Business Psychology

Article No. 374
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Kicking the Dog

Research explores the incidence of incivility at work.

Did you kick the dog when you got home from work last night? Well, maybe he had it coming. Dogs are jumpy and yappy and slobbery and smelly, and they always need a witness to do their bathroom business regardless of the inconvenience. Sometimes, your energy resources can run a little short, and the evil impulse to kick the dog is hard to resist. Someone warn the dog!

There are two elements of this example to keep in mind. First, being exhausted as you enter a new setting and encounter a fresh demand, and second, the impulse to kick or insult . . . some minor harm. These elements are repeated numerous times each day in your business with your people and your customers. They result in rude remarks and other acts of incivility, and they add up to a heavy load of misery for everyone.

Incivility at work was the subject of a study carried out by Christopher Rosen from the University of Arkansas. Rosen noticed that incivility at work (rudeness, insults, put-downs, shunning, ignoring, and so on) often occurs in a chain reaction. One person arrives at work tired and before long snaps at a coworker. The injured person doesn't react immediately, but before long, he is rude to another person, and the chain reaction has begun. Incivility breeds further incivility until finally, you get home and kick the dog.

Rosen wanted to understand the process, so he studied 70 middle aged employed people (mostly women) over a period of 3 days. In total, his subjects stopped what they were doing and answered his questions about what was going on 482 times. Rosen learned quite a bit about incivility. Here's the best of it.

First, he found that the goal environment was important. When goals are clear and feedback straightforward, demands on people's emotional resources are lessened, and they have more self control to resist the impulse to carry forward an experience of incivility. (They resist the impulse to be rude to another person.) When the goal environment is ambiguous, people are unsure how to excel, and they seek an advantage by political means. They form subgroups, clicks, and alliances. They curry favor with managers and supervisors and sow discord by gossiping and withholding critical assistance or information. When a person experiences incivility in this setting, it is worrisome. It demands attention to understand its meaning, to assess if there is a threat, and to formulate a response. This load of worry can wear a person down. Rosen found that is also triggers the beginning of an incivility chain reaction. Worried employees have less self control to resist the evil impulse. Someone warn the dog!

Second, he found that people's thinking was important. People vary in their thoughts about themselves as they carry out their jobs. Some people think concretely. They focus on how to do things. Other people think abstractly. They focus on why to do things. Abstract thinkers also reflect on themselves as actors in the setting. They consider what kicking the dog says about who they are.

Rosen found that abstract thinkers had more emotional resources to resist the evil impulse to carry forward incivility. Concrete thinkers did not have this strength at the crucial moment of temptation and were more likely to do the evil deed.

What to do? Rosen believes business owners can influence both the goal environment and employees thinking. He suggests we discourage political behaviors by providing clear feedback about behaviors we desire. He suggests we set long term goals and emphasize values in describing work activities reminding people why their work is important. Doing so will bolster employees' energy resources and stop incivility from being carried forward.

Reference: Rosen, Christopher C., Allison S. Gabriel, Joel Koopman, and Russell E. Johnson (2016) Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility. Journal of Applied Psychology , Vol 101(11), Nov, 1620-1634.

© Management Resources

Keywords: incivility, ego depletion, organizational politics
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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