Why Civility & Manners Should Matter to Leaders

Good manners matter. We all know this and yet we often see bad manners everywhere, including the workplace. Bad manners are referred to in the academic context as “incivility”. Incivility is “Low intensity, deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviours are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others” (Anderson & Pearson, 1999, p. 457)

You know the behaviours I’m talking about, showing up late for meetings, playing with gadgets while someone is talking, talking on a cell phone during the middle of a meeting, using vulgar language, insulting others, yelling, gossiping cheating.

Why are relatively harmless behaviours such a big issue? Think about the tipping point, or broken window theory. Small lapses in behaviour, when ignored, lead people to believe that they can get away with more inappropriate behaviour. Research suggests that incivility may lead to more aggressive anti-social behaviour such as bullying and harassment. In other words, we might start out with minor rudeness that can be ignored, but often this escalates to much more concerning behaviour.  For example, sexual harassment is an extreme form of incivility towards one group of employees. With the introduction of bullying, harassment and anti-racism legislation in many jurisdictions, it behooves leaders to consider the source of many of these problems: incivility.

As leaders, we have an important role to play to create a culture of civility in our organizations. First we need to work with others to define organizational expectations of civil behaviour. Then we need to communicate those expectations, along with rewards, recognition and consequences of not behaving civilly. All leaders need to role model expected leadership behaviours, including civility. And finally leaders are accountable to ensure that civility expectations are being enforced within a workplace.

Professor Zopito Marini has developed a process for creating a declaration of civility (Marini, 2010):

  1. Have each person in the organization define civility, and in teams or groups, identify the common themes.
  2. Operationalize civility by providing concrete behaviours
  3. Create a declaration of civility outlining the behaviours that the organization will live by
  4. Provide clear expectations of behaviour in “peaceful” times as well as times of conflict
  5. Outline mechanisms to repair relationships and civil behaviour when relationships become strained

Leaders bear responsibility for a individual behaviours of others. Often by the time more serious behaviours have been identified, they have become public, reflecting negatively on the organization, impacting the organization’s brand, its sales, and possibly the ability to recruit quality employees, never mind the legal issues involved.  Isn’t it better to manage the small things early and focus on a culture that is civil?


Marini, Z. A., Polihronis, C., & Blackwell, W. (2010). Academic in/civility: Co-constructing the foundation for a civil learning community. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 3, 89-93.


10 replies »

  1. This is bang on.
    I have posted this to FB with the question, “Does the church need to hear this as well?” It is an important issue and our clergy need to be proactive in leadership. There has been a decline in civility and appropriate behavior in the church which has lead to many feeling that they must accept inappropriate behavior when it occurs. People feel they must do so because it is church and we need to be careful not to offend… the irony is the offense has already been committed.
    With that in mind I read your last paragraph again this way…
    “Leaders bear responsibility for a individual behaviours of others. Often by the time more serious behaviours have been identified, they have become public, reflecting negatively on the church, impacting our ability to live with integrity our baptismal promises, and affecting our ability to raise up new priests or leaders, never mind the legal issues involved. Isn’t it better to manage the small things early and focus on a culture that is civil?”

    Thanks for a the great insights!

    • I’d be interested to know the response to your Facebook posting. Often people are uncivil unintentionally, in that they don’t know the expectations of politeness. That’s why I love the idea of a Civility Declaration. Its a great way to engage any organization in thinking about civil behaviour.

  2. It shouldn’t need to come to this point, but I suspect a relationship exists between civility and business results. So, for leaders who need one more reason to follow your sound advice, Colleen, civility is a business imperative.

  3. Susan, that’s a good question – is civility related to business results? Now I have a search to do… a great reason to procrastinate! 🙂

  4. Really? Do the names June & Ward Cleaver mean anything to you. That’s about where a declaration of civility fits in (1950 – 1959). I would think that we have gone way beyond “Thou Shalt” & “Thou Shalt Not”, obligating a group of people to follow June & Ward as they swallow all of their frustrations right into an early heart attack.
    If you are creating a declaration, even for civility, you will have also created a volunteer organization of civility police waiting for an opportunity to pounce on someone, anyone, that happens to slip. In fact, it was tried many times before. One of the earliest were the “Ten Commandments”. Simple, straight forward, easy to follow – NOT! We now have hundreds of thousands of laws to refine it and an Easter Holiday to replace it.
    Why not just deal with the root – Respect. You can’t legislate it or make a declaration about it, you have to earn it. If you expect to earn it you also have to give it back “Where due!”
    Those who do not wish to be respected don’t have to hold the positions they have and don’t belong in the meeting in the first place.

    • Unfortunately the ten commandments are Christian. In most of the places I have worked, there are people of many faiths and no faith at all. (I can hear your groan from here… don’t bother, it is the way of the world).

      PS, there is no need for a volunteer organization of civility police. Once expectations are clear, my experience has been that civility tends to be self-policing. The people in the meeting who are distracted by the bad behaviour ask the offender not to do it and explain why the behaviour is inappropriate. “Talking on the side makes it difficult for me to hear the main conversation”.

      The big issue today in the workplace is that there is a whole generation that has not been taught good manners or respect for others. Thus we need to teach and reinforce good manners. Yes they don’t belong in the meeting in the first place, but we can’t fire the number of people who don’t belong due to lack of respect. So we need to teach them

  5. Colleen, great post. I think many often confuse civility with an inability to be disciplined and driven. I don’t think the two have much to do with each other. You can be civil, demanding and get results.

  6. Great point David. It is important to be demanding, although within reason, too demanding can also be damaging. But having high performance expectations generally improves performance. And there is a difference between being demanding and being a jerk. Here’s a great article on Steve Jobs: Inspiring or a Jerk? http://www.wired.com/business/2012/07/ff_stevejobs

  7. Sorry. You refute your own argument with your explanation. The distracted person not only tells the person who is distracting them to knock it off but enters into self-righteousness (becomes a volunteer civility cop) and explains why it is bad manners to distract them. A nose stuck that high usually ends up getting rearranged.
    By the way, the 10 commandments are Hebrew. Christians replaced them with a different Way.
    You did touch on the main problem when you mentioned that there is a whole generation who have not been taught manners or respect. Giving this generation a declaration of civility is about as useful as giving a Hippie in the 70’s a document that explained the hazards of doing drugs. Teaching respect and good manners is not the job of the corporate world, it’s the job of family. And, Yes!, you can fire them. If they are that disrespectful you can, as the leader, boot their ass out of the meeting and recommend they be booted out of the company. Next you locate the leaders that hired and promoted that person up to their current position and use a little discretionary discipline for their stupidity.
    By this stage it is more important to be consistent with consequences. The message to this generation then becomes one of “You now need to learn the concept of respect – both earning respect and giving it where due. It is not our job to force it down your throat!”
    The teaching that we do can cover what is respectful in different situations, different provinces/states and in different countries. We can not teach an adult to BE respectful, that’s up to them.

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