Healthy workplace culture is vital to an organizations success. But whether in the form of subtle hostility or overt rudeness, sarcasm, gossip, or inappropriate jokes, incivility continues to be a major challenge in the workplace—and in society in general. Research on workplace incivility over the past 20 years reveals that 98% of workers surveyed have been subject to rude behavior. And the frequency of its occurrence has been steadily rising over the last 10 years.

The target of these acts is most often someone with a lower status than the perpetrator, i.e. their supervisors or those in roles of leadership. The damage inflicted by workplace incivility is two-fold: these inappropriate actions not only hurt the victim but also serve as a behavior model to others in the organization, lending tacit approval for others to follow suit, thus creating a widespread culture of incivility which can alienate employees while stifling innovation and productive communication. The fact is, “leadership behaviors are often mimicked throughout an organization…and cascade from the top down.”

Consider this New York Times poll on the employees who are most likely to engage in sexual harassment. They found that the “major difference between those who harass and those who don’t is the culture at their workplace. Behaviors associated with harassment are especially prevalent among men who say … their managers don’t care.

Now, the majority of managers do not engage in overtly hostile acts; most leaders are conscientious and strive to set a positive example. However, many managers do engage in behaviors which have unintended consequences and which can quickly erode an organization’s workplace culture. Remember, behavior cascades from the top down.

These leaders may not yell, scream, or say rude and inappropriate things. But it’s the tiny things, a death by a thousand paper cuts, small, seemingly innocuous behaviors which, taken together, over time, have a decidedly eroding and potentially lasting negative impact on organizational culture.

The good news is that while workplace incivility can be a major detriment to workplace culture, such behaviors, once recognized, are easily correctable.

My work with leaders has uncovered 5 common but impactful behaviors that can reduce office incivility and promote a fair and safe workplace culture of respect and success.


1. Hold People Accountable

Humans have a fairness antenna which can always pick up on whether or not something feels fair. And nothing triggers the perception of unfairness more than when leaders fail to hold people accountable.


When leaders hold their employees to different standards, ignore uncivil behavior, or neglect to enforce consequences, people notice. Their fairness antenna sounds an alarm. Failure to hold people accountable sends an inconsistent message of what is and is not acceptable while causing employees to disengage, teamwork to suffers and morale to plummet.

Communicate clearly what you expect from people, and follow up. If you have trouble being direct and honest with your feedback, get coaching or training, and above all, hold everyone to the same standards.


2. Discourage Gossip

Employees need to feel that when they have a problem there is someone they can bring it to, that they’ll be taken seriously, and that their issue will be kept confidential.

One of the most important things leaders can do to create and maintain a healthy workplace culture is to keep things confidential and discourage all gossip. Gossip and inappropriately sharing information about people undermines trust and erodes morale. It creates divisiveness, fear, and conflict among co-workers, and is a major distraction an hindrance to any goal.

An effective leader should never engage in gossip. It’s a leader’s role to address employee concerns earnestly and confidentially while discouraging gossip within their team.


3. Turn off your Device

A few years ago, I coached a leadership team whose number one complaint about the CEO was the lack of attention he paid at meetings. He would constantly text and answer emails on his phone. This sent the clear message to his team that he was uninterested in their ideas.  

Even though spending more and more time on a device has become the norm, it’s still a sign of disrespect when there is a reasonable expectation for your attention. If a team member has been invited to speak or present at a meeting, and their manager ignores their presentation, they send the message to their employee that their work isn’t important. This can be a major blow to the employee’s self-esteem and lead to disengagement.

If you can’t be present, don’t be there at all.


4. Send the right (non-verbal) message

The vast majority of communication is nonverbal in nature—it’s not what you say, but what you do that counts. This is doubly true from a position of authority.

As a leader, your every message, verbal and nonverbal, is scrutinized. Employees in lower rank positions necessarily become experts in nonverbal communication. Their livelihood and well-being depend on it.

Employees are tuned into the boss’s mood. They are keenly aware of when a leader frowns or rolls their eyes. They pay attention to when their boss looks happy, displeased, impressed, impatient, annoyed, or just checked out.

When people speak to you, pay attention, make eye contact, and show you are listening by asking questions, nodding, or acknowledging their message. And it’s also the little things that matter–say good morning, say hello when you pass someone, simply acknowledging someone’s presence goes a long way to creating a positive atmosphere.


5. Give Credit Where it’s Due

One of the top reasons people quit their job is lack of recognition. Said another way—one of the main things people want from their job, beyond financial reward, is being recognized for their contributions.

People everywhere need to know that what they do matters. It’s how they build self-worth. They want recognition for their hard work and they want to feel appreciated and valued for their contribution.

Bosses who fail to give credit to others, or who take the credit for others’ work while ignoring the contributions of quiet performers or their hard-working staff create resentment and disenchantment among their team. As a result, employees become disengaged and eventually leave, realizing that their efforts won’t be recognized in their current professional setting.

One of the most effective things you can do is publicly acknowledge someone’s contribution and make that recognition personal and specific, not general. What was well done, specifically? What specifically will benefit from the person’s contribution? Creating opportunities for workers to praise each other, or give a shout-out for a job well done can have an enormously positive impact on the culture.

These are simple behaviors, but they have a big impact. Improving workplace incivility will take time, but by modeling these behaviors, leaders are using their power for good, creating a better social climate, and building a workplace culture of collaboration and inclusion.