Political Polarization and Ignored Incivility: A Catastrophic Combination?

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Incivility is anathema to management seeking ethical culture, as it causes psychological harm, including harm to one’s self image, and happens more frequently and severely to women.

We’re in for what should be an explosive election cycle that very well might inflame or provoke workplace conflict and incivility. Americans are polarizing politically at record rates, and faster than citizens of other democracies. On top of that, displeasure with the government keeps climbing. Seeing the societal rifts that came from 2016 and continued in 2020, a workplace should consider how ready they are for how their employees will react to the race—and the outcome—with figures like Biden, Trump, Harris, and DeSantis likely to be on the tickets. And let’s be honest, labels beyond “R” and “D” are not needed to create chasms of disagreement.

Incivility is everything that goes beyond acceptable treatment of coworkers, but falls short of violence or other flagrantly out-of-bounds conduct. A distinct form of mistreatment, incivility can be aimed toward someone directly or indirectly by way of exclusion or ostracization, horizontally or vertically within the organization. More technically, it is “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target.” 

We recently interviewed top leadership from several organizations for a research study on political polarization (full report coming soon), and most reported feeling unprepared and blindsided by the recent escalation of political polarization and activism in the workplace, as well as the changing characteristics of younger generations. Organizations would be wise to brace for sharp increases in politically-driven incivility in the workplace.

The only short-term way to handle an employee’s apparent hypersensitivity is to acknowledge that their feelings are valid.

Incivility is anathema to management seeking ethical culture, as it causes psychological harm, including harm to one’s self image, and happens more frequently and severely to women. Incivility also reduces productivity (of targets and observers) by impairing information processing, attention, resource sharing, and creativity. It also arises and spreads in predictable patterns, tending to flow downward from higher to lower power individuals in organizations, more from men, more toward women, and from older toward younger. Incivility can exist in a relatively constant state or spiral upward increasing in intensity and prevalence. It may persist, cascade, and grow in organizations by escalation, word of mouth, and displacement (e.g. retaliation toward someone other than the perpetrator).

Rising political tensions may generate more incivility at workplaces where employees treat each other differently (in work-relevant ways) based on how much they agree with each other politically. I’m certainly not alone in encouraging businesses to not discriminate in hiring based on politics, or stifle individual activism, and even to be tolerant of civil political speech at work. Responsibly implementing this approach requires acknowledging the risks we’ve pushed to the back burner—tensions and potential conflict arising from the coexistence of vastly different cultures, belief systems, and politics. It’s difficult to avoid the ethical issue of incivility given that gender, race, and generational diversity in the workplace are a source of increased differences and misunderstandings. This can lead to greater incivility among employees. To an extent, it is laudable efforts toward demographic and thought diversity that could also expose a company to incivility risk. 

Researchers have been aware of widespread incivility for a long time, though most organizations do little about it. The good news is that, once a leader realizes incivility is an organizational issue, there’s scientific guidance on how to prevent and correct incivility they can turn to. And like most such threats, prevention is a better approach than reacting to egregious abuses or a groundswell of incivility driven by external socio-political events. 

Political Identity can be a basis of mistreatment akin to race and gender, yet individuals do not hesitate in the same way to mistreat others along political lines. Race and gender mistreatment come with legal protections and social disdain, but political identity has no such protections. Psychologist Kathi Miner and her colleagues at Texas A&M suggested as a result that organizations codify protection of political identities by including them in the language of policies against discrimination and including in training meant to reduce discrimination. They also suggest an approach that creates civility rather than attempting to prevent incivility, specifically interventions such as the CREW (Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workplace) approach that has long-term data to support its effectiveness.

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It makes sense that power differentials can produce incivility: Individuals feel safer to act badly when they also feel safe from repercussions. Individual employees may be temporarily emboldened to mistreat others by events such as being promoted or having the outcome of a recent political event go their way (i.e. they feel they’ve won and are in the majority). When organizations are not actively talking about or intervening with respect to civility, targets are susceptible to incivility from anyone who thinks they are in a position to get away with it. 

Generational or cultural differences in the office are important when it comes to incivility. Working side by side are those who were raised chanting “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and those raised to believe that words themselves can be violent. The less sensitive generations may not get that engaging in debate or friendly ribbing can come off as uncivil, even when they intend no harm. With this in mind, and the difficulty anyone might have knowing exactly where the line between civil and uncivil is in the realm of political speech, clear behavioral expectations should be communicated to employees. Can a mere statement of one’s beliefs be incivility? And if so, when? Is celebrating a political victory or lamenting a loss ever over the line? 

There is some hope for civility in the future, given gen Z’s preference for dialogue over confrontation. This may mean that longer-term efforts to build civility are likely to succeed as the new individuals entering the workforce are open to such an approach. 

The only short-term way to handle an employee’s apparent hypersensitivity is to acknowledge that their feelings are valid. It may be true that their level of sensitivity is unreasonable by some measure, but we cannot correct everything from childhood to young adult experiences and social forces that have shaped a new era of sensitivity, or expect individuals to overcome this quickly. But, to ensure that validating all perceived incivility does not lead to unfair consequences, be sure to approach instigators with a rehabilitative approach, as was suggested by participants in a qualitative study on incivility. And certainly, everyone must be able to endure some minor discomforts, such as hearing opposing ideas that are not directed at them or their identity. 

One pitfall to avoid is the appearance that your organization implicitly allows incivility, or is indifferent to it. This means that at the very least someone must feel that you take their experience seriously and that incivility can only exist while evading the organization’s gaze. While it is acceptable to promote tolerance and even one’s ability to endure incivility, it must not be that you are only arming them to manage abuse themselves without trying to prevent it and make clear your position against it. 

In addition to robust organizational defenses against incivility, training in political skill can mitigate incivility when employees participate in political discussions. Political skill is the ability to understand others at work, influence others, and achieve one’s own objectives in social contexts. Political skill training can help people be more competent in discussions and in influencing others without exploitation. This skill manifests in more visible behaviors like social competence, successful networking, and interpersonal influence. And of course, this is just one example of how employees could be bolstered personally against incivility. 

There are also longer-term strategies to implement, such as screening for incivility in the hiring process. However, doing so requires more effortful investigation of candidates via strategies like secondary references. For example, in addition to calling past supervisors, you could ask that supervisor to put you in touch with a previous coworker who may know more about treatment of peers. 

Yes, there will always be coarse behavior that goes unchecked, and employee complaints that seem hypersensitive. Yet without solving those problems, so much can be done to prevent incivility and make sure that every employee knows the organization intends to stand between instigators and victims. And with the likely stress test of the 2024 elections on the horizon there’s never been a better time to think about doing more to keep incivility at bay.  

Here are some ways you can prepare your workplace to deal with incivility:

  • Identify experts inside or outside your organization prepared to implement a civility plan/intervention.
  • Create a plan and timeline as soon as possible, with the 2024 election and lead-up in mind. 
  • Assess civility/incivility through formal assessment or additions to existing employee surveys.
  • Communicate expectations about civility with specific examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
    • Involve employees in the process of determining what is acceptable and why.
  • Review or revise policies, code of conduct, and consequences of incivility. 
  • Apply rules of civility equally, acknowledging the validity of one’s experience. 
  • Ensure channels of communication for reporting incivility are open, easy to access, and well attended.
    • Build a politically diverse response team that is able to apply the rules regardless of political context.  
  • Empower employees with personal development of skills that increase their ability to resist incivility. 
  • Make highly visible your commitment to investigate and act on incivility, even when determinations on what is appropriate are difficult. 
  • Consider how your civility/incivility plan can create a cycle of continuous improvement rather than a one-time uptick in civility. 

Christine Porath explains how incivility shuts down our brains at work:

Brian Harward is a research scientist at Ethical Systems.

Lead image: Yan Krukau / Pexels