Decreasing Team Drama

By Chris Ihrig

Incivility among team members can sink a team as surely as a well-placed torpedo can sink an aircraft carrier. In The Price of Incivility, Harvard Business Review quantified the cost of workplace incivility summarized below. 

Incivility causes significant damage because it increases stress, leads to retaliation, rumination, lower levels of cooperation even among those who weren’t involved in the incident, and avoidant behaviors that interfere with the effective functioning of a team. How can team managers reduce incivility?

Psychologists discovered that our thoughts are mood-congruent.  We interpret what others say based on our mood when we hear it; our thoughts are influenced by our mood. Because our thoughts are influenced by our emotional state, what we say and do is influenced by our mood. In general, when we feel good, we are nicer. When we don’t feel good we are more likely to be rude.

A co-worker who understands that someone who is rude already feels bad is less likely to take a rude comment personally. This knowledge increases the likelihood they will attempt to help the person feel better and less likely to retaliate. When employees have internalized the way mood affects behavior, they can practice immediate forgiveness in response to many cases of incivility because they realize that uncivil behavior is a symptom of something not being right. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not personal. It’s not about the person they are rude to; if they felt better they’d be nicer.

Incivility doesn’t cause as much stress or lead to rumination when the connection between emotional state and mood is understood. Rumination following incivility can take many forms. It frequently involves concerns about why the person doesn’t like us. Rudeness loses its sting when it is understood in relation to mood. Understanding that science demonstrates it isn’t about us allows us to perceive it for what it is—an indicator that someone else is suffering. A team that understands this connection is more likely to respond with empathy than retaliation.

Incivility is not okay just because we understand why it happens. Understanding can help individuals recognize pay more attention to their own behavior when they are in a negative mood which can enhance their self-control. It may make them more motivated to ask for help. Science puts rudeness in perspective.