Most leaders think their department is civil, but only about half of their department’s employees feel the same way. This difference of opinion is a real problem for our work cultures, because if leaders aren’t noticing the unhealthy environment, they won’t work to fix it.

Why Don’t Leaders See Incivility?

There are three main reasons that leaders fail to notice incivility. First, employees often don’t want to complain to their leaders about their colleagues. Many workers fear that reporting uncivil behavior will cause peers to see them as a “rat” or a “tattletale” – a fear that may go back to elementary school!

Second, uncivil employees often put on a show for leaders. Employees who aren’t fired for their uncivil behavior early on survive and live by the phrase, “Kiss up, kick down.” They are courteous to leaders but treat their co-workers harshly.

Sometimes, leaders are the source of the incivility, but they lack the awareness to see it. When they are uncivil, most employees say nothing. Many employees don’t want to be frank with their leaders, and most are not trained in how to respectfully and safely tell a leader he or she is managing poorly.

What to Do if You Are a Leader

As a leader, you must have the tools to respond to incivility and be aware that you are setting an example for which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. A leader’s uncivil behavior leads to poor team performance. Many studies show that when a leader or senior member of a team doesn’t check his or her own disrespectful behavior, the resulting negative environment leads to unhealthy team interactions and less team experimentation, mutual help, feedback-seeking and information-sharing.

If you’re a leader, here are some ways you can help create a civil and healthy work culture:

  • Ask how people are doing, and listen. When you ask people how they are doing, listen to their answer. The more you show employees you care and are willing to listen, the more willing they will be to share potential problems with you.
  • Practice conflict resolution. When issues arise, use your conflict resolution skills to address them. If you haven’t already, take conflict resolution skills training; people need to have confidence in your ability to resolve conflicts effectively.
  • Train your team members to resolve conflicts and speak up against incivility. The people involved in a conflict are the best people to resolve it before it becomes unmanageable. Offer conflict resolution skills and respectful workplace training to key employees so they can develop the skills needed to resolve their own conflicts. If they encounter a conflict they can’t resolve, train them to report the matter to you.

What to Do if You Are an Individual Contributor

Here are some ways you can contribute to a civil working environment, regardless of your place in the hierarchy:

  • Talk to your leaders. They are the ones making the decisions, and they can’t know what they are never told about. When leaders aren’t told about incivility, they live and make assumptions in an information vacuum.
  • Be aware of your own influence among your peers. As Curt Thompson, psychiatrist and author of “Anatomy of the Soul,” wrote, “It is not possible not to influence others or not to be influenced by others.” As a human being, the things you don’t say, the things you do say and the way you say them impact the people around you. You need to be civil when you respond to incivility.
  • Learn how to speak to power. When I ask managers how they feel about people who report concerns or give them feedback on their leadership, they often say they appreciate it. As a worker, you should know that managers are, at the very least, aware they should be able to respond well to negative information about their team. Learn to use phrases like, “Because I respect you so much, I thought I should let you know…”; “I know you would want to know about this, even though I’d prefer not to have to report it…”; and, “You’ve said that you want this to be a great place to work, and I do too. Is it OK if I share something that I think is keeping us from getting there?”

If you’re a leader, be aware that your employees are looking to you for information on how to behave. By asking questions, listening, providing appropriate training and acting on what you know, you will give people confidence in your abilities as a leader. As an employee, know that your leaders may want and need your feedback in order to have a better awareness of what’s going on. Also, remind yourself that you have the ability to positively affect your environment. A healthy workplace culture includes civility and requires all of us to make a contribution.