Ask people to describe the quintessential leader and it’s unlikely you will hear the word “passive.”
One reason that passivity and leadership are not equated is that a passive manager can cause a host of problems. According to researchers at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, one such problem is the increase of workplace incivility, with docile managers at the root of these occurrences.
In their paper, “The Effects of Passive Leadership on Workplace Incivility,” Assistant Professor and Cigna Research Fellow Crystal Harold and Assistant Professor Brian Holtz write that passive managers both directly and indirectly influence the amount of workplace incivility employees will experience.
“We were interested in studying workplace incivility and, more specifically, factors that might promote the occurrence of incivility,” Harold said, “because, let’s face it – just about everyone has either been treated rudely at work, treated someone else rudely at work, or both. There are people out there who likely think that these sorts of behaviors are fairly innocuous, but available data would suggest otherwise.”
Harold and Holtz’s research has broad implications. A recent poll, conducted by Georgetown University researchers Christine Porath and Christine Pearson in a 2013 article, “The Price of Incivility,” suggests that 98 percent of North American employees have experienced incivility in the workplace. Incivility covers behaviors ranging from eye-rolling to checking emails during a meeting, and while these behaviors may seem innocuous, incivility in the workplace takes a toll.
Prior incivility research, upon which Harold and Holtz drew for their paper, which is in press at the Journal of Organizational Behavior, indicates that those who experience incivility have intentionally decreased their work effort and the quality of their work. Incivility has been shown to have a negative impact on job satisfaction, physical and mental well-being and turnover.
It is not only employees who are impacted by incivility. Managers of Fortune 1000 companies report spending 13 percent of their time addressing the consequences of instances of incivility, according to the paper by Porath and Pearson.
“Because incivility has negative psychological and physical effects on victims and is costly for organizations, it is important that we begin to understand why incivility occurs in the first place. What conditions foster an uncivil work environment?” Holtz said. “It made sense to us that leadership would be an important and significant variable to consider.”
Harold and Holtz conducted two studies in which they surveyed employees, as well as their co-workers and supervisors, to determine the role played by passive management in workplace incivility. The studies found a positive relationship between passive leadership and experienced incivility. In addition, the results indicate that employees who experience incivility are more likely to behave indecently themselves.
“We found that the experience of being treated with incivility coupled with working for a passive manager significantly increased the likelihood that an employee would both behave with incivility, as well as engage in withdrawal behaviors such as showing up to work late, or even calling out when not actually sick,” Holtz said. “The bottom line is that in the process of doing nothing, these types of managers are actually doing a lot of damage.”
Since those who experience incivility in the workplace display increased levels of behavioral incivility, Harold and Holtz found that passive managers may indirectly foster a workplace culture where employees feel that it is okay to behave rudely toward co-workers. In light of their findings, the research paper’s co-authors offered advice to organizations that wish to diminish instances of workplace incivility.
“First, you have to educate your employees and management that these seemingly harmless behaviors are anything but,” Harold said. “Training employees, and importantly managers, to recognize what incivility is, is an important first step.”
Added Holtz: “Make clear which behaviors constitute incivility, clarify the consequences for engaging in these behaviors, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy. This is where managerial training comes into play. Managers must learn to intervene when employees are behaving badly toward one another and quickly take punitive action against offenders.”
The responsibility rests with the manager to set a good example, according to Harold. Employees frequently take behavioral cues from supervisors and therefore, a manager’s actions can have unintended consequences.
“A company’s efforts to curb rudeness will be for naught if the manager is the one instigating the incivility,” Harold concluded.