A disturbing trend in business today is the increasing incidence of rude behavior in the workplace. You might dismiss incivility and chalk it up to the increased stress level in every organization today that’s a result of the tough, competitive environment we all face. Senior management might take the attitude that it is small price to pay and employees should be grateful just to have a job. But what is the impact of incivility on the bottom line, and in particular, the effectiveness of new product development (NPD)? That is the subject of this article.
A recent Harvard Business Review (1) article provides much insight and statistics on the rise of incivility and the impact on business. These same authors published a very well written book (2) in 2009 that covers the subject in more depth. I draw on their work heavily in this article, along with my personal experience managing an R&D organization in a mid-sized company.
Incivility is on the rise. Based on surveys of thousands of workers over a 14 year period, the authors of the HBR article found that 98% of employees report experiencing uncivil behavior in their workplace. In 2011 half said they were treated rudely at work at least once a week and that was up from 25% in 1998. While the authors do not address why this is occurring, we all can speculate on the causes from personal experience. I believe it is primarily the result of two factors. One, is certainly the increased stress level in society from financial strains resulting from the economic environment. The second are the dramatic changes in how we communicate. It is easier than ever to communicate, but this communication is not face-to-face, it is through email, text, and social media. It is very easy to hide behind a nasty email or text. It promotes, I believe, bad behavior. Maybe we are losing our ability to communicate effectively. For effective NPD, communication is key (3).
Whatever the reasons, let’s look at how incivility is manifested in the work environment, the cost, and what management can do.
Incivility manifests itself in overt acts and in more subtle ways. Some managers certainly believe that by essentially publicly bullying employees that somehow this motivates them to achieve a higher level of performance. Of course, if you have been on the receiving end of this type behavior by a superior, you know the opposite is true. The HBR article describes a common scenario. If senior management practices and condones in others this behavior, then over time, it will be embedded into the culture and permeate the organization. A person treated badly by a superior is more likely to then turn around and treat others poorly. If those who bully others are rewarded, then that becomes a behavioral norm. It becomes a vicious cycle.
There are more subtle ways that incivility is manifested. It may be as simple as not responding to emails, or responding in a callous, ungrateful way. Again, in today’s busy world full of emails and the need for instant communication, we can all easily forget that our words have consequences. It is extremely easy for emails and texts to be taken out of context. I believe for any individual employee, isolated occurrences of rude behavior is not a significant problem: we all have bad days. For those employees, however, who exhibit an ongoing pattern of incivility both in written communication and in face-to-face interactions, that person can become a disruptive, negative force, especially in the context of a team-based environment like NPD. The HBR article points out other examples such as a project leader who takes credit for good news but then criticizes team members when there are problems, or managers who make subtle digs at employees masquerading as teasing, or a manager preoccupied on his mobile phone during a presentation or otherwise preoccupied and not paying attention.
So what about the cost? The HBR article provides some startling statistics applicable to NPD from a poll of 800 managers and workers in 17 industries. For those on the receiving end of incivility:
- 48% intentionally decreased their work effort (e.g., lower level of engagement).
- 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
- 66% said that their performance declined.
- 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
Incivility leads to reduced creativity, deterioration in team spirit and performance, and can impact recruiting. All can have a negative impact on NPD effectiveness, which in turn can impact financial performance. The HBR article cites some studies on the first two, and the impact on recruiting should be self-evident: who wants to work for a company that supports this type of culture?
A recent article in the Journal of Innovation Management (4) helps link internal team dynamics including social cohesion and how individuals identify with the team, to new product creativity, which influences product competitive advantage. Social cohesion is defined as degree to which NPD teams maintain good interpersonal relationships and a spirit of collegiality among the members. It provides an open environment for all team members to contribute without fear of judgment or ridicule for their ideas. Team identity is important so that all members are committed to the team and share in the vision of the overall project goals. The research provides empirical evidence that team-level creativity is an important intangible resource that provides competitive advantage through NPD. Individual employees who are routinely rude and uncivil to their fellow team members can have a negative impact on social cohesion and team dynamics.
So what can senior management do? First, senior managers must take a hard look at their own actions, including soliciting feedback from employees. Are you modeling the behavior you want to see in others? Do you believe that the example you are setting is negatively impacting the culture? Are you taking the time to express your appreciation for employees? Sometimes just a simple word of thanks can go a very long way. It is important that senior management realize that it is not just the right thing to do, but can pay benefits from a financial standpoint. It is also up to the senior manager to recognize that everyone in the organization will take cues from your behavior and those become the cultural norms.
Second, pay attention to the HR implications. There are several areas here. For instance, it is not common to consider incivility during the recruiting and hiring process. During the interview process, focus on signs about whether the person will fit into a culture that only supports civil interactions. Engage the potential employee in multiple forms of communication, including email exchanges. Another area is to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior through the performance management system. “Star” performers are sometimes treated differently than others, even if they behave badly, but the impact on the rest of the organization can be devastating. Sometimes it is best to move that person out of the organization if you cannot change their behavior. Finally, consider teaching civility. Many today just do not know what it means. Companies such as the Lindenberger Group, who I can recommend highly, offer training in this area.
For project managers especially, it is important to create group norms about acceptable behavior in team meetings and other formal gatherings. One area where I have experienced problems are in formal design reviews. Sometimes those presenting will become defensive and combative to those questioning a specific design aspect, or participants might present their concern to the presenter in a callous or negative way. In either case, it is important to establish the norms of behavior up front so that the team can function at the highest level.
Do you have examples where incivility in the workplace negatively impacted NPD effectiveness? How was the problem addressed? What do you personally do to maintain civil interactions with others? How do you deal personally with incivility?
(1) Porath, Christine and Pearson, Christine. 2013. The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review January-February: 115-121.
(2) Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What To Do About It. (New York: Penguin Group, 2009)
(3) See this article entitled “Fostering Inspiration and Creativity in New Product Development (NPD)” for additional thoughts on this subject.
(4) Im, Subin, Montoya, Mitzi M. and Workman, John P. Jr. 2013. Antecedents and Consequences of Creativity in Product Innovation Teams. Journal of Product Innovation Management 30 (1):170-185.
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