Incivility and the Bottom Line: Don’t Be a Jerk

By Kate Lee

With examples like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Elon Musk dominating headlines, it is easy to conclude that successful leaders are jerks. However, the reality is that being a jerk is not the key to successful leadership. A significant body of research shows us that incivility negatively impacts the bottom line and is associated with executive failure. Civility is critical to successful leadership.

The Cost of Incivility

A study of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries found that incivility negatively impacted employees: 78% of respondents reported a drop in their commitment to the organization. In the same vein, 66% reported a decline in performance, 48% reported intentionally decreasing their work effort, and 12% reported leaving their job because of the uncivil treatment.

Using some of the results of this study, Cisco conservatively estimated that incivility was costing their organization $12 million a year.

Being uncivil can also impact job security. Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership finds that the number-one characteristic associated with the failure of a leader is “an insensitive, abrasive or bully style.” Another is “aloofness or arrogance.”

The Value of Civility

Additional research shows us that the value of civility is significant. Civility increases engagement and creativity, decreases emotional exhaustion, and makes employees feel more respected.

A global study of 20,000 employees found that being treated with respect “had a more powerful effect on employees than other more celebrated leadership behaviors including recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback—even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.” Employees who felt respected by their leaders reported 92% greater focus and prioritization, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, and 56% better health and well-being. For an organization, this boils down to more productive and engaged employees, higher retention rates, and fewer days lost to sickness.

A study of cross-functional product teams found that both team and individual performance were enhanced when leaders treated people fairly. And research conducted by Zenger Folkman found that the combination of warmth and confidence not only helps leaders to advance; it also leads to higher levels of employee engagement.

The Competency of Civility

This study asked almost two hundred global leaders to rate 74 leadership qualities. The leadership quality that rose to the top “has high ethical and moral standards.” The researchers note that when taken together with “communicating clear expectations,” the quality that ranked third, “these attributes are all about creating a safe and trusting environment.”

Creating a safe and trusting environment is not unimportant. Research by Google found that psychological safety has a significant impact on team effectiveness. “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

Leading with civility

Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, notes that leading with civility can be challenging: “[It] means spending a considerable amount of effort acknowledging people’s contributions, listening better, respecting others’ time, and making people feel valued.”

While challenging, the value of leading with civility is critical to the bottom line. What’s more, leading with civility is about being a leader. As Porath says in her TED Talk: “[B]eing civil isn’t just about motivating others. It’s about you. If you’re civil, you’re more likely to be seen as a leader. You’ll perform better, and you’re seen as warm and competent.”

Do you lead with civility?

We can develop and improve upon civility. It is not something innate that one leader possesses and another does not.  Porath offers a short, insightful self-assessment quiz that educates people about civility. The quiz also shows results on a continuum, demonstrating that we are all works in progress.

Brimstone has worked with companies across the globe to gain a competitive advantage by investing in the development of front-line leaders and executives.  Learn more about how Brimstone can help you develop as a leader.

Learn how Brimstone helps leaders excel


We're looking forward to hearing from you!

effective communicationprivate equity