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To Cure Uncivil Workplace Behavior, Try A Feedback Loop

December 28, 2016

uncivil workplace behavior

Uncivil workplace behavior is an epidemic. To help change it, I recommend following a specific feedback loop described by coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith. This loop comprises four steps: Evidence, Relevance, Consequence, and Action.

Evidence should have been revealed during the evaluation stage; for instance, a manager receives feedback that he doesn’t listen to employees or he tends to demean employees in front of others.

To establish the relevance of this feedback, ask yourself how the manager compares with his peers. Is his performance suffering because of his subpar, uncivil workplace behavior? If so, the feedback becomes relevant.

You should attach consequences to the uncivil workplace behavior so as to motivate change. As Goldsmith has remarked, “People will do something—including changing their behavior—only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.” Since we tend to respond more strongly to potential losses versus potential gains, it’s important to show offenders what they stand to lose if they don’t improve. For most people, the potential loss of a promised promotion is strong motivation to behave more civilly.

If you’re satisfied that the employee wants to improve, it’s time to proceed to the action phase. First, develop a plan with the employee. What do you want him to achieve? What will make him more effective? What do you expect him to change? How will he achieve these plans? Strive for clearly defined, tangible, trackable goals. From here, start the hard work of practicing. Working alone or with the assistance of a coach or mentor, the employee should identify the trigger(s) of his bad behavior. What circumstances or people provoke him? Since the key to civility is self-awareness, it’s best if the employee answers this question for himself, understanding his actions and connecting them to an underlying cause, such as stress or a feeling of insecurity.

After an employee has identified the triggers and understands the consequences, Goldsmith has them apologize—ideally face to face—to everyone affected by their uncivil workplace behavior and ask them for help in getting better. The employee shouldn’t explain, complicate, or qualify the behavior, because doing so risks diluting the message. Goldsmith also advises helping the employee to advertise their efforts so that people know he or she is trying to change.

Following up is especially important. Goldsmith’s research reveals that people don’t improve if they don’t follow up. An employee who checks in with colleagues every month for twelve to eighteen months reminds the colleagues that he or she is trying and values their opinion. It allows colleagues to erase their skepticism about the person’s ability to change, and it serves as an open acknowledgment that change will be an ongoing process. Following up also gives the employee a sense of progress, which increases both engagement and motivation.

Most organizations that “recycle” offenders do so by calling upon others to help offenders hone their skills. Companies often encourage offending personnel to share their development objectives with key stakeholders, including managers, teammates, and direct reports. These stakeholders become involved in the employee’s growth by becoming aware of the objectives and offering future-focused objectives that tie to these areas of development. Several Fortune 100 companies strongly encourage managers who behave uncivilly to share all evaluations with their team so that team members can provide specific suggestions for improvement. Managers are nudged to engage in “feedforward” to elicit useful ideas for the future on how to improve behavior.

Excerpted from Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace by Christine Porath. Copyright © 2016 by Christine Porath. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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About The Author

Christine Porath is an associate professor of management at Georgetown University, the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), and a co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior (Portfolio, 2009).

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