Incivility in the Workplace: A Growing Problem

woman looking at laptop screen while biting on a pencil

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.


Times have changed. Incivility is growing in the workplace, as well as in most areas of our society. How big of a problem is this? Why is this happening? And what can be done about it – as individuals and as organizations? The two main points of this article are to explain why the most effective civility training focuses on specific skills, rather than simply admonishing people to be civil or decent and to explain why such training is best when provided to a whole workgroup or organization at the same time.


A Growing Problem?

In August 2011, a front-page newspaper article stated that incivility in the workplace is growing, as reported by the American Psychological Association. According to a poll by Civility in America, 43% of American workers have experienced incivility and 38% say there is increasing disrespect in the workplace. Another study showed 86% of workers saw incidents of incivility in several firms.[i]

Effective January 2009, The Joint Commission, which sets the standards for hospitals nationwide, adopted new leadership standards for conflict management in hospitals, because of “intimidating and disruptive behaviors” by some healthcare professionals and employees that could affect patient care.[ii]

In July 2009, a “Civility Toolbox” for California attorneys was implemented after being developed by a Civility Task Force because of the “perceived decline in civility in the practice of law.”[iii]

In July 2011, a squabble between congressional members hit the national news for a week during the debt ceiling debate, when one member sent an email (copied to several others) telling another member “You are the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the US House of Representatives…. You have proven repeatedly that you are not a Lady, therefore, shall not be afforded due respect from me!”[iv]

These events indicate a growing problem with incivility throughout our society. However, not everyone acts this way. Now appears to be a good time to strongly address this problem before it grows out of control. First, we need to understand what may be driving this behavior, so we can effectively reduce it.


What Causes Incivility?

There seem to be several causes feeding this problem.

A culture of blame and disrespect

We currently live in a Culture of Blame and Disrespect, so that television, movies, the internet and even newspapers emphasize the misbehavior of individuals more than issues of real substance: Who said what disrespectful statement to whom today? Who walked off a TV show or out of a political meeting? And what acts of the worst individual violence were done – and by whom? It’s as if to say: “Don’t you ever act this way – and we’ll show you again and again how to do it!”

Brain researchers have recently discovered that we have “mirror neurons” in our brains, which cause us to imagine ourselves doing the exact same behaviors of the people we see around us and to feel what they are feeling – perhaps to prepare ourselves to do the same behaviors if necessary.[v] They report that our mirror neurons even imitate the behavior of people we see on a 2-dimensional screen (TV, computers, etc.), although the effect may be slightly less than it would be in person. Thus we may be absorbing the behaviors associated with violence, disrespect and the current cultural preoccupation with blaming others while avoiding responsibility. Whether we actually act on these behaviors may depend on our closest colleagues.

Incivility is an angry act. Brain research informs us that watching other people’s facial expressions of anger or fear can hook the amygdala in our brains with lightning speed. The amygdala grabs our attention, shuts down our higher thinking, and prepares us for “fight or flight.”[vi] In many cases, incivility may be part of this protective/defensive response, such as the congressman suggests above. He justifies his statement by saying it was simply a response to the congresswoman’s attack on him.

Such negative behavior is clearly inappropriate in modern situations and often backfires. Yet we are repeatedly exposed to examples of incivility, presented as newsworthy behavior from the highest levels of government, business and entertainment. While such statements are criticized by some, they are defended and applauded by others. This behavior – and the lack of agreement about it – makes us more anxious as a society, and research shows that we are more likely to absorb the emotions of those around us if we are anxious.[vii]

With this knowledge, it’s not surprising that incivility is growing in our culture. Rather than emphasizing the positive behaviors necessary for the success of a culture, we are preoccupied with entertainment and news images that emphasize the negative – because it’s what grabs our attention and that’s what sells. Unfortunately, this is also what we learn to mirror.

High-conflict individuals

Recent research indicates that “high conflict” personalities are increasing in our society. People with these personalities tend to have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors, a preoccupation with blaming others and a lack of self-restraint.[viii] [ix] Making rude and uncivil comments may be part of their personalities so that it feels totally appropriate to them and they are not even apologetic or embarrassed by this behavior. On the other hand, some people may not have “high conflict” personalities, but they may believe that rude comments and behavior are an appropriate response to someone else’s uncivil behavior.

For example, is the congressman above a high conflict person? Or is he simply responding to a high-conflict person with appropriate comments? He justifies his behavior because of his perception that her behavior was unjustified. (He said she had spoken about his position on the issues after he had left a public meeting so that he had no chance to respond.) Many people take this justification approach these days. Some are high-conflict people themselves, with a long-standing pattern of blaming others and a lack of self-awareness of their own negative behavior. Others are generally reasonable people who have become “emotionally hooked.”

For example, one management educator suggests in his book that it is appropriate to respond to rude behavior with a disdainful public response. (A man who was hassling a waitress was publicly told by another customer that he was the perfect example of an asshole. “The entire place roared, and the asshole looked humiliated, shut his trap, and soon slithered out, while the waitress beamed.”[x]) Unfortunately, while momentarily satisfying, this approach is often just as uncivil as the rude behavior it is allegedly confronting. Instead, there are skills that people can use to respond to rude behavior without being uncivil in return. But these skills need to be practiced and part of the social environment.

Organizational leadership

People who study the social behavior of animals say that all mammals have a natural “dominance hierarchy.” There’s an “alpha” wolf or dog or baboon who is in charge of the pack. It’s common to have physical fights among these animals until the dominance hierarchy has been established and the loser backs off. Then there is peace and stability, and the pack follows the leader’s lead behavior – often for quite a while. When the alpha finally loses the ability to remain dominant, then a new alpha emerges – often after a vicious power struggle – followed by a new period of stability.[xi] [xii]

This pattern seems to apply to humans as well, although mostly with verbal power struggles. However, long periods of peace and stability may be diminishing in today’s world, as businesses go through rapid upheavals and organizational change has become the standard. Not only is there increased anxiety as the hierarchy is constantly changed, but the worst power struggle behaviors of those on top may be repeated throughout the organization – as individuals try to defend themselves or jockey for higher positions. Uncivil statements are often part of these power struggles and the longer they remain unresolved, the more likely that they will spill over into the workplace at large.

Other research shows that we tend to adapt to the characteristics of the people around us. For example, if you are around obese people, you are more likely to become obese. If you are around people who smoke, you are more likely to smoke. And if you are around people who are happy, you are more likely to be happy.[xiii]

All of this suggests that the organizational culture is driven by the examples at the top and by those closest to us in the workplace. If incivility is part of that culture, it will easily spread. Everyone knows how to be uncivil these days, based on the training we are receiving daily from our larger Culture of Blame and Disrespect. However, if incivility is rejected in the organizational culture, from the top down to the workgroup, then people are more likely to restrain themselves and practice civil behavior.

With all of this in mind, the following suggestions are made regarding the ways that civility training can benefit organizations and individuals. The focus needs to be on specific skills for civil responses to difficult behavior or uncivil comments, and on training the whole organization at the same time, to provide shared skills and an organizational culture that promotes respect and problem-solving.

What Can Be Done?

Specific skills can be taught for responding to uncivil or “high-conflict” behavior, which are simple and easy to remember under pressure. When we provide seminars to organizations, some of our most popular skills are the simplest to learn – although they need a lot of practice under pressure. The following are four of examples:

1. Reminders, such as “It’s Not About You!”

This is one of the most powerful statements that gives employees encouragement, while also restraining their own temptations to respond with an attack on someone else’s uncivil behavior. They don’t have to defend themselves or prove anything, because “It’s Not About Me!” This saves an incredible amount of emotional energy and time. At our trainings, we present several such “reminders” which can be practiced regularly. A full explanation of each of these gives employees a logical basis for the reminders, as well as an increased ability to remember them. Without a full explanation and repetitive practice, employees are more likely to forget and engage in counter-attacks in response to incivility and the bad behavior of others in general.

2. A BIFF Response®.

BIFFs are usually responses to uncivil emails, letters, memos and public attacks, usually in writing. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. Responding in this manner shifts the focus from attack-defend to information and choices. A good BIFF often ends a negative email or social media conversation that has been spiraling out of control. These brief responses can save energy and time, while earning respect for the person who is able to write a good BIFF. (See BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns at end of this article.)

3. EAR Statements

E.A.R. stands for Empathy, Attention and/or Respect. By making statements that use this verbal technique, a person can respond to uncivil comments on the job with clients, co-workers and even supervisors. It takes the conflict out of the situation immediately. But it takes practice. In our seminars, we include short and fun exercises for implementing this technique. (See the article on our website titled: Calming Upset People Fast with EAR)

4. “That’s enough, Joe!

This is a skill for bystanders who witness uncivil behavior and for targets of incivility themselves. Incivility is fed by the laughter of bystanders or lack of opposition by bystanders. As incivility grows, such public disrespect is a more common occurrence. But an organization or workgroup can nip this in the bud by practicing calmly saying “That’s enough, Joe!” (or whatever the person’s name). This is a small and generally non-threatening message that’s easier to say than a major office confrontation or embarrassing public humiliation of the offender (tempting as it is). Also, an employee may feel safe saying this to an offender, whereas getting up the strength for a major or clever rejoinder may not be possible or appropriate (or safe). Of course, this also takes practice and some discretion in deciding when it is appropriate, especially when the offender is a supervisor. Just saying this to oneself about the offender can be reassuring and helpful.

These are four examples of several ways to avoid making uncivil comments or overreacting to incivility. When individuals practice these techniques it empowers them to respond more quickly and confidently. This is much more effective than simply admonishing someone to be decent or civil, or feeling hopeless about incivility in today’s culture. When workgroups and organizations learn and practice these skills together, it gives everyone responses that they can share. Any co-worker can say “Remember, what Joe said is not about you” and a targeted co-worker will understand immediately. By understanding and learning these skills together, an organizational culture of respect and problem-solving can prevail. Such a culture can reduce stress on the job, and these skills can help employees in their personal lives as well.


Bill Eddy headshot

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.



[i] Jayson, S. At Work, No More Mr. Nice Guy, USA Today, August 8, 2011.

[ii] Joint Commission Sentinel Event Alert, Issue 40, July 9, 2008 © The Joint Commission 2008.

[iii] California Attorney Guidelines of Civility & Professionalism, Adopted July 20, 2007, California State Bar Association.

[iv] John R. Parkinson, ABC News, July 17, 2011,

[v] Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others.

[vi] Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

[vii] Goleman, above.

[viii] See Eddy, B. (2008). It’s All YOUR Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything.

[ix] Twenge, J. & W. K. Campbell (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

[x] Sutton, R. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

[xi] Grandin, T. & C. Johnson (2005). Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.

[xii] Sopalsky, R. (2001). A Primate’s Memoir.

[xiii] Brooks, D. (2011). The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.

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