The embodied cost of workplace incivility

We rarely get to choose our colleagues, and sometimes our workplace relationships can be less than perfect.

Of course constructive disagreement can be healthy and productive, particularly in scientific contexts. But when we perceive interactions as being needlessly rude or undermining, productivity, morale and engagement can suffer.

But this paper from the Journal of Management describes how “workplace incivility” can do more than simply put us in a bad mood. By regularly eliciting a stress response from various physiological systems, chronic conflict, rudeness and disrespect can gradually wear away at our physical health.

As the authors put it, “Recurrent stress activation—that is, constantly upregulating the [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] and [sympathetic nervous] systems… leads to adaptive shifts in one’s physiology as well as the potential for long-term harms to health. Downstream somatic consequences can include cardiovascular disease, insulin-resistant (type 2) diabetes, compromised immunity, gastrointestinal problems, and major depression.”

Researchers refer to this as “allostatic overload” – the “weathering” of brain and body due to the chronic activation of physiological systems in response to long-term and regular stress.

Clearly this is harmful to the individual concerned, but through absence, under-performance and attrition, it can also degrade both team and organisational performance.

The paper suggests that key to how and whether workplace rudeness results in physiological harm is how those on the receiving end perceive and respond to an incivility. An important but subtle distinction they make is whether this is understood as a threat to their rank or their relationships at work.

In a nutshell, relationship threats raise the possibility of a loss in social connection within the team or group, whereas rank threats entail loss in social position, prestige, or influence.

Whether an individual sees an incivility as a threat to rank or relationships has ramification for how they are likely to respond.

Rank threats tend to prompt a “fight or flight” stress response: Some people attempt to steer clear of a rude colleague, walk away or disengage from them; others fight back, attempting to undermine the status of their uncivil colleague in a tit-for-tat strategy.  

Relationship threats, on the other hand, tend to provoke what the authors call “affiliative” responses: Seeking support from other colleagues or proactively seeking to build bridges with their antagonist.  

In general, fight or flight responses – disengagement or returning fire – lead to greater and more prolonged stress. As a result, they can be especially harmful to the target’s health and to the team.

Affiliative responses, however, seek to downregulate stress, and as such, can reduce the impact of stressors on the body.

Affiliative responses are, therefore, generally much more desirable that fight or flight responses. But they rely on the availability of understanding colleagues and good communication to be viable. In workplaces that promote toxic competition or that do not place value on relationships, emotional support and inclusiveness, employees can find it hard to affiliate and find meaningful relationships. In these contexts, targets of incivility are less likely to seek to repair relationships or recruit support, and more likely to resort to self-sabotaging strategies: conflict escalation or retreat.

So, what are the key takeaways for managers who want to minimise the negative impacts of stress in their lab, group or team?

  1. Remember that even relatively small incivilities can trigger biological stress reactions in targets, and that the effects of these are cumulative.
  2. Remember that it is not the intention but the target’s perception of the act that leads to its downstream health impacts, and that perceptions of a threat to rank or status can lead to the most self-destructive responses.
  3. Promoting an inclusive climate where team members feel appreciated and supported helps protect against rank threats and offer resources for affiliative responses.
  4. Discouraging toxic competition and a “win at all costs” culture helps create the conditions for more supportive relationships at work.
  5. Ensure all colleagues, especially members of marginalized groups and socially isolated individuals, have access to support systems, whether formal or informal.
  6. Spending time on team building, shaping a healthy culture in your lab or team and mentoring junior colleagues can all help to build social connectivity and improve the resources your colleagues have for healthier, affiliative responses to stress.