top of page
  • Tamar Balkin

What Is Really Going On Behind Closed Doors, Can You Manage Incivility In Remote Working?

“There are many things that I love about my job.

Working with him is certainly not one of them.”


Photo by Nahel Abdul Hadi on Unsplash

Much of the conversation around remote work has focused on the practical, motivational and wellbeing perspective. A google search will provide many tips (some evidence based some not) to enhance your skills as a leader in these unusual times. However, it’s the incivility and inappropriate behaviour that may be going on unchecked that has begun to concern me.   Regular readers will know that the conditions under which the dark side of our personalities emerge it is when we are tired stressed or bored. These three conditions are prevalent now more than ever, they definitely occur in remote working environments and when you add the complexity of the stress of a pandemic it is not surprising that inappropriate behaviour may be on the rise. Let’s start with a definition: What is incivility?   Christine Porath who has researched extensively in this area points out that the complexity of incivility is that it is in the eye of the beholder. What may seem uncivil to one person may be fine to another.   Some common behaviours may include:

  • Disrespect or rudeness

  • Belittling

  • Texting in meetings

  • Eye rolling

  • Mocking

  • Intentionally withholding information

  • Excluding people- eg make a meeting at a time you know sally can’t come

  • Let’s think about Friday drinks - great for young singles but maybe not for families. 

  • Too much credit for collaborative work

  • Pass the blame when contributed to mistakes

  • Keep people waiting needlessly

  • Communicating via Email instead of zoom

Christine Porath has designed a free on line scale that anyone can use to measure their level of incivility. It is quick and produces a report with practical tips.  I recommend you take it and see what you think.

What are some common signs that there is incivility?    

Regular readers would be familiar with workplace emotional and behavioural response to workplace incivility.  People who experienced incivility typically have more anger, fear, and sadness, they can be aggressive both directly and indirectly, and, have increasing levels of absenteeism. In the current environment it’s not particularly helpful for me to tell you if your staff are angry sad or afraid, are being aggressive or absent then you have an issue with incivility in your team. Often, we have to see what's not there:

  • Look for sudden changes in behaviour or diminished quality of work.

  • Are you hearing a lot of complaints and general snarkiness about people but nothing from that person themselves?

Can people become more civil ?

"Every encounter is a chance to increase the civility in our world" Stew Friedman

Because we all have blind spots, the unintentional things we do that rub people  up the wrong way, to change our behaviour remember we need both information and motivation. Christine Porath found in her research that  60% of people who are uncivil say they are overwhelmed or stressed, or said that they don’t feel they have time to be nice. Fortunately only 4%  reported that they are uncivil because they enjoy it and can get away with it. This category most likely need the expertise of my dear colleagues the clinical psychologists.   Why is it advantageous to be civil? If people view you as more civil:

  • They are twice as likely to see you as a leader

  • You will perform up to 13% better because people will seek information from you and share information

  • People will like working with you

  • Finally you will be perceived as both warm and competent.

 (I hope most readers don't need a reminder as to why they should be polite) 

Is working remotely potentially more conducive to inappropriate behaviour?

"Incivility at work colors people's lives at work and at home. We become carriers. Whatever we pick up in the workplace, we take with us." Christine Porath

Social psychologists have researched extensively on why we may behave differently in the public and private space. The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status, is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. Because it is so important to be seen as competent and productive members of society, people naturally attempt to present themselves to others in a positive light. We attempt to convince others that we are good and worthy people by appearing attractive, strong, intelligent, and likeable and by saying positive things to others. In the workplace people are therefore more motivated to engage in impression management when interacting with high-status, powerful people, given the chances of valued outcomes and resources from such people.   It could be argued therefore that incivility is often kept in check at work by the forces of self presentation or impression management. An HR manager explained to me once, that my client’s inappropriate behaviour had reduced in its intensity and volume when they moved to open plan offices, however they were aware that he still had greater improvements to make. So what do you do?

  • Exemplify good manners, be careful to always be polite and inclusive, just as the incivility is contagious so is the alternative.

  • Remember its the little things that add up, like Smiling, Listening – with curiosity, interest and full attention, and Acknowledging people.

  • Set some rules around civil behaviour, because boundaries engender respect, remind your team what acceptable behaviour is, eg no side chats during meetings.

  • Remind them of the pitfalls of on line chats, and the advantages  of ‘in person’ communication

  • Follow up the anomalies: Have people stopped contributing on calls? Especially when one team member is present.

  • Keep a close eye on those in your team who occasionally behave in a manner that is close to the line of incivility in the office who may potentially have this behaviour exacerbated in the current climate.

Some optimistic findings:

 Conservation of resources (COR) theory suggests that individuals deal with negative stressors—like de-energizing relationships—when they have resources to help them buffer the stressor.  In a study of Destructive De-energizing relationships amongst management consultants, the researchers found that individuals who  were thriving at work were less susceptible to the effects of de-energizing relationships on job performance. These thriving individuals have their own store of energy to counteract the de-energizing relationships. This does not mean you can ignore the incivility. What should you do if you are concerned:  Meet with HR:

  • Understand clearly company policies, procedures and your roles and responsibilities.

  • How much privacy you can bring to conversations?

  • What behaviour is considered crossing the line etc and what you need to do if you are aware of this etc.

Make time for calm private chats to all the people who may be involved:

  • Turn up your emotional intelligence and curiosity skills.  

  • Suspend judgement until you have facts,

  • enter the conversation by giving the person the benefit of the doubt, this will enable them to open up so that you can try to find out what is going on from their perspective.

  • While nothing justifies inappropriate behaviour, understanding the context will help you work out an effective approach to resolution.

Then go back to HR manager and consult with them, discuss what needs to be done so that all employees feel psychologically safe.  Remember in the majority of cases people are not behaving inappropriately because they are inherently evil.  Sometimes applying the principles of Radical candour, giving honest feedback on how their behaviour is being perceived and then supporting them in modifying their actions can be sufficient. Please remember, that:

  • Incivility needs to be addressed because it’s inappropriate, and can escalate if left unchecked, we all deserve to be treated with respect.

  • The workplace  lawyer or  HR expert, will help you navigate if the inappropriate behaviour has crossed the line and requires a stronger approach. 

To be honest I found that blogging about incivility in remote working was rather unpleasant, but I was driven to complete and publish this blog as I believe that creating a psychologically safe and heathy workplace is more critical now than ever.



Work and Life with Stew Friedman: 61. Christine Porath: Workplace Civility

Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Workplace Incivility and the Impact of Hierarchical Status

Impression management behavior: effects of the organizational system

Self-Monitoring: Individual Differences in Orientations to the Social World Article  in  Journal of Personality · July 2006 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00387.x · Source: PubMed

Destructive de-energizing relationships: How thriving buffers their effect on performance

63 views0 comments


bottom of page