Mastering Civility

A Manifesto for the Workplace


By Christine Porath

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“The most useful, well-written, and emotionally compelling business book I have read in years. I couldn’t put it down.” — Robert I. Sutton, Stanford Professor and author of The No Asshole Rule

“A must-read for every leader in their field.” — Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of To Sell is Human

Incivility is silently chipping away at people, organizations, and our economy. Slights, insensitivities, and rude behaviors can cut deeply. Moreover, incivility hijacks focus. Even if people want to perform well, they can’t. Customers too are less likely to buy from a company with an employee who is perceived as rude. Ultimately, incivility cuts the bottom line.

In Mastering Civility, Christine Porath shows how people can enhance their influence and effectiveness with civility. Combining scientific research with fascinating evidence from popular culture and fields such as neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, this book provides managers and employers with a much-needed wake-up call, while also reminding them of what they can do right now to improve the quality of their workplaces.



After delivering a talk at the Department of Labor about overcoming incivility and creating a thriving environment, I stepped into an elevator with some senior executives from the office of the secretary of labor and a few others. One woman standing next to me introduced herself; she had attended my talk and wanted to tell me about an extremely unpleasant problem she was having with an uncivil boss. I listened as she described the situation. She was careful not to name names, but it became increasingly obvious that the uncivil offender was a leader in the organization, someone in the chain between her and the deputy. All other conversation in the elevator had stopped; those around us awkwardly stared off into space or kept their eyes glued to the floor, but they all were listening.

"What should I do?" this woman asked. "I'm at wits' end. How do I handle this uncivil person I have to work with?"

Then, the elevator door opened, and as we all got out, this woman stuck by my side. Stress was eating away at her; I could see it. As we walked down the hallway to the deputy's office, I offered some general recommendations, telling her to focus on taking care of herself, that ultimately it wasn't worth being pulled off track by him. I suggested she spend time with people and activities that would inspire or elevate her. This woman nodded, but she was clearly unsatisfied with my advice. "Look," she said by way of good-bye as I turned to walk into a meeting, "I'm totally stuck. I don't want to leave my job; I have so much invested here. I work hard and I want better, not just for me but for everyone. I just don't know how to get it."

I felt this woman's pain, because I had been there myself. At the beginning of my career, I scored what I thought was my dream job, helping a global athletic brand launch a sports academy. As I soon discovered, I had walked into an uncivil work culture where bullying, rudeness, and other forms of incivility ran rampant. The actions of a narcissistic, dictatorial boss trickled down through the ranks. Employees felt disconnected and disengaged. Some intentionally sabotaged the organization, stealing supplies and equipment, padding their time cards with hours they hadn't worked and charging personal items to their expense accounts. Many took out their frustrations on others, barking orders at colleagues, making snide remarks to customers, and failing to pitch in like good teammates do. Many talented people left, with some joining competing businesses. I was one of them.

I'd like to say the experience left me unscathed, but that wouldn't be true. I was a strong person (or so I thought); after all, I was a two-sport college athlete at a Division I school. My colleagues were resilient as well—not the type of people who would wilt easily when challenged. Yet many of us were depleted after just a few months of working in a hostile environment. We quickly became husks of our former selves.

After this experience, and watching as my loved ones faced uncivil behaviors over the years, I decided to dedicate my professional life to studying incivility in the workplace and to helping build more positive cultures where people can thrive. Wanting to demonstrate to the world that the way people treat one another at work matters, I set out to show what leaders and organizations lose financially when they allow rudeness to run rampant. I believed there was a moral element to it—people should treat one another better—but I also knew that for most organizations, money talks, and I wanted to show that incivility hits bottom lines hard. Given how much time we spend at work, and how closely we connect our identities and happiness to our careers, I thought that we could do better—that we had to do better. I wanted to show how creating positive, civil workplaces would be good for people, organizations, and society.

Over the past twenty years, I've researched the experiences of tens of thousands of people across six continents in nearly every industry and type of organization, including start-ups, Fortune 500 giants, nonprofits, and government agencies. I've consulted with scores of companies around the world of every size and variety. And I've discovered that one question defines our professional success more than any other. Just one.

Who do you want to be?

Whether you know it or not, you're answering this question every day through your actions. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

Kate has no energy because she doesn't feel valued. She isn't motivated because she feels like she's set up to fail. She's frustrated because she wants to succeed, but she feels she can't. She's nasty to her coworkers because she doesn't feel respected. She gives less because she's being held down.

Scenario 2

Kate is energized because she feels valued by others. She's inspired because she feels empowered. She's happy because she feels good about what she's accomplishing. She sparks ideas in others because she's a part of a culture that values sharing. She's proud of her work because she's recognized and rewarded for it. She gives more because she's being lifted up.

The question here is not "Which Kate do you want to be?" That's obvious. The question is "Will you lift Kate up or hold her down?" Whether you're a leader trying to achieve results and enhance a work environment or a professional dealing with bad behavior in your workplace, you can succeed by being someone who gets others to give more. How you treat people means everything—whether they will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you, support you, and work hard for you, or not.

Many leaders know that incivility is costly, but they don't always recognize just how much civility pays or how to make it happen. This book will help. It's a practical guide for leaders seeking to build civil workplaces and for anyone trying to become more effective and influential at work. Just because you're not leading an organization doesn't mean you can't still make it better for everyone. In fact, my research confirms that your kindness, consideration, and respect can have a potent effect, creating a positive dynamic of civility that others will respond to and build on.

Besides my own work, this book presents groundbreaking studies from many of my colleagues as well as examples of civility's power inside and outside the workplace. The book is divided into four parts. In part 1, I'll describe incivility and what I've learned about its costs. I'll detail what civility is and just how much it pays. In part 2, I'll ask, "How are you treating others, and what can you do to increase your influence and effectiveness?" In part 3, I'll present a four-step approach to making your organization more civil. In part 4, I'll conclude by offering the advice that the unfortunate woman in the elevator was seeking: what to do if you're a target of incivility.

After twenty years working in the field, I'm disappointed to report that the incivility problem still hasn't been solved. In fact, it's gotten much worse. All of us desperately need to change this reality, for the sake of people and organizations. That's why this isn't just a how-to book; it's a manifesto. Mustering the latest science, I hope to convince and inspire you to work just a little harder to be just a little kinder. I want us all to stop sidestepping or resisting civility and to start contributing to it.

As you read this book, I hope you will ask yourself who you want to be. And don't do it just once while you're reading; do it several times a day as you react to all the challenges and victories and surprises and tensions you encounter. How do you want to affect people? What impact do you want to have? Take the advice and science in this book to answer these questions, and make your team, organization, and society just a little bit better.


The Stakes:
The High Costs of Incivility and the Potential Gains of Civility

The next four chapters describe the costs of incivility and the surprising benefits of civility. They also show just how rapidly incivility and civility can spread. How we treat others may seem insignificant, but it has important effects on the people around us and the organizations in which we work.



Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

—George Washington

Mike, an executive vice president of an entertainment company, flew to New York to help lay off several people with the general manager (GM) of a firm Mike's company had recently acquired. As Mike broke the difficult news to a loyal employee, he was shocked to see the GM sitting with his feet propped up on the conference table, pecking away on his computer. The GM didn't even bother to glance up from his computer screen, let alone thank his direct report or express his sympathy.

Thoughtless actions such as these leave many of us feeling disrespected at work, creating problems that are getting worse by the year. A quarter of the people surveyed by Christine Pearson, a professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management, and me back in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at least once a week. When I performed the survey again in 2005, that number had risen to nearly half, and when I repeated it again in 2011, it was more than half. In the Civility in America 2016 survey, almost all respondents—95 percent—believed we have a civility problem in America; 74 percent believed it was worse now than it had been a few years ago; and 70 percent believed incivility has reached crisis proportions.1 By all accounts, incivility has only gotten worse.

As you can probably attest, rude behaviors range widely—from ignoring people, as the GM did, to not listening to intentionally undermining others. One boss said, "If I wanted to know what you thought, I'd ask you"; another told a rookie, "This assignment is crap," in response to his first project. A leader screamed, "You made a mistake!" after an employee overlooked a minor typo in an internal memo. A vice president, upset about the lack of financial information that was not yet available, said over the speakerphone in her car, with other people in it, that "this was kindergarten work."

Other common examples of incivility include walking out of a conversation due to lack of interest or answering calls in the middle of meetings. Some leaders behave uncivilly by

• publicly mocking and belittling people;

• reminding subordinates of their "roles" and lesser titles in the organization;

• teasing direct reports in ways that sting; or

• taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when difficulties arise.

In any of these instances, what matters is not whether people actually were disrespected or treated insensitively but whether they felt disrespected. Incivility is in the eyes of the recipient. It varies not just by individual but also by culture, generation, gender, industry, and organization. What you consider uncivil may not be the same thing your boss considers uncivil. And guess what. What you think matters most!

Interpreting the Trends

So why is incivility getting worse? One factor is globalization—colleagues from one culture sometimes unknowingly behave or speak in ways that colleagues from other cultures find rude. When taking the subway in Japan, for example, it's polite to stand on the platform to the side of a train's doors, patiently waiting as travelers disembark, before moving to the center and stepping onto the train. In China, everybody races for the doors all at once—and it's not considered impolite.

Or consider the experience of my mentor, Ed Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Years ago, he gave a talk to a group of students in a large auditorium in South Africa. He couldn't figure out why he was putting everyone to sleep. All the students had their heads down the entire time. No eye contact, no friendly nods, no smiles—nothing. Only later did he learn that this gesture—the bowing of the head—signified deference and an immense respect for him.

Another factor is generation. Research conducted by Jean Twenge, professor at San Diego State University, reveals that students are about 30 percent more narcissistic than the average students were twenty-five years ago.2 If you're excessively focused on yourself, you're going to be that much less concerned about the effects of your behavior on others.

But incivility's causes are more complicated than that. We can also tie our epidemic of rudeness to a general fraying of workplace relationships. Part of this stems from different work arrangements since fewer people work at the office. Even if people choose to work from home, they feel the effects of a bubble. Those who work at a distance report feeling more isolated and less respected at their organization.3 Books like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and Marc Dunkelman's The Vanishing Neighbor have chronicled the dissolution of communal and civic ties,4 and based on the work I do, I'd extend that to organizations. In a study I did of twenty thousand mostly white-collar employees across companies and industries, more than half felt stressed and overloaded. In a separate survey, I directly asked respondents why they behave uncivilly. More than half claimed it was because they are overloaded, and more than 40 percent said they had "no time to be nice."5 A quarter said they were rude because their leaders were disrespectful. Another quarter reported that their companies lacked guidelines or training about how to treat people.

Technology is also straining workplace relationships. The average professional spends about six hours a day on e-mail, not counting time spent surfing the net, monitoring social media, or shopping online.6 While electronic communication can bring us together in remarkable ways, it can lead to misunderstandings or gaps in communication, and it often liberates us to voice our frustrations, hurl insults, and take people down a notch from a safe distance. In addition, we spend so much time on computers that we often lose sight of how to connect with people face-to-face. We forget that others, like us, are human beings with needs and feelings.

Surveying these causes brings me to a crucial point, one of my biggest takeaways over the past couple of decades: Incivility usually arises not from malice but from ignorance. I started my research thinking that jerks out there were intentionally ruining workplaces; I now see that most bad behavior reflects a lack of self-awareness. We don't want to hurt others, but we do. A surgeon told me that until he'd received feedback, he had no idea that residents, nurses, and staff didn't like his harsh, directive style. Like the general manager at the start of this chapter, we're oblivious—and behaving in ways we'd never want to be treated.

Whether it's globalization, generational differences, workplace pressures, the fraying of workplace relationships, or technology, we seem to be more focused on ourselves and less on others. And to the extent that this is causing us to treat one another disrespectfully, it's costing us. In the next chapter, we'll take a closer look at the enormous toll incivility is taking on individuals, organizations, and society. As I think you'll agree, it's far from pretty.



I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

—Maya Angelou

Twenty-one years ago on Father's Day weekend, I walked into a warm, stuffy hospital room outside Cleveland, Ohio, to find my strong, vivacious dad lying helpless with electrodes strapped onto his bare chest. It turned out that Dad had suffered a heart attack scare. What caused it? No one knows, but since he was a generally healthy guy, I have a pretty good idea that it was job-related stress. For over a decade, my father had endured not one but two extremely uncivil bosses. It was ten years before he would talk about it, but when he did, he told me that his boss had made a habit of exploding in people's faces. He insulted employees, dismissed them, degraded their efforts, and blamed them for things over which they had no control. He was even uncivil to clients. During a visit to a client's store, my dad heard his boss tell the owner, "I see you're carrying on your father's tradition. This store looked like shit then, and it looks like shit in your hands."

For years, Dad put up with this, and it took a silent toll. Dad had never been the type to complain—at least not to us. He was more concerned with providing for our family. He had four kids and wanted to send us all to college, which wouldn't be easy. So he sucked it up. When times were tough, he explained how he was extremely grateful—to be born in America, where he had freedom, and also for his faith and his family. He felt very lucky to have met and married my mom.

Eventually, though, he just couldn't take it anymore. Worried about the effects his toxic boss was having on the organization, Dad mustered up the courage to talk to his corporate boss. He knew it was risky and told my mom, "If they don't fire him, I'm done." Within weeks, the bad boss was named District Manager of the Year. Days later, Dad was in the hospital.

When I entered the hospital room that day, Dad put on a brave face, even forcing a half smile, as if to convey to us that he was fine and we shouldn't worry. I could tell he was self-conscious and embarrassed—he didn't want us to see him like this. I didn't want to see him like this. Up until this point, he had seemed invincible. But incivility has a way of catching up with people. And with organizations too.

Stress: Deadlier than We Think

Modern science has a lot to tell us about the health impacts rudeness can have. Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, explains that when people experience intermittent stressors like incivility for too long or too often, they also experience significant health problems.1 Incivility can deplete your immune system, causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and ulcers. For example, a 2012 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which tracked women for ten years, concluded that stressful jobs were just as bad for women's health as smoking and obesity.2

Studies have found that "psychosocial" factors, such as work-related stress, are the most important variables in determining the length of a life.3 While genes and associated risks matter, stress can be an even more significant factor. Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University, and his colleagues, tracked eight hundred twenty adults who worked in various professions (from finance to manufacturing to healthcare) for twenty years. They interviewed these adults repeatedly about conditions at their jobs, the behavior of their managers, and the collegiality of their workmates—all while closely monitoring the participants' health. It wasn't the hours spent at work or other factors like workload, decision authority, or discretion that affected longevity. It was the positive support of coworkers. In fact, the presence of less-kind colleagues was associated with a much higher risk of dying.4 Middle-aged employees with little or no "peer social support" in the workplace were 2.4 times more likely to die during the study.5

Research also shows that working in a group where incivility is present affects people's mental health, even after accounting for general stress and the incivility an individual personally experienced.6 People tend to take the stress of incivility home with them, unleashing it on family members, who in turn carry the stress into their workplaces.7 Conversely, another study found links between family incivility and stress and poor performance at work.8

A Hefty Toll

All of this costs organizations a ton of money, to put it mildly. The American Psychological Association estimates that workplace stress costs the US economy $500 billion a year.9 A stunning 550 billion workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job, 60 to 80 percent of workplace accidents occur because of stress, and more than 80 percent of doctor visits are stress related. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that workers who feel stressed incur healthcare costs that are 46 percent higher than their less-stressed counterparts.10 One of the greatest causes of stress—accounting for about half of it—is relationship difficulties at work.11

But higher healthcare costs and sick-day usage are just a few of the ways incivility hurts organizations. In a poll of eight hundred managers and employees across seventeen industries that I conducted with my colleague Christine Pearson, I learned that among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility,

• 48 percent intentionally decreased their work effort,

• 47 percent intentionally decreased the time spent at work,

• 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work,

• 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident,

• 63 percent lost work time avoiding the offender,

• 66 percent said their performance declined,

• 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined,

• 12 percent said they had left their job because of the uncivil treatment, and

• 25 percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.12

If organizations lose profits and employees thanks to incivility, much of this loss goes undetected. Employees who decide to quit based on an experience of bad behavior typically don't ever tell their employers why. Turnover costs add up quickly: four times an employee's annual salary in the case of high-level employees.13

And consider how much incivility drains managers' time. According to a study conducted by Accountemps and reported in Fortune, managers and executives of Fortune 1000 firms spend 13 percent of their time at work—the equivalent of seven weeks a year—mending employee relationships and dealing with the aftermath of incivility.14 That's time not spent on core activities, like coming up with new strategies, getting close to customers, or mentoring employees. Costs soar even higher when companies bring in consultants or attorneys to help settle a situation.

Lost sales represent another area in which incivility can exact a large, hidden toll. Marketing professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes and I have documented something most of us intuitively know: Customers don't like incivility.15 In one of our experiments, we told participants that a marketing professor was helping a bank with an alumni credit card program.16 Two members of our research team presented themselves as bank representatives, explaining that they were gathering opinions about possible new logos and alternative finance options. During the experiment, half the participants witnessed incivility between the two bank representatives (one reprimanded the other for not presenting credit card mock-ups in the right sequence). The other group witnessed no incivility.

We wondered whether consumers would change perceptions of an organization or its brand if they saw employees treating one another poorly. Boy, did they ever. The vast majority—almost 80 percent—of customers who hadn't seen the employees treat one another poorly said they would use the firm's products and services in the future. But only 20 percent of consumers who had witnessed the incivility said they would. And nearly two-thirds of participants who had witnessed the incivility said they would feel anxious dealing with any employee of this company. "I wouldn't go near that place again if they paid me!" one participant said.

I was surprised at how much customers disliked seeing rude behavior. I thought at least a few customers might have seen an employee do something wrong and, upon witnessing his or her colleague deliver a reprimand, think Let her have it! But we failed to find any incidents in which customers gave rude employees a pass. It didn't matter if the employee receiving the reprimand was incompetent or did something egregious (like parking in a handicapped spot). Witnesses simply did not approve of rudeness, regardless of the circumstances.

We theorized that maybe customers disliked incivility because it ruined their experience. When you go out for a nice meal at a restaurant, the last thing you want to see is someone being treated poorly, right? Actually, customers were just as upset about incivility that was taking place behind closed doors. Participants perceived incivility as morally wrong, and they didn't believe any person deserved to be treated badly.17

Plummeting Performance

As monumental as losses due to incivility are to companies, my colleagues and I suspected that incivility was exacting an even deeper toll because of the subtle ways in which it affected people's thinking skills. Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, and I decided to find out. We gathered together a group of college students and divided them into two groups. Members of one group experienced an instance of rudeness (a disparaging remark about college students generally). Members of the other group didn't (no remark was made about college students).

In each group, respondents were placed in situations in which they received identical treatment—the same person in the same context delivered the same basic form of neutral treatment or incivility. What varied were the occasions for the behavior. In one experiment, the experimenter was rude to participants for being late; in another, a complete stranger treated participants rudely; and in a third, we asked participants to simply think about how they would react to various types of uncivil encounters.


  • "Christine Porath covers major issue facing businesses and society today. In MASTERING CIVILITY, learn what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it. Along with being a fascinating read, this book offers the key to a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better customer relationships, and higher profits."—Marshall Goldsmith, the Thinkers50 #1 Leadership Thinker in the World
  • "In her important new book, Christine Porath incisively explores the epidemic of incivility that has infected our workplaces and lives. But rather than simply decry the disease, Porath offers bright, brilliant suggestions for a cure. For anyone troubled by our current culture of coarseness-and that should be all of us-MASTERING CIVILITY is the right book at the right time. It is a must read for every leader in every field."—Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of Drive and To Sell is Human
  • "Backed up with real science and compelling stories, MASTERING CIVILITY powerfully illuminates why the smallest behaviors have the biggest effects on relationships, teams, and entire companies. Even better, Dr. Porath provides practical, proven steps to diagnosing yourself and your environment and a roadmap to building a better workplace, and a better you."—Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, and New York Times bestselling author of Work Rules!
  • "If you see rude people at work, this book is for you. Christine Porath shows that even just being near incivility is enough to shatter your focus and stifle your success, and offers practical insights for creating more humane organizations."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
  • "A brilliant, well-researched playbook on civility. Mastering these concepts is now far more essential in a networked world."—Tom Gardner, Founder/CEO of Motley Fool
  • "MASTERING CIVILITY is the most useful, well-written, and emotionally compelling business book I've read in years. I couldn't put it down. Porath blends uncommon commonsense, rigorous research, and terrible and wonderful stories to show what YOU can do to build and bolster a civilized and sane workplace."—Robert I Sutton, Stanford Professor and author of The No Asshole Rule
  • "Christine Porath makes a compelling case for mastering civility, and offers immediately actionable steps for infusing more of it into our work and lives."—Ed Lawler, Distinguished Professor at University of Southern California, and Director of the Center for Effective Organizations
  • "Research-based, filled with practical suggestions, summaries, and checklists, MASTERING CIVILITY offers the promise of reducing the enormous toll on both people and performance from bad behavior at work. Porath is passionate about creating more humane work environments, and has produced a profoundly insightful manifesto for doing so."—Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University and author of 14 books on power, leadership, and human resource management
  • "This book will arm readers with the tools they need to move from defeat to empowerment and prompt change in the workplace."—Publisher's Weekly

On Sale
Dec 27, 2016
Page Count
240 pages

Christine Porath

About the Author

Christine Porath is a tenured professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She’s the author of Mastering Civility and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior. She is also a consultant working with leading organizations to help people and communities thrive. Her speaking and consulting clients include Google, United Nations, World Bank, Microsoft, Genentech, Marriott, 3M, Verizon, Ford, World Health Organization, and Cleveland Clinic.

Learn more about this author