Why a Mean Workplace is So Toxic

February 28, 2017

Recently, on an episode of my SiriusXM radio show, In The WorkplaceI caught up with Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and author of the new book, “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.” Her New York Times articles on Why You Hate Work and No Time To Be Nice at Work have been shared nearly 150,000 times on social media.

Christine studies how the failure to foster a culture of civility can silently chip away at people and organizations, affecting performance and ultimately, a company’s bottom line.

Negative behavior in the workplace—from withholding information to publicly belittling someone—can cause stress, which over time can lead to serious health problems. It can also affect a person’s performance, creativity, even memory – and lead to burnout.

“Even small interactions can add up and take their toll over time without us realizing it,” Christine said. “We hold onto it and it bothers us.”

Christine began to study incivility after graduating from college and working for a large sports management marketing firm. She described the culture as “toxic,” coupled with a “narcissistic” leader, which ultimately affected the performance of workers.

“I saw what it did to people and how they took it out on the organization and the customers and took it home with them,” she said.

“Nobody stepped in to do anything about it. Given how much time and energy we spend at work, I felt we could and should do better. There were real wins for employees and organizations if they could create more positive cultures.”

In a series of research studies, Christine found that 80 percent of participants surveyed worried about having to interact with a person being uncivil at work. Twelve percent left an organization as a result of one bad incident.

Even people who witnessed the bad behavior were negatively affected by it. They performed about 50 percent worse on different cognitive tasks, were 30 percent less creative and three times less likely to help someone else, Christine said. “The effects of incivility are not just between two people. It has a way of spreading and distracting people.”

So what should someone do if they are on the receiving end of this behavior? Should they go directly to their boss? It depends on the situation, Christine said.

“It’s important to ask yourself– do you feel comfortable talking to this person and explaining how you feel? If so, you should approach them,” she said. “It’s very helpful to point out that how they are treating people is hurting the team as a whole. Try to trace some of the consequences for the team and the organization, not just how it makes youfeel.”

In addition to in-person interactions, Christine also studies incivility over e-mail, which has become much more prevalent. “With e-mail, there is no tone of voice or facial expressions, so it’s harder to interpret (the message) and it can lead to more misunderstandings.”

She advises against sending an e-mail if you’re unsure about the tone, in a bad mood or tired at the end of the day. Instead, you should save a draft of the e-mail to review with fresh eyes the next morning. She said: “When people are mentally tired, they are shorter with people and make worse decisions, so it’s best to avoid it.”

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. His most recent book is Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make. “In the Workplace” (SiriusXM Business Radio Powered by the Wharton School–Channel 111) airs live 5 pm ET Thursdays.

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