Toxic Culture Will Kill a Startup

Three Ways to Call Out and Address Incivility

Christine Seifert
Nov 6 · 6 min read
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Toxic culture proliferates when we fail to address it swiftly and firmly. But what about when we simply don’t recognize what toxic culture is? Startups are poised to define and identify toxicity early and before it becomes pervasive.

What Is Toxic Culture?

Consider these familiar workplace scenarios:

Scenario 1: Nicole is part of a large marketing team in a technology company. Nicole hates to be wrong. She hates it so much that if anyone even suggests such a thing, she raises her voice, snaps at others, and derails conversations. At the team’s last meeting, Nicole became so angry at a team member for disagreeing with her that she refuses to speak to or interact with that team member.

Scenario 2: Brad works in a busy IT department. He purposely works slowly so that he never has to take on larger and harder projects. Brad’s manager won’t intervene because she maintains that Brad and his co-workers must figure out how to work together. Brad openly brags about how little he does.

Scenario 3: Gary and Brooke share a small office. Whenever Gary has a question or a comment, he interrupts Brooke, regardless of what she’s doing. She’s tried wearing headphones, but he just spoke louder. She asked him to save his questions and comments for scheduled times, but he went back to interrupting after a week. Brooke often stays late (unpaid) to finish what didn’t get done while Gary was talking.

These examples are not uncommon occurrences in a wide variety of workplaces. We often file them under “personality conflicts,” which suggests that there’s no real way to address these issues accept to grin and bear it.

The reality is that the scenarios I’ve described above are more than just personality conflicts. They are examples of incivility in the workplace. Left unchecked, incivility turns into toxicity. Toxic culture will eventually kill an organization.

What Is Incivility?

Incivility, at its simplest definition, is behavior that shows a lack of consideration for others. Uncivil behaviors include, but are not limited to, general rudeness, shirking work, condescending actions, yelling, scapegoating, social isolation, and talking over others.

High levels of incivility can include outright bullying and/or intimidation. These more aggressive instances of incivility can be easier to address because they are easier to spot and call out. Subtle behaviors are harder to identify and describe, especially if an organization has a history of normalizing these behaviors. For that reason, it’s the subtle instances of incivility that we assume we must simply put up with.

But we don’t have to put up with it, and we shouldn’t.

The Consequences of Incivility

Incivility has short- and long-term consequences for an organization. A recent study shows that 98% of employees have experienced uncivil treatment at work. Almost half of those employees who have faced uncivil treatment reduced their work effort. A whopping 80% spent work time thinking about the incident. And 78% said their commitment to the organization declined as a result of uncivil treatment.

Organizations that foster incivility face increased costs in the form of lower productivity, creativity, collaboration, and morale. In fact, HR professionals will spend hours of their time dealing with the aftermath of incivility. (Leaders in Fortune 1000 companies spend the equivalent of seven weeks a year managing conflicts and responding to issues that follow incidents of incivility.)

The problem of incivility extends beyond mere social niceties. Pervasive incivility may create a culture hospitable to workplace violence. Some studies suggest that verbal incivility may build up and result in physical aggression.

Even if incivility doesn’t lead to violence, it does lead to counterproductive behaviors that can include anything from publicly bad-mouthing the organization to purposely sinking a team project to simply refusing to engage with others. In cases where employees work directly with customers, the effect of incivility can bleed into customer interactions.

Three Ways to Change a Culture of Incivility

The good news is that organizational leadership in a startup can play an important role in changing a culture that fosters incivility. Here are three ways that managers and other leaders can create an environment where incivility is not tolerated:

1. Teach employees what incivility is

Offer short workshops or training sessions where you identify exactly what workplace incivilities are. Don’t use examples from your workplace where people will recognize the players involved. Instead, create scenarios — like the three at the beginning of this article — that will allow your employees to identify and discuss the uncivil behaviors.

Role play or discuss with employees how to respond to incivilities as soon as they occur.

Work together to create standards of behavior that define incivilities and how managers and other leaders will respond to them.

If you don’t have an anonymous reporting form already, create one. Use it to allow people to report incivilities. Appoint a team of 3–5 leaders who can respond to the incidents if necessary. Keep data on the kinds of incivilities that are most common. Share the kinds of incivilities that are most common with all employees.

2. Stop the incivility spiral

An incivility spiral happens when once incidence of incivility — even a small one — is unchallenged in an organization. The unintentional message is that incivility is allowed. The target of incivility is now more likely to respond with incivility on their end. As incivility spirals, violence becomes more likely.

Prolonged exposure to incivility may even convince us that incivility is the only way to get ahead. In such cases, incivility becomes a weapon of power.

Stop the spiral by responding to an act of incivility swiftly. Hold people accountable for uncivil behavior by referring them back to the agreed-upon standards of behavior. Hold people accountable for their behaviors.

In cases where someone inadvertently behaves uncivilly — and doesn’t recognize it — allow them to save face by speaking to them privately and framing the conversation as a learning experience, not a punishment.

Experts also suggest screening new hires carefully by asking them direct questions about what constitutes civil behavior and how it’s important in the workplace.

3. Reject paternalistic culture

A recent study shows that paternalistic workplace cultures are correlated with incivility.

Paternalistic culture includes supervisors or managers who act like parents and treat their employees like children. Paternalistic cultures value top-down organization and often protect lower-level employees from bad news.

Reject language that establishes the organization itself as the authority figure to which the employee is beholden to please and obey. Such language may include variations any of the following comments:

· We’re making these decisions for your own good.

· Please do this extra thing as a favor for the organization. We’ve been so good to you.

· This is not how we act in this family.

· I know you are doing more than your share, but think about how much good you are doing for the family.

· We do things this way because CEO (aka Mom or Dad) says so.

· You must have great passion for this organization in order to work here because we are all driven by love for the company.

Paternalistic culture thrives when the norms of professional behavior are blurred. Once an organization begins functioning according to a model that positions the organization itself as the “loving parent,” incivility is more common. That’s probably because employees recognize their role as children and then act accordingly.

What ISN’T Incivility?

Bear in mind that not all negative behaviors constitute incivility. Civility does not require that everyone agree all the time. Conflict and disagreement should be a healthy part of the organization, and everyone should be trained in how to handle conflict.

Civility also does not mean that everyone has to be nice. Niceness is a requirement that women are more likely to be held to. Furthermore, niceness is often defined as someone doing exactly what another person wants. Civility is not the same as niceness. Civility simply requires awareness of others’ and a commitment to behaving in ways that adhere to agreed upon standards of behavior.

Civility may also be used as a weapon against people of color. Black women, for example, are more often perceived to be hostile, angry, and aggressive. Standards of civility can become a veil used to cloak racism. It’s important that organizations be mindful about how expectations for civility may be used as a tool to further encode whiteness. Be sure to include conversations about race and gender (and inclusiveness) in general in any discussion about civility.

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Christine Seifert

Written by

Christine Seifert is a professor, writer, and reader. She is philosophically opposed to pep rallies. https://ladyprofessorreads.com/christine-seifert-portfolio/

The Startup

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