Incivility in the Workplace

May 29, 2009 at 2:17 pm  •  Posted in Relationships by  •  0 Comments


Daniel L. Buccino, LCSW-C, BCD, is the Clinical Supervisor and Student Coordinator of the Adult Outpatient Community Psychiatry Program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. In addition he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Prof. Buccino was a member of the research team that conducted The Baltimore Workplace Civility Study.

Prof. Buccino is also the co-founder and co-director of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute. His profession interests include:

  • Psychotherapy outcome and effectiveness
  • Psychotherapy education
  • Marital, couples, and family therapy
  • Civility (and health care)
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Cognitive impairment

Q. Please define civility and explain why is it important in the workplace.

Since many of us spend more waking hours at work than we do with our families, and because the American workplace is the most diverse in the world, it is essential to possess the skills in relational competence that civility promotes. Civility is not about fussy or elitist manners or etiquette. Fundamentally, civility is about respect for ourselves and respect for others, and as Yale professor, Stephen Carter has said, civility “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” Civility is one of the few things that is both good for you and good for others. It is both polite and expedient. And it is good for one’s health and good for business.

Q. How should we respond to uncivil behavior? Won’t our requests for civility and respect just “go over the head” of a workplace serial bully, for example?

Civility in the workplace does not require being a pushover. Being able to assert one’s self is a component of civility in so far as one is able to say the right thing at the right time in the right way to the right person.

For example, it is never uncivil to say to your office mate “Excuse me, do you mind turning your radio down? It is hard for me to concentrate and be productive.”

  • Or, “I’d like to be treated as more of a team member. What is your advice?”
  • Or, “We don’t have to be best friends, but we do need to figure out a way to respect each other and work together productively. Help me understand. Any thoughts?”
  • Or, “Gee, it seemed the boss’s email didn’t mention my/our unit’s input. I hope you’ll do the right thing and set the record straight.”
  • Or, I’m afraid you weren’t told that my department did all the preparation for that project. It only seems fair that we share in the acknowledgment.”

And if civilly and respectfully asserting yourself in the service of the work does not get anywhere, make sure your supervisors are aware of the disruptions to the work environment.

Q. Are there some personality types that are more likely to be uncivil than others? Should be just avoid these folks whenever possible?

Incivility is more a function of anonymity and stress than it is related to personality type because we can all be called to act uncivilly sometimes. When we are stressed and when we think we will not be seen or known, as in road rage incidents, it is easier to give up on the self-restraint provided by the “inner designated driver” of civility. One of the biggest challenges of civility is to stay civil not because others always are, but because we are. It is sometimes necessary to remain civil even with the uncivil.


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