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Be Nice! It Pays

3 min read

Clearly, no one likes to be treated rudely, but does incivility cause any real and lasting harm in the workplace? According to Porath’s research, yes.

One might think that in this era of Emotional Intelligence and sensitivity training, we’d have somehow learned to be nicer to one another on the job, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Incivility and all-around rudeness are on the rise and they’re affecting our health, wellbeing, and even our job performance. So claims a recent article in the New York Times by Christine Porath, “No Time to Be Nice at Work.”

What behaviors are we talking about?

In particular, it’s the behaviors of bosses that cause the most harm. This is hardly surprising, since bosses generally wield unequal power to behave abusively toward others, while underlings often lack the status to complain or “fire back.” And bosses’ incivility can pollute the workplace environment in ways that peers’ behaviors can’t.

Some common uncivil boss behaviors Porath cites are walking away in the middle of a conversation, taking phone calls during meetings, berating others by pointing out their flaws in front of others (both in person and via email), taking credit for “wins” while blaming others for “losses,” and generally behaving abrasively as a way of demonstrating power or forcing compliance.

What’s the harm?

Clearly, no one likes to be treated rudely, but does incivility cause any real and lasting harm in the workplace? According to Porath’s research, yes.

First, there are the health effects. Intermittent stress—such as being yelled at randomly and sporadically—raises our glucocorticoids, which can lead to a wide range of health issues. In one ten-year study, stressful jobs were found to increase the likelihood of a cardiovascular “event” by 38 percent.

Belittling also leads to worsened job performance, presumably not the effect intended by those who do the belittling. In one study, subjects who were belittled before testing performed 33 percent more poorly on anagram puzzles and 39 percent more poorly on creative brainstorming tasks than peers who were not. Even those who merely witnessed incivility had a marked drop-off in performance.

Rudeness affects businesses in other ways, too. Customers are less likely to patronize a business where an employee is perceived as being rude—regardless of whom the rudeness is aimed at.

In medical settings, incivility can have even direr consequences. In one survey of over 4,500 medical personnel, 71 percent stated that they believed rude, condescending, and/or insulting behavior led to medical errors; 27 percent reported it sometimes led to deaths.

So why do we do it? Why are we so [bleeping] rude?

When Porath asked hundreds of employees across seventeen industries why they were rude, two of the most common responses were that people felt “overloaded” or didn’t believe they had the time to be nice. (But does it really take more time to be nice than to be rude?)

Probably the greatest reason many of us are reluctant to be nice is that we fear our niceness will cost us. Perhaps others will perceive us as less leader-like. Perhaps we’ll be taken advantage of or will fail to rise in the organization.

Civility, not abrasiveness, is the mark of leaders

But those fears seem to be way off base. Bottom line: civility rules. A cornerstone of the PRES model is empathy, one’s ability to reach out and build authentic relationships. Studies show that politeness and regard for others leads to a greater, not a lesser, likelihood of being viewed as a leader. Civil behavior leads to perceptions of warmth and competence, two traits that account for more than 90 percent of our impressions—positive vs. negative—of others. Those impressions, in turn, determine whether people trust us, like us, and are willing to follow us as leaders.

Turn it around in big and small ways

So give up the rudeness rationalizations. You do have time to be nice. Turn the dial up on the small things, like smiling and thanking others.

Work on your listening skills. This means ignoring the text conversation and giving your full attention to a live human being.

If you’re a manager, stop looking for reasons to bark at people. Look, instead, for opportunities to “catch people in the act of doing right.” Build your people up, don’t tear them down.

Perhaps you’ve heard this Hollywood admonition: be kind to the people you meet on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down. If you’ve been rude or belittling to others, there will eventually be payback. Why? Because people tend to harbor deep memories of humiliation. On the other hand, if you’re thoughtful and civil toward everyone, people will look for opportunities to return the favor.



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