Incivility Part II: Confronting Bad Behavior

Last April I wrote about ways to make oneself more impervious to incivility in the workplace, but there are times when incivility needs to be directly confronted. How we go about doing that depends on the situation. When a pre-tenure faculty member is subject to incivility from a senior colleague, she may not want to take the risk of offending someone who will later vote on her promotion. If the bad behavior takes place in public settings, one option is to appeal to a tenured ally and explain that since it is not safe for you to speak up, you would like to ask if they would let the person know when he (or she) is out of line.

If you are of equal or higher rank than the person who is behaving badly, then you may choose to respond in the moment so that you don’t continue to stew over the situation for the rest of the day. It can be tricky to respond in a way that sets your personal limits without escalating the conflict. I particularly like suggestions that Kathleen Kelley Reardon gave in the Harvard Business Review article, “7 Things to Say When a Conversation Turns Negative,” including giving the person a chance to do the right thing by suggesting, “Surely there’s another way to say that.” Another option is to say something like, “I’m going to respond as if you did not just use that tone of voice.” This kind of comment puts the person on notice that you did not appreciate their behavior, but allows you to take the high road.

For the chair of a department in which meetings can become quite contentious, it can be helpful to start the year with a conversation about the kind of norms you want to follow to maintain a collegial yellowcardcropclimate, and what you will do when the meetings go off track. One organization agrees that any member can call for a minute of silence when things get especially heated, and has found that this brief interruption brings everyone back to a calmer state. In their book The Cost of Bad Behavior, authors Pearson and Porath explain that one of their university departments had a reputation of being especially tough on invited speakers. In order to shift to a more positive climate, department members came up with hand signals to communicate with their colleagues when someone responded to a speaker in a hostile manner. One signal was the equivalent of a yellow card from a referee, it meant that you were on notice to clean up your act. Another hand signal was the equivalent of a red card – it signaled that you were done commenting or asking questions in that particular talk.

Even one colleague who is disrespectful to colleagues can sap the energy out of a room and reduce the productivity of those who are the brunt of the bad behavior. I’d love to hear what other strategies have worked for both individuals and departments to contain bad behavior and foster an atmosphere of respect.