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Georgetown Prof Asks: Are You An Uncivil Leader?

Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, has dedicated her career to understanding incivility in the workplace. Courtesy photo

A little over two decades ago, something happened that would send Christine Porath down a specific path. Her father, who to that point had always been healthy, suffered a “heart attack scare.” Porath, a management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, details the account in the second chapter of her book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.

“For over a decade, my father had endured not one but two extremely uncivil bosses,” she writes in the 230-page book published late last year. “It was ten years before he would talk about it, but when he did, he told me that his boss had made a habit of exploding in people’s faces.”

Porath, who knew about bad boss experiences, concluded her father’s health scare was the result of years spent working in a toxic environment. So she set out to research the effects of incivility in the workplace.

“I felt like I saw first-hand what uncivil behavior does to people,” Porath tells Poets&Quants. “There were consequences for the organization and for people and how people also bring that stress and mood home. It’s not just a problem within the workplace, because it actually bleeds over to people’s personal lives.”


For the past two decades, Porath has published and stacked research blocks showing the impacts of incivility in work places. Of the thousands of workers she has polled around the world, 98% claimed to have experienced uncivil behavior in their place of work. Some 99% said they had at least witnessed some form of incivility. Of those experiencing it, more than two-thirds said it came from a manager or boss.

“Seeing or experiencing rude behavior impairs working (short-term) memory and thus cognitive ability,” Porath wrote in a Harvard Business Review article about a year ago. “It has been shown to damage the immune system, put a strain on families, and produce other deleterious effects.”

According to Porath’s research, it’s getting worse, not better. In 1998, a quarter of workers polled said they experienced an uncivil experience at least one a week. By 2011, that number had doubled. But the solution, Porath explains, is not complicated. Most of the incivility can be remedied with some introspection and small changes.

“One of the ones I heard most when I stepped into organizations over the last few years is the idea that leaders are not paying attention,” Porath explains. “They are multitasking. They are on their iPhone or on their laptop during meetings and during one-on-ones. And so people feel disrespected. It struck me that that example, in particular, is one that is not about intention, but is rather a lack of self-awareness.”


The fix could be very simple, Porath believes.

“And that was one that I was almost surprised by, because I think it really speaks to the fact that a lot of these things are little changes that we can make that would go a long way as far as how people felt,” she says. “They would feel valued, work harder, and wouldn’t dwell on things like that.”

In her book, that includes a self-awareness quiz, Porath guides the reader through her findings and simple things organizations and leaders can do to fix both unintentional and intentional incivility and what workers who feel they are the targets of incivility can do.

“I started this in a place where I felt like, gosh, there are some real jerks in the workplace and I need to crack this. But where I’ve landed is much more of the idea that the vast majority of this stems from a lack of self-awareness,” Porath says. “So, again, a big piece of this is getting feedback about what you could be doing differently to affect people in more positive ways where you are going to get their best contributions. So, I think that is hopefully an empowering message. You can do something about this to have more influence.”

Poets&Quants: What led you to decide civility in the workplace would be your main research area for the past two decades?

Chris Porath: It was actually from a work experience. So, I worked at a subsidiary of an organization that had a really toxic culture and it showed me the difference between what work was and what it could be. I felt like I saw first-hand what uncivil behavior does to people. There were consequences for the organization and for people and how people also bring that stress and mood home. It’s not just a problem within the workplace because it actually bleeds over to people’s personal lives. I saw that happen with my dad. My dad had worked for two toxic bosses over a couple decades and I thought at the time that that was an outlier experience — that it doesn’t happen to many people. But after my own work experience, I realized that it’s far too prevalent and I wanted to show what the costs of this were. That’s what set me on the path.

P&Q: Why do you think it is prevalent in organizations for a toxic leader to rise up through the ranks to hold higher management roles?

CP: I think it’s actually not the norm. But, it definitely happens. I think Steve Jobs is a good example of that. In his case, he was pretty extreme in sense of his creativity, innovation, and natural intellectual ability. So, I feel like he may have gotten away with it a little bit. And, I’ve been told when he came back to Apple, for example, he was far different. There weren’t as many temper-tantrums. He wasn’t as rude. Things like like that. So, I think even people like him can learn that there is a better way.

I wouldn’t want to suggest being uncivil is a way to become a leader or a top leader, because, in fact, most of my research shows how civility pays and how people who are perceived as civil are twice as likely to be seen as leaders. There’s really convincing research out of the Center for Creative Leadership that shows three of the top five reasons why leaders end up facing career derailment is really tied to incivility.

So, I think that it certainly happens, that people are able to rise up despite their incivility, but I would hate for the message to be that they succeeded because of it, but rather they succeeded in spite of it.

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