of people is not a solution, believe me I have tried it!  In our lives, our professional work and with our families there is just no avoiding or getting away from having social and professional contact with other members of our species.

Humans are naturally very social beings, are brains are social organs, needing to interface with others. We live in social groups, communities and families. You may consider yourself a bit of a superstar, a fabulous indispensable workplace contributor in your organization, but you are part of a supply chain and contribute as both a supplier and a customer to workplace processes, a chain of activities that produces services and products.  Without interacting productively with others in this chain of activities you cannot execute your own job responsibilities effectively, this requires productive and trusting relationships governed through civility and social norms.

If you are frustrated at work or find your workplace scattered in damaged or stressful relationships you may want to take a reflective hard look at how you behave towards others and the impact your behavior has on those around you before fully looking outward at others to assign blame.

Civility is a form of benevolent participation and there are so many benefits to practicing civil behavior. For those of you asking, what is in it for me? there is plenty!

On a personal note being civil helps create a positive working environment with your peers. There is nothing better for workplace morale and confidence when we work with and around people who treat us with respect and support our endeavors. Colleagues who we trust not to gossip about us, be verbally confrontational or sabotage our efforts have a huge impact on both our performance and the teams output.  On the flip side to that when we are exposed to, or contribute towards a work environment where there is a lack of respect and we fall victim to any kind of bullying or harassment, however low level it may appear to be, this impacts our feeling of self-worth and our ability to conduct ourselves in our jobs.

Practicing civility helps teach us emotional intelligence, so we can develop the competencies and ability to recognize our behaviors, moods, and impulses. When we have this level of self-awareness we are better at managing ourselves in situations. Civility helps us develop anger management skills and become more resilient and less frustrated when we reach workplace obstacles. As self-aware productive individuals in the workplace we also develop better skills at managing uncivil behavior. We learn how to communicate honestly, manage conflict and differences, negotiate positive outcomes and benefit from more productive relationships.

Being civil is also the right thing to do. Most religions, philosophies and individual belief systems advocate consideration of ones’ fellow man. To quote Richard Boyd, associate professor of government in Georgetown University,

“To fail to be civil to someone — to treat them harshly, rudely or condescendingly — is not only to be guilty of bad manners. It also, and more ominously, signals a disdain or contempt for them as moral beings.”

Anderson (1999) states that some scholars and social critics believe-we support an ethic of self-expression, and we detest the pretense of civility because we believe it denies our desire for freedom and individuality. I believe a fundamental responsibility we share as part of our individual freedom is to treat all others with civility and kindness! What say You?

Andersson, L. (1999).  Tit for tat?  The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace.  Academy of

Management Review, 24:  452-471.

Antoci A, Delfino A, Paglieri F, Panebianco, F, Sabatini F (2016) Civility vs. Incivility in Online

Social Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0164286. doi:10.1371/journal.

Forni, P.M. (2003) The Baltimore Workplace Civility Study. The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins.